Conservatives hold edge but lack absolute majority in U.K. elections

A power-sharing deal between Cameron and Nicholas Clegg of the Liberal Democrats ended 13 years of Labor Party rule and resulted in Britain's first coalition government since the 1940s.
By Anthony Faiola and Dan Balz
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 7, 2010

LONDON -- A revamped Conservative Party made major gains in Britain's closely fought elections but was falling short of the absolute majority needed to form a government and head off the prospect of the most divided Parliament here in a generation.

The results early Friday suggested Britain would face a potentially messy period of uncertainty over who will eventually occupy No. 10 Downing St. The Conservatives were projected to win an estimated 305 seats -- 21 short of a majority -- in the 650-seat House of Commons, according to exit polls by a consortium of TV networks. Official results also pointed to a hung Parliament. With two-thirds of districts reporting, the Conservatives had picked up some targeted seats but failed to deliver hoped-for gains in others.

The incumbent Labor Party appeared to have suffered its biggest loss of seats since 1931. Meanwhile, the insurgency of the dark-horse Liberal Democrats had apparently fizzled, although the party still retained the power to act as kingmaker.

If those trends hold up as tallies continue to roll in Friday, the outcome could end 13 years of rule by a Labor Party deeply wounded by two wars, a brutal economic crisis and the unpopularity of its leader, Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The result could prop up David Cameron, the 43-year-old Conservative Party leader, as head of a minority government vulnerable to collapse in the coming months -- a prospect likely to complicate his pledges to start slashing Britain's yawning deficit.

Officials from the ruling Labor Party did not suggest publicly that they were preparing to give up power. In the absence of a Conservative majority, Brown, as the incumbent prime minister, would have the right to try first to forge a coalition government, not seen here since the 1970s.

To do that, he would need to secure the support of the Liberal Democrats, headed by Nick Clegg, who soared to prominence after Britain's first U.S.-style election debates. But in Thursday's voting, the Liberal Democrats appeared to fare worse than pre-election polling had predicted, barely holding on to their current number of seats in Parliament.

If Brown fails, Cameron could also seek to form a coalition, either with Liberal Democrats or with the aid of regional parties in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales that may demand protection from looming budget cuts in return for support.

Cameron sounded a cautious note early Friday, noting that his party had made its most significant gains in 80 years but stopping short of claiming an outright victory. He said the country would have to await the full results but asserted it was already clear that the Labor government has lost its mandate to govern.

Brown, who won his seat in Scotland by a landslide, offered a retrospective of his achievements -- fighting the financial crisis, protecting the National Health Service and defending national security in overseas wars. He did not directly address his future but said, "It is my duty to play my part in creating a strong and stable government," suggesting that he might seek a coalition or, alternatively, step aside if he cannot.

But Labor officials were clearly courting Clegg early Friday even as Conservatives were calling for Labor to step aside.

"This is a rejection of the Labor Party, a historic rejection of the Labor Party," said George Osborne, who is in line to become the equivalent of finance minister in a Conservative government. He said that the exit poll projection represented "a decisive vote for change" and that it would be foolhardy for Labor to try "to cling to power" under those circumstances.

But David Miliband, the foreign secretary in the current Labor government, said the possible absence of a majority for any party means that there must be negotiations to form a new government. If no party has an absolute majority, he said, "then no party has a moral right to a monopoly of power."

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