THE Liberal Democrats - the "third force" in British politics - are demanding four Cabinet seats in return for their support of a minority government after Thursday's general election.
With three days to go before voting, Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrats' leader, passed his demand informally to the leaders of the Conservative and Labour parties Sunday, apparently on the calculation that neither party would command an absolute majority in the House of Commons on April 9.
Yesterday Mr. Ashdown denied he was demanding Cabinet seats, but his own officials indicated that he would be prepared to make a deal if the opportunity arose.
They said the only basis the Liberal Democrats would accept for taking part in a coalition government was the offer of four Cabinet posts, including that of education secretary for Ashdown himself.
Other seats could go to Alan Beith, the party's deputy leader and a financial expert, and to Sir David Steel, a former party leader, now its foreign affairs spokesman.
Ashdown is interested in the education portfolio. His campaign has stressed the importance of education, and Liberal Democrats favor an increase in income tax to pay for better educational provision. The demand for seats, in advance of Thursday's vote, evoked an immediate rejection by Prime Minister John Major, the Conservative Party leader, and Neil Kinnock, his Labour Party counterpart.
But sources in both the larger parties privately conceded that Ashdown would be in a strong position to dictate terms if the election result handed him the balance of power in the new Parliament.
Yesterday, Ashdown repeated another Liberal Democrat demand that has figured prominently in the three-week campaign. He said he would be prepared to enter a coalition government only if the incoming prime minister promised to introduce proportional representation.
This system of electoral voting would give smaller parties guaranteed representation in Parliament. Kinnock has said he is prepared to "consider" it, Major has formally ruled it out.
Opinion polls over the weekend predicted Labour would be the largest single party in the new Parliament.