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British centrist leader under fire over hung parliament

The leader of Britain’s newly-buoyant Liberal Democrats was accused of arrogance Tuesday as he struggled to clarify what he would do if his party holds the balance of power after elections next week.

Nick Clegg has come under growing pressure to say whether he would work with either of the two bigger parties, Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s ruling Labour or the Conservatives, if the Lib Dems emerge as kingmaker after May 6 polls.

But opposition parties say he has no right to dictate terms ahead of the election and commentators say his stance risks confusing voters.

Business Secretary Peter Mandelson said Clegg appeared to be “overreaching himself” in comments Monday seen as specifying who exactly he might work with if, as polls suggest, his party ends up holding the balance of power.

“That appeared to many to be slightly arrogant,” Mandelson said, warning that voters who “flirted” with Clegg might wake up in bed with Conservative leader David Cameron.

After years as the third party in British politics, Clegg’s centrist Liberal Democrats have surged to a close second in most opinion polls after his strong showing in Britain’s first-ever televised election leaders’ debates.

The party could end up as kingmakers in a hung parliament where no party has an overall majority, which opinion polls suggest is likely for the first time since 1974.

A Sun newspaper/YouGov daily poll out Tuesday put David Cameron’s centre-right Conservatives on 33 percent, down one point, the Liberal Democrats on 29 percent, also down one, and centre-left Labour unchanged on 28 percent.

In a BBC radio interview Tuesday, Clegg seemed to pull back from a previous comment where he indicated he would not work with Brown.

Asked about that, he said: “No, no, no… it is not for me to decide, it is for people to decide how the government should be formed…

“I am not the kingmaker, David Cameron is not the kingmaker, Gordon Brown is not the kingmaker, there are 45 million people who have still got to choose and I am not going to short circuit that. It is simply not for any politician to do that.”

Clegg said Sunday that it was “preposterous the idea that if a party comes third in the number of votes, it still has somehow the right to carry on squatting in Number Ten (Downing Street)”.

On Monday, he clarified this remarks, saying he had not ruled out working with Labour after the election but that people would find it “inexplicable that Gordon Brown himself could carry on as prime minister”.

This prompted reports that Labour could consider ditching Brown after the election in favour of a figure like Foreign Secretary David Miliband.