LONDON — BRITISH political life is being shaken up into new patterns by an upsurge of support for the opposition Liberal Democrat Party.
The so-called Lib-Dems have shoved the ruling Conservative Party into third position in the latest opinion poll, and claim to have achieved "lift-off" in a long-term bid to become a party of government.
The Liberal-Democrat surge in public favor, evident for the past six months as Conservative government fortunes have plummeted, was brought to a new peak July 29 when the party's candidate won a landslide victory over her Conservative opponent in a by-election for the parliamentary seat of Christchurch in southern England.
A Conservative majority of 23,000 was converted overnight into a Lib-Dem majority of 16,000 - the worst anti-Conservative swing on record. Labour, supposedly the main opposition party, came in third.
The government's defeat followed a by-election rout in May when the Lib-Dems captured the supposedly safe Conservative seat of Newbury - another southern England seat - again with a massive voter swing.
The two victories lowered the government's overall majority in the House of Commons to 17 seats and prompted Liberal-Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown to launch a savage assault on Conservative policies. His party's candidate at Christchurch had attacked the government's unpopular plans to tax domestic heat and electricity.
With Lib-Dem voting strength in the 651-seat Commons raised to 23, Mr. Ashdown spoke of his party reaching "critical mass," and forecast big gains for it at the next general election.
"After Newbury the prime minister promised to listen," Ashdown says. "After Christchurch he must act to change his policies."
Hammering home the government's unpopularity, a Mori poll published in the London Sunday Times Aug. 1 showed Labour well ahead of the Liberal Democrats, with the Conservatives trailing in third place.
The combination of the Christchurch result and fresh evidence of the government's low popularity increased pressures on John Major, the least popular prime minister this century, to drop a proposed domestic fuel tax and pump new life into the presentation of Conservative policies generally.
This in turn brought the spotlight onto Sir Norman Fowler, the ruling party's chairman and personal friend of the Mr. Major. Sir Norman, who advised Major in his successful general election campaign last year, had forecast a Conservative victory at Christchurch.
When it failed to materialize he blamed anti-European Conservative rebels for undermining the government's popularity. Conservative voters in Christchurch later said they had supported the Liberal Democrats for reasons of economic policy.
The emergence of the Lib-Dems as a palpable "third force" in British politics follows a 10-year period in the wilderness when the party, formerly known as the Liberal Party, aligned itself with the splinter Social Democrat Party, then merged with it in the hope of boosting its electoral fortunes.
Under Ashdown, a former marine commando, the Liberal Democrats have espoused policies of moderation, calling for improved education, closer European unity, and changes in the British voting system to give smaller parties a chance of gaining ground against the Conservatives and Labour.
David Butler, an expert on British voting patterns at Oxford University, thinks Ashdown and his supporters have been benefiting from a series of protest votes against an unpopular government.
"Their problem is that many Conservative electors at by-elections have been registering dissatisfaction with the government's policies, but are likely to revert to established voting habits at the next general election," Mr. Butler says. "Christchurch expressed a retch of disgust against the government, but Ashdown and his supporters still have a mountain to climb."
A Christchurch voter who said she had "defected" from the Conservatives to the Lib-Dems supports this view.
"I voted Lib-Dem this time because I was fed up with Major and his government," she said. "But it might be different next time."
Concern that the Lib-Dems may be riding the crest of an illusory wave has prompted party strategists to approach Labour with the offer of voting deals at the next general election. Ashdown would like to see pre-election consultation between Labour and the Lib-Dems, so that the party with the least chance of beating the Conservatives would drop out in particular seats, thus improving the prospects of the other.
Electoral deals of this kind are scorned by John Smith, the Labour leader, and his strategists. Despite his party's dismal showing at Christchurch, Mr. Smith says Labour would win the next general election without the Lib-Dems.