BRITISH voters are giving signals that at the general election, certain to be held in the next few weeks, they are likely to elect a hung parliament, in which no party commands a clear majority.
With the ruling Conservative and opposition Labour parties running neck and neck in all opinion polls, the electorate is in the indecisive kind of mood that has produced hung parliaments four times already this century.
A group of leading election analysts has warned Conservative and Labour leaders to prepare for a parliament with as many as 50 "wild-card" members of small parties able to bargain for a share of power.
The warning was being considered by the two main parties March 10 as Norman Lamont unveiled the government's budget designed to win over voters to the Conservatives and pump new life into Britain's ailing economy.
Prime Minister John Major was expected to announce an election date of April 9 within a day or two of the budget statement.
Patrick Dunleavy, professor of government at the London School of Economics, forecasts that a likely outcome of the election is that the Conservative Party will gain a plurality in the 650-seat House of Commons, but with the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock able to bid for enough support from the centrist Liberal Democrats and other fringe groups to form a coalition with himself as prime minister.
The last time there was such an outcome was in 1976 when Labour governed for three years in coalition with the Liberal Party, forerunner of the Liberal Democrats. All hung parliaments this century have produced coalitions led by Labour prime ministers.
Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said March 8 that the price of his party's support for a coalition would be four Cabinet posts and a firm undertaking of electoral reform from the incoming prime minister.
The Liberal Democrats want Britain to switch from an electoral system in which the candidate with the most votes - not necessarily a clear overall majority - secures a parliamentary seat, and replace it with proportional representation.
A political commentator has described the present system as "King Kong politics" in which the party with a clear majority wields almost total power and drapes itself around the Houses of Parliament.
Mr. Major and the Conservatives have ruled out proportional representation as an option. But Mr. Kinnock, in a signal that he too foresees the likelihood of a hung parliament in which he will need Mr. Ashdown's support, said March 8 that his party was prepared to "look at" a proportional representation system.
According to Professor Dunleavy, Kinnock's undertaking makes it more likely that in a finely balanced House of Commons Labour would lead a ruling coalition.
Dunleavy says the Liberal Democrats are likely to win around 20 seats in the new Commons. Scottish and Welsh nationalists and members of small Northern Ireland parties would bring the pool of "wild-card" members to 40 or 50 enough," Dunleavy says, "to make it necessary for a party leader wishing to live in 10 Downing Street to negotiate with the small parties for that privilege."
In 1987 under Margaret Thatcher the Conservatives thrashed Labour and gained a 100-plus Commons majority. This time, with 326 seats needed for an absolute majority, neither party appears popular enough to avoid an indecisive outcome.
Two public opinion polls March 8 showed the Conservatives and Labour neck and neck, with the opposition party slightly in the lead. Politics professor Ivor Crewe of Essex University said this was "in line with forecast voting patterns over the past several months."
If maintained, that pattern would almost certainly deny both main parties a clear-cut parliamentary majority, he said.
The views of the electoral analysts were debated at a symposium in London March 4, attended by party strategists and a wide range of commentators. The group considered six possible outcomes of the election based on opinion poll information.
Half of the outcomes made the Conservatives the majority party; the other three gave the edge to Labour. All options pointed to the need for some form of coalition.
But it was noted by several of those attending the coalition that there was another possible outcome. The Conservatives might fail to win a clear majority, but Major could decide to continue as prime minister and invite the House of Commons to defeat his party in a division vote.
That would almost certainly require Queen Elizabeth II to dissolve the newly-elected parliament and call another general election.
Conservative strategists said much would depend on the impact of Mr. Lamont's budget on the electorate. They hoped that it would convince wavering Conservative supporters that they should opt for the party in power.
Jack Cunningham, Labour's election coordinator, said March 10 that the budget was unlikely to alter the views of many voters who were "well aware that unemployment is close to 3 million and that the reason for the current deep recession is the government's gross mismanagement of the economy."