Poll puts UK’s Lib Dems in second

A new poll puts Britain’s Liberal Democrats, normally the country’s third party, ahead of the ruling Labour Party after their leader’s performance in a pre-election TV debate.

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The survey for Conservative-backing Sun newspaper put the Lib Dems second on 30 percent: behind the opposition Conservatives, but pushing Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labour into third place on 28 percent.

Although the Conservatives, who have long been ahead in polls, maintained their lead on 33 percent, it was a drop on their recent scores. The pollster quizzed 1,290 people Friday for the survey.

The result came after Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg triumphed in the first ever pre-poll TV clash with leaders of the two other parties Thursday.

According to polls of viewers taken after the debate, Clegg – who presented his party as an alternative to the traditional groups – saw off both Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron.

Second poll showing boost for party

The Sun survey, which asked people who they planned to vote for at the May 6 general election, was the second poll following the US-style televised showdown to give Clegg’s party a boost.

The Lib Dems had been polling around 20 percent before the debate, a good distance behind both Labour and the Tories.

Because of Britain’s complex voting system, even if the latest poll figures were replicated at the election itself, the Conservative lead would not give them a secure mandate.

Hung parliament likely

The results of the poll would, in fact, lead to a hung parliament – where no one party has an overall majority – and result in Labour being the biggest party with the most lawmakers, according to BBC calculations.

Clegg, although he stands little chance of becoming prime minister, would then hold the balance of power.

But the surge in popularity also presents a new danger for Clegg – his opponents will now be training their guns on a man they had not before considered a real danger.

“This is serious stuff now – they are going to go for us, you watch,” said Paddy Ashdown, ex-Liberal Democrat leader and the West’s former pointman in Bosnia-Hercegovina.

“Nick Clegg last night made this a three-way race”.

There was already evidence of this Friday, with the Tories launching a fierce attack on the party’s “eccentric” policies in a bid to offset the effect of the debate.

A poll Friday also showed the Lib Dems gaining strength – the ITV/ComRes survey of 4,000 people put the party on 24 percent.

In that poll, they still lay behind Labour, but they were three points up on two days previously.

The improving fortunes of the Lib Dems has highlighted the importance of the television debates.

Thursday night’s showdown was the first of three in the run-up to the vote and was watched by nearly 10 million viewers – the UK has a population of around 61 million.

Both Brown and Cameron conceded on Friday that Clegg had performed well at the event, 90-minute showdown on domestic policy, staged in Manchester, northwest England.