"Hey UK, welcome to Florida '00," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, shortly after it became clear in the wee hours of Friday morning that the election in Britian had ended in a hung parliament-the first in 36 years.
With results continuing to come in, the Conservative Party led by David Cameron appears to have picked up 94 seats; but at 302 overall, it has fallen short of the 326 needed to win a majority.
The currently ruling Labour Party of Gordon Brown appears to have lost 88 seats and the Liberal Democrats, led by Nick Clegg, five. After outperforming his opponents in a series of three-way debates, Clegg was expected to pull his party into a stronger position and to sap votes from Labour in the process. Instead, he finds his party weaker, at least numerically, than before. "This has been a disappointing night for the Liberal Democrats," he said.
But with 55 seats, the Liberal Democrats will be the linchpin to any ruling coalition, and already this morning both sides are courting Clegg. While ideologically the Liberal Democrats appear to align with Labour, this morning Clegg made what observers say is a remarkable statement outside his party's headquarters on Downing Street-saying the Conservatives had the "first right to seek to govern" after the election.
"I've said that whichever party gets the most votes and the most seats, if not an absolute majority, has the first right to seek to govern either on its own or by reaching out to other parties, and I stick to that view," Clegg told reporters. "I think it is now for the Conservative Party to prove that it is capable of seeking to govern in the national interest."
Experts said Clegg's words amounted to a hat-in-hand plea to work with Conservatives in coalition building. And soon after, Conservatives announced that Cameron would make a statement at 2:30 p.m. London time (10:30 a.m. EDT) to "set out how he will seek to form a government that is strong and stable with broad support, that acts in the national interest."
Coalition governments are not an unusual feature in a parliamentary system. But Britain's political landscape, while including at least 20 parties spread from its southwest tip to Scotland and Northern Ireland, is dominated by two parties only. Complicating the immediate picture for Cameron's Conservatives: It is the right of Gordon Brown, as incumbent prime minister, to make the first formal attempt to form a coalition.
And in the end, it is only Queen Elizabeth who can invite a candidate to form a government and become prime minister. By longstanding tradition she will invite to Buckingham Palace the leader who seems most likely to command the confidence of the House of Commons-though that is usually a choice communicated to her in advance by the ruling party.
As frantic horse trading continues, the role of lesser parties and key advocacy groups is likely to become vital. Already faith-based activists have seen their profile elevated during the campaign (see "Escaping the Enlightenment trap," by Emily Belz, May 22, 2010)-though key Christian candidates did not perform as well as many hoped. Hammersmith's Shaun Bailey (see "London without a guidebook," by Marvin Olasky, Aug. 11, 2001), one of a growing number of black Conservatives many hoped would tip the party into the majority, lost to his Labour counterpart, while Philippa Stroud, an outspoken conservative and head of the Center for Social Justice, also widely believed to be a favorite, also went down to defeat. Overall, according to Conservative Home's Tim Montgomerie, Conservatives did not fare as well in London as expected.
But other parties saw their stocks unexpectedly rise. The UK's Green Party for the first time picked up one, and then two seats. And two women running for Labour became the first Muslim women to win seats. Even Plaid Cymru, a mostly unknown party from Wales, was closely watched as it gained its first seat in the House of Commons. "This is one election where every seat matters," said Sabato.