BELFAST, Northern Ireland – BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) — Can Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labour Party cling to power versus David Cameron's front-running Conservatives? In this tightly fought British election, a fringe party just might help tip the winner over the finishing line.
Opinion polls suggest that the Conservatives will outpoll Labour but fall short of a majority. Such a situation, called a "hung Parliament," could create a rare opportunity for provincial players in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to become national powerbrokers.
To pass laws and stay in power, any minority government in the 650-seat House of Commons needs an alliance with "supportive opposition" — parties or independent lawmakers who vote with, but aren't part of, the government.
"If the election produces a hung parliament, the role of small parties will be pivotal," said Rick Wilford, politics professor at Queen's University of Belfast.
Britain's perennial No. 3 party, the Liberal Democrats, represents the obvious first choice for anyone seeking a working alliance and a stable voting majority. But matters could get complicated if a party finds itself close to a majority on its own — causing it to seek a partnership with a small relatively innocuous grouping rather than a party with a strong national presence like the "Lib Dems."
The Democratic Unionists of Northern Ireland, Scottish National Party and Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru (pronounced "Plide COME-ree") emphasize on the campaign trail their hopes of holding the balance of power.
The Scottish and Welsh parties have a joint campaign platform bragging that their "Celtic bloc" can hold Britain's big two parties to ransom postelection. The Scottish Nationalists have seven of Scotland's 59 seats, Plaid Cymru three of Wales' 40.
Scottish National leader Alex Salmond, who launched his party's manifesto Tuesday, said the May 6 election "gives real power to the nations of Scotland and Wales."
Plaid Cymru leader Ieuan Wyn Jones said a hung parliament would put his party "in a very strong position to fight for a fairer funding deal for Wales to protect jobs, schools and hospitals. The greater the vote for Plaid, the better the deal for Wales."
Although they represent the opposite end of the political spectrum, both have held talks with the Democratic Unionists, a conservative Protestant party that shares their aim of extracting as much money from the central government as possible. The Democratic Unionists hold eight of Northern Ireland's 18 seats.
Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson said a hung Parliament "offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to obtain key strategic gains."
Opinion polls forecast that Cameron's Conservatives could come closest to a parliamentary majority, putting it most in the market for friends in small places.
But they also agree that the Conservatives would have a much harder time than Labour in cutting any deal — because some of their potential partners loathe them the most.
The Scottish and Welsh nationalists are firmly to the socialist left of Labour, the traditional No. 1 party in both nations, and despise the Tories.
"I could certainly see the SNP do an informal deal with Labour to help keep them in power," said James Mitchell, politics professor at Strathclyde University in Glasgow. "But the SNP couldn't stomach backing the Tories. They would suffer horribly. Some of their grass roots would defect to Labour."
He said the Celtic bloc would demand much in exchange for supporting anyone.
"A big bribe would only be part of it," he said, referring to demands for greater funding of services for Scotland and Wales at English expense. "They would want more power for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly."
Cameron should be on firmer ground in Belfast. His party — still officially named the Conservative and Unionist Party — long received Northern Ireland Protestant backing in the 19th and 20th centuries.
But Cameron has irritated the Democratic Unionists by forging an electoral pact with their moderate Protestant rivals, the Ulster Unionists.
The Conservative-Ulster Unionist alliance, campaigning under the ungainly acronym "UCUNF" — short for Ulster Conservatives and Unionists New Force — has struggled to stir voter enthusiasm.
"The UCUNFs won't win a seat, the Ulster Unionist leadership probably won't survive the election, and Cameron's bivouac in Northern Ireland will collapse," Wilford said.
On the Net:
Conservatives and Unionists, http://www.voteforchangeni.com/index.php
Democratic Unionists, http://www.dup.org.uk/default.htm
Plaid Cymru, http://www.plaidcymru.org/
Scottish National Party, http://www.snp.org/