Last Thursday, the U.K. saw an event that was new to their political system: a televised debate between major party leaders during a general election campaign. Most of the speculation before the telecast centered on the leaders of the two largest parties.
David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, is a better television performer than Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who heads the Labour Party. However, Cameron, whose party has been leading in the polls, presumably has more to lose than the embattled prime minister.
No one seems to have considered the impact of the party that is currently the third largest in the House of Commons, the Liberal Democrats, being put on equal footing with their larger rivals. Nick Clegg, who has led the Liberal Democrats since 2007, participated in the debate against Cameron and Brown. There seems to be a consensus that Clegg "won" the debate.
Today, the BBC News website has posted poll results showing a major bounce for the Liberal Democrats. The BBC has average out the results of several polls, and shows the Conservatives in first place with 33%, and Labour and the Liberal Democrats tied for second at 29%. Normally, the Liberal Democrats are well down into third place, somewhere around 20%. In the 2005 general election, they got 22.1% of the vote, 13 percentage points behind Labour.
From the 1850s to the 1920s, the Liberal Party was one of the two major parties in Britain's two-party system, opposing the Conservatives. Liberal support collapsed in the general election of 1924. They continued on, as a minor party, for several decades. Labour replaced them as the Conservatives' main opposition. The Liberals won as few as six seats in the House of Commons in some 20th-century elections.
Their fortunes changed during the 1980s. In 1981, a centrist faction left Labour to form the Social Democratic Party. In 1988, that group merged with the Liberals, and the combined party is now called the Liberal Democratic Party. They were still the third party, but won 62 seats in 2005, more than they held at any time between 1924 and 1983.
In the runup to the current campaign, there was much speculation about the Liberal Democrats' potential role as a coalition partner to either Labour or the Conservatives in the event of a hung Parliament. If the current poll results prove to be more than a fluke, the question will become whether the Liberal Democrats can emerge as the largest party.
The next debate will be Thursday, April 22. We'll see what effect that has on this unexpected story line.