Disappointing night for Lib Dems but kingmaker role beckons

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A surge in pre-election support for Britain's third-biggest party, the Liberal Democrats, failed after voting to translate into parliament seats Friday, but leader Nick Clegg could still play a kingmaker role.

Clegg's strong performance in campaign TV debates had boosted his party to second place behind the Conservatives at one point in opinion polls, a phenomenon dubbed "Cleggmania", but the latest election results show the Lib Dems actually lost seats in the British parliament.

"This has obviously been a disappointing night for the Liberal Democrats. We simply haven't achieved what we had hoped," Clegg said.

But the Lib Dems could still be the election kingmakers, as the Conservatives won the most seats but looked set to fall short of an absolute majority -- ensuring the keys to Downing Street remain up for grabs.

Tory leader David Cameron said Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labour Party had "lost its mandate", but Labour has indicated it could try to keep power through an alliance with the Lib Dems.

"My duty in all of this is that there be a stable, strong and principled government," Brown said.

His de facto deputy, Peter Mandelson, said Labour would "obviously" be prepared to consider teaming up with Clegg, and also made a strong statement in favour of electoral reform -- a key Lib Dem demand.

With 604 of 650 constituency results declared, the Lib Dems had lost six seats, giving them just 51 seats in the House of Commons compared with 239 for Labour and 287 for the Conservatives.

This was despite slightly raising their vote share -- the Lib Dems at this point registered 22.9 percent of the vote, compared with 28.9 percent for Labour and 36.3 percent for the Tories, according to a BBC tally.

The result will strengthen the Lib Dems' demands for changes in Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system, which penalises smaller parties. The Lib Dems want to see some kind of proportional representation introduced.

"The arbitrary and unfair nature of the electoral system has been highlighted very brutally by these results," Lib Dem finance spokesman Vince Cable told Sky News television.

Labour has promised a referendum on electoral reform, and Mandelson gave his support for change on Friday, in what could be a key factor in the discussions to come. "First-past-the-post is on its last legs," he said.

The Conservatives are opposed to changing the system, but the party's education spokesman, Michael Gove, said Cameron was open to talks.

"David Cameron is happy to talk to people in other parties in order to ensure that we can have a strong, stable, Conservative-led government to provide the country with the change it needs," he told the BBC.

He said a pact between Labour and the Liberal Democrats would be "a coalition of the defeated".

Clegg gave no indication of who his party would support Friday, saying only that so far "no one appears to have won emphatically".

"I think it would be best if everybody were just to take a little time so that people get the good government that they deserve in these very difficult and uncertain times," he said.

Lib Dem lawmakers and peers are due to meet over the weekend and any coalition deal that Clegg strikes would have to be approved by three-quarters of the parliamentary party and the Lib Dems' ruling federal executive.

Among the party's losses on election night was the colourful Lembit Opik, known for his relationship with Cheeky Girl popstar Gabriela Irimia. He lost the Welsh seat of Montgomeryshire to the Conservatives.

But they also scored some notable wins, including snatching Norwich South from former Labour interior minister Charles Clarke, and Redcar from Labour solicitor-general Vera Baird.

© 2010 AFP

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