The Sunday Take

With inconclusive elections, Britain heads down a treacherous political path

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 Dan Balz
Sunday, May 9, 2010


Politicians prefer elections that produce real majorities and clear mandates. One lesson from the messy outcome of Britain's just-concluded general election is that politicians should never underestimate the power of voters to disappoint them.

The outcome here has produced something rare. Forced by the failure of any party to win a majority of seats in the next Parliament, negotiations underway here are exploring whether it will be possible for some combination of the parties to govern cooperatively in difficult times.

That's currently unthinkable in the America's winner-take-all political culture. But there is enough evidence that the voters in the United States lack full confidence in either major political party to warrant watching closely what will play out here in the coming days and months.

All three major parties in Britain -- Labor, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats -- emerged from Thursday's election feeling let-down. As a result, the country has been plunged into a period of extraordinary uncertainty. No hanging chads, but a hung Parliament, as it's called.

The visual images across London on Saturday displayed the uncertainty. Politicians have been shuttling between meetings. A group of demonstrators took to the streets, calling for electoral reform. Round-the-clock coverage keeps everyone abreast of any developments.

Most extraordinary was the side-by-side appearance of the three major-party leaders at a ceremony commemorating the 65th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe -- which symbolized more than anything else the fact that no one knows who will lead Britain.

How did it get to this point?

Voters on Thursday dealt a huge blow to Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Labor Party, which has been in power since 1997. Labor lost 97 seats, its worst setback in 80 years. Labor's share of the vote fell to 29 percent, the lowest since the humiliation of 1983, when the party won just 27 percent.

But voters were not prepared to fully embrace the Conservatives. Although they gained 91 seats, the Tories fell short of the 326 seats needed to claim a majority in the new Parliament.

Six months ago, polls suggested that the Conservatives would easily win enough seats to install David Cameron as the next prime minister. Now Cameron is trying to broker a deal to make it possible for him to enter No. 10 Downing St. as prime minister, while members of his party blame one another for the failure to win a majority against an opponent as unpopular as Brown.

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