, LONDON, May 1 – British premier Gordon Brown\’s re-election hopes took a fresh battering Saturday with the loss of a key media endorsement and a poll confirming his Labour party was in third place ahead of the May 6 vote.
Scenting weakness, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg attacked Labour as a spent force and claimed the final few days of the election campaign would be a "two-horse race" between his party and the main opposition Conservatives.
Clegg was boosted by the endorsement of The Guardian newspaper, which traditionally backs Labour but said in an editorial Saturday that "it is hard to feel enthusiasm" for another five years of Brown.
The Times, another leading newspaper which backed Labour in the last three elections, meanwhile switched to the Conservatives, saying they were the best prospect to help Britain recover from the global financial crisis.
Labour, in power for 13 years, began this campaign as the underdog against a strong Tory party. But a huge surge in Lib Dem support after Clegg\’s star turn in televised leaders\’ debates unexpectedly pushed them into third place.
A Harris poll for The Daily Mail Saturday confirmed Labour\’s difficulties, giving them just 24 percent, down two on the previous week, compared to 33 percent for the Conservatives (down one) and 32 for the Lib Dems (up three).
The results of the poll, taken just after the third and final TV debate Thursday, would give David Cameron\’s Conservatives the largest number of seats but not enough to have a majority, a situation known as a hung parliament.
Former Labour prime minister Tony Blair returned Friday to help shore up Brown\’s flagging campaign, and in an interview published Saturday he hit back at what he called voters\’ "flirtation" with the Lib Dems.
"I do believe in the end that there will be a sense that the Lib Dem flirtation is an interesting thing to do but it\’s not a serious thing to vote for," Blair, who handed over to Brown in June 2007, told The Times.
He added: "The fact that it might seem an interesting thing to do is not the right reason to put the keys of the country in their hands."
Blair\’s return, his second appearance on the campaign trail, came just two days after Brown became mired in a major row after being overheard dismissing a Labour voter as "bigoted" for asking him about immigration.
Numerous apologies failed to contain the damage, nor did Brown\’s performance in Thursday\’s TV debate, which focused on the economy, an issue on which the former finance minister was expected to shine.
Lib Dem leader Clegg seized on Labour\’s misfortune Saturday, claiming their demise had left his party as the standard-bearer for the progressive left.
"I don\’t think the choice is between Conservative and Labour — the choice is now between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats," he told The Guardian.
Clegg added that he was "going for broke as far as the share of the vote is concerned", hoping to add an extra 100 seats to the Lib Dems\’ current 63.
Unveiling a new campaign poster Friday, Brown acknowledged that, if opinion polls remain as they are, he could be out of power by next weekend.
And in an interview with the Daily Telegraph published Saturday, he admitted that his "bigot" comment had cost him.
"Sometimes you say things in the heat of the moment… Sometimes you say things you greatly regret. And I have paid a very high price for it," he told the paper.
But he added: "There\’s everything to play for. I\’m fighting every inch of the way to the last single second."
Cameron for his part, vowed Friday there would be no complacency.
"I do not take anything for granted and we have got to fight a very hard campaign in these last six days to really win people over and say: change is possible, change can happen," he said.