By Anthony Faiola and Dan Balz
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 7, 2010; A01
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."
Theoretically, Brown, who inherited his post after Tony Blair stepped down in 2007, could hold on to power until May 25. That is when the new government's platform must be presented to the queen. But most analysts said they thought a resolution would be reached within a day or two.
Anything longer, analysts say, could risk sparking a crisis of confidence in British bonds and the pound. The elections took place against the backdrop of upheaval in Greece, whose debt crisis has produced social unrest, three deaths, a new austerity budget and fears that the problems in Athens could quickly spread throughout Europe.
The next British government will need to move quickly to fortify its balance sheets with painful cuts and tax increases to avoid touching off a similar crisis. The swiftness of needed action was underscored Thursday as fretting investors drove the pound to its lowest level against the dollar in more than a year.
"Cameron will be prime minister, but without the majority that every pundit expected at the turn of the year," said Tim Montgomerie, a leading Conservative Party activist. "He now needs to begin to make the cuts in public spending of any modern British government. He needs to make those cuts without a clear mandate."
The elections saw Britain's 44 million voters fan out to 42,000 polling places, from pubs in Gloucestershire to mobile trailers in the Scottish highlands. Officials expressed outrage at reports that some voters had not been allowed to cast their ballots, as polling was stopped promptly at 10 p.m. local time, even with people still in line. In an unusual step, Britain's electoral commission said it would investigate the reports.
The apparent cliffhanger of an ending capped the tightest and most exciting parliamentary race here in decades, with early indications that turnout had surged since the last national vote in 2005. For many people, however, the final choice seemed to be not a vote for the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats, but a vote against Brown.
In northwest London's Kilburn neighborhood, where Labor lawmaker and Academy Award winner Glenda Jackson is facing a tough reelection fight, Steve Ardley, a plasterer, said he was voting Conservative after backing the small, nationalist UK Independence Party in 2005. Why? He wanted to ensure that Labor got the boot.
"I'm just sick of Gordon Brown after 13 years of him," Ardley said.
Clegg appeared to be heading for a disappointing finish after weeks of high hopes for his also-ran Liberal Democrats. Instant polls had judged Clegg the overwhelming winner of the first TV debate, producing a surge in support for his party. The debates also put Brown at a disadvantage against his two younger and more telegenic rivals, leading the prime minister to say in the final days that the campaign had focused too much on style and personality -- "froth," he called it -- rather than substantive policy differences among the parties.
Brown also suffered an embarrassment when he labeled a widowed Labor voter who had quizzed him on immigration policy a "bigoted woman," not realizing that he was speaking into an open microphone. He apologized, but the episode further damaged his chances. Voter polls Thursday showed the economy and immigration to be the most decisive issues in the race.
The Conservatives, who under Cameron have embraced gay rights and "green" policies while maintaining a tough fiscal stance, were benefiting from voters such as Shahnawaz Rauf, 58, a travel agency owner in the key south London battleground of Tooting. Rauf abandoned Labor on Thursday and voted Conservative for the first time. "We are suffering, and it's time for change," he said.
Special correspondent Karla Adam contributed to this report.