Britain’s political leaders launched their last day of campaigning Wednesday for the most unpredictable election in living memory which could yield no clear winner and weeks of haggling over the next government.
With neither prime minister David Cameron’s Conservatives nor Ed Miliband’s Labour expected to win a majority on Thursday and smaller parties on the rise, the election could also confirm a shift to a fragmented style of politics more familiar in other parts of Europe.
A Conservative win could raise the risk of Britain exiting the European Union because Cameron has promised a referendum on membership, while some business leaders and investors have warned Labour could be bad for the economy.
Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, leader of the centrist Liberal Democrats, has even suggested there could be another election this year if an unstable minority government takes power.
Cameron and Miliband, whose parties are virtually tied in opinion polls, have both embarked on frenetic tours of the country in a last-minute scramble for votes.
‘Britain’s future is on a knife-edge. It would be a tragedy if we threw away all the hard work of the past five years and went back to square one,’ Cameron wrote in The Times newspaper Wednesday.
While both he and Miliband insist they are still fighting for a clear majority in the 650-seat House of Commons which would let them govern alone, attention is increasingly turning to alliances they could make with smaller parties.
Cameron’s Conservatives look well placed to team up again with Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, with whom they have been in a coalition government since 2010.
While Miliband has ruled out a formal deal with the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), it is thought they could still prop up a minority Labour government on a vote by vote basis.
The Liberal Democrats have left open the possibility of backing either the Conservatives or Labour while the SNP has said it would block the Conservatives, and the anti-EU UK Independence Party is unlikely to win more than a handful of seats.
Only one thing is certain – the SNP is likely to make major gains and take most of the seats in Scotland, transforming Britain’s political scene and potentially bringing the prospect of Scottish independence closer.
Negotiations to form a government are likely to be complicated and a heated debate has already broken out about political legitimacy given that the party that wins the most seats may not end up governing.
The first big test for the new government will come when parliament votes on its legislative programme following the Queen’s Speech on May 27 in a de facto confidence motion.
The Conservatives and Labour differ sharply in their approach to cutting the deficit in the world’s fifth largest economy, the central issue in the election campaign.
Cameron’s party favours further austerity cuts, particularly to welfare, as have been imposed over the last five years, while Miliband’s party would also make reductions while increasing taxes on the rich.
‘We can’t carry on as a country where there is one rule for a few and another rule for everyone else,’ Miliband is set to say Wednesday.
‘There is huge risk to working families from a second-term Tory (Conservative) government, including one propped up by the Lib Dems.’
Polls open at 0600 GMT and close at 2100 GMT on Thursday, with exit polls published immediately after that and the first results coming in from around midnight and final results expected Friday afternoon.
Britons will cast their ballots in around 50,000 polling stations around the country, including in unusual places like pubs, caravans and garages.
The latest BBC poll of polls average puts the Conservatives at 34 per cent, followed by Labour at 33 per cent, UKIP at 14 per cent and the Liberal Democrats at just 8 per cent.
But the percentage breakdown is a poor indicator of the final election outcome in Britain because of the first-past-the-post system, which counts the results only in individual constituencies, not the overall vote share.
Source: New Age