Battling a scandal, Britain's deputy PM under pressure in vote

Wed Feb 27, 2013 8:06pm EST
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By Andrew Osborn

LONDON (Reuters) - Fewer than 100,000 residents of an English town that hardly anyone outside Britain has heard of will vote on Thursday in an election that could help determine the political fate of the country's deputy prime minister and, ultimately, its government.

The poll to choose a member of parliament for Eastleigh may prove make-or-break for Nick Clegg's leadership of the Liberal Democrats, the junior member of Britain's two-party coalition.

"Most by-elections are events of only fleeting interest. Some are sufficiently dramatic to linger a while in the memory. Only a few truly matter. Eastleigh could be one of these," Peter Kellner, the president of YouGov, the pollster, said.

On Wednesday, during last-minute campaigning in Eastleigh, Clegg predicted his party was "on the cusp of a great victory".

If he is right, the pressure he is facing, from the media and from within his own party, may ease. But if his Conservative coalition partners pip the Liberal Democrats, or the UK Independence Party pulls off a surprise victory, his leadership may be challenged ahead of a party conference next week.

Many Liberal Democrat supporters have become disenchanted with their party's alliance with the Conservatives, arguing it has betrayed core values on the altar of political expediency. Much of that criticism has been directed at Clegg.

"If the Tories do win, then we may well look back in years to come as the contest that marked the beginning of the end of the current coalition," said YouGov's Kellner.


Britain's deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (2nd L) arrives to take part in a phone-in show at a radio station in central London February 27, 2013. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett