Britain’s uncertain national election may deliver a surprising twist: The country’s perennial third-placed party, the hitherto toothless Liberal Democrats, could play kingmaker.

For the first time in nearly 40 years, polls suggest neither the governing Labour Party nor the main opposition Conservatives may win an outright parliamentary majority in the country’s May 6 election.

That would plunge Britain into a frantic round of political bartering not seen since 1974, creating a hung Parliament in which the Liberal Democrats will likely decide the fate of Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his main challenger, Conservative leader David Cameron.

While traditionally aligned with Mr. Brown’s centre-left Labour party, the Liberal Democrats look increasingly likely to side with the more dynamic Cameron - forming a pact that would oust Labour after 13 years in office.

Polls show Mr. Cameron’s Conservatives on course to take the largest number of the 650 seats in the House of Commons - but not enough to govern outright. That scenario would see the Tories trading pledges or jobs to gain backing from their rivals. Only with the support of others can a minority government win parliamentary votes and pass laws.

For the first time since the 1920s, when their predecessor Liberal Party was a major force, an organization that has won only about 20 percent of British votes in recent national elections may finally come to the fore.

But, despite their potentially pivotal role, few Liberal Democrat stalwarts are relishing the prospect.

Nick Clegg, the party’s affable 43-year-old leader, scoffs at talk of political alliances. It’s no time for “politicians to play footsie with each other,” he says.

His highest profile colleague agrees.

“We are not the kingmaker, it’s the people who are the kingmakers - it’s the people who decide the outcome, not us,” Vince Cable, the party’s former interim leader and hugely popular spokesman on economic affairs, told The Associated Press on a campaign stop in north London.

Mr. Cable, who has won praise for both his soothsaying on the financial crisis and his waltzing skills on British TV’s “Strictly Come Dancing,” insists the party’s focus is on increasing its tally of 63 House of Commons seats - not on any possible partnership with a rival.

Their party, formed in a 1988 merger of two centrist groups, won a record number of seats at the 2005 election, when its popularity was boosted by its opposition of the Iraq war. It has recently signalled deep concerns over the rising death toll in Afghanistan.

Despite his protestations, Mr. Clegg has carefully hedged his party’s bets in this electoral race, saying his legislators could do business with anyone who supports policies to reform the voting system, rein in Britain’s banks and make sharp cuts to public spending.

The fiscally conservative but socially liberal party has sided in the past with Labour - joining a brief pact in 1977 to shore up a faltering Labour government. Outside of wartime, it has never before allied with the Conservatives.

But, as if to emphasize his power to help the Tories, Mr. Clegg taunted Mr. Brown on Wednesday during Parliament’s final prime minister’s questions before the election.

“It is over. It is time to go,” he goaded.

Mr. Clegg and Mr. Cameron, also 43, already worked together last year on a joint campaign to secure British residency rights for the Gurkhas, the Nepalese soldiers who had served in the U.K. military for nearly two centuries.

Mr. Cable suggests the economy would be the decisive factor in any future deal, and while they disagree over some of the details, the Liberal Democrats appear closer on financial issues to Mr. Cameron’s Tories - who’ve promised a crisis budget aimed at quickly cutting Britain’s 167 billion pound ($250 billion) deficit.

“We are not engaged in hypothetical scenarios about outcomes but what we do emphasize is that the big problem overhanging the British economy is financial stability,” Mr. Cable said. “There is a real worry about how we are going to manage this massive deficit.”

Many Britons would favour Cable as the country’s Treasury chief - impressed that the former Royal Dutch Shell economist warned as early as 2003 of economic storms ahead.

Even if the Liberal Democrats struck a deal to support a minority Conservative government, it’s unlikely to be a formal coalition - meaning there won’t be a Cabinet seat for Mr. Clegg or Mr. Cable.

Ivor Gaber, a political expert at London’s City University, said the third-ranked party is likely to demand policy concessions, not jobs, to support Mr. Cameron. “A coalition is very unlikely, but that does not mean that they would not come to an arrangement,” he said.

Simon Usherwood, a politics professor at the University of Surrey, said such an arrangement would probably be a loose alliance in which the Liberal Democrats pledge their votes to pass particular laws.

Alix Mortimer, a party activist in Manchester, northern England, said for many Liberal Democrats the prospect of helping either the Tories or Labour form a government is deeply unappealing.

“It is slightly like being asked to choose between being burnt at the stake or chopped up into little bits,” she said.

Keywords: National elections

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