U.K. election campaign down to the wire

Voters in the U.K. head to the polls on Thursday in an election that could produce the country's first minority government in 36 years.
Conservative Party Leader David Cameron, left, greets a passing cyclist in Hucknall, England, on Wednesday. ((Stefan Rousseau/PA/Associated Press))

Voters in the U.K. head to the polls on Thursday in an election that could produce the country's first minority government in 36 years.

The leaders of the three main political parties used the last day of the campaign to make a desperate push for support.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose Labour Party has been in power since 1997, Conservative Leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg all made stops across the country as they tried to secure seats in the 650-member U.K. Parliament.

However, the race appears too close to call, and no party may hit the necessary 326 seats to form a majority government.

A recent opinion poll found that the Conservatives had the support of 35 per cent of decided voters, with the ruling Labour Party at 30 per cent support and the upstart Liberal Democrats polling 24 per cent.

Meanwhile, another poll suggested 40 per cent of voters were undecided.

Cameron's Conservatives were initially regarded a sure bet to win, but Clegg's performance in the country's first-ever televised election debates has help push his Liberal Democrats up in the polls. Clegg's showing could turn him into the king-maker when it comes time to form the next government.

"David Cameron must wake up morning and go to sleep every night thinking: 'Why did I ever agree to be a debater with this kid [Clegg]? I thought I could wipe the floor with him and instead he’s walked off with the trophy,'" said leading pollster Robert Worcester of Ipsos MORI Market Research.

Caught on mike

For Brown, his struggle may be to avoid finishing third in the election.

A gaffe last week, in which he was caught on an open microphone referring to a voter as a "bigoted woman," may have damaged his chances.

Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg greets people as he arrives for a meeting with university students in Durham, England, on Wednesday. ((John Giles/PA/Associated Press))

The U.K. hasn't had a minority government since 1974, when Prime Minister Edward Heath's Conservatives got fewer seats than Labour. Heath tried to form a coalition with the Liberals, but couldn't pull it together. Heath resigned, and the Queen gave Labour Leader Harold Wilson the chance to govern. Wilson's government lasted for about six months, until he called another election, which he won.

Matthew Parris, a columnist with the Times and a former Conservative member of Parliament, expects a lot of dealing among the party leaders after the election.

He sees Cameron turning to Clegg for support "to form, if not a coalition, some kind of an arrangement, but the Liberal Democrats are going to drive a very hard bargain indeed."

One of Clegg's demands could be electoral reform. The Liberal Democrats have pushed proportional representation to give them more seats in Parliament to better represent their popular support.

With files from The Associated Press