LONDON – The first returns in Britain's parliamentary elections suggested an uncertain outcome to what has been an election unlike any in British history.
The BBC/ITV/Sky News exit poll projected that the Conservative Party led by David Cameron would win 305 seats in the House of Commons, 21 votes short of the 326-seat majority. The Labour party led by Prime Minister Gordon Brown was projected to win 255 seats, and the Liberal Democrats led by Nick Clegg were projected to win 61 seats.
That raised the possibility that Britain would have a “hung parliament” in which no party would have a majority. And it raised the possibility that Brown would hold on to his job and attempt to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
British exit polls have proved off the mark in the past, and these figures undoubtedly should be viewed as having a significant margin of error. In 1992 the exit polls projected that the Labour Party would win a majority. But when the votes were counted, the Conservatives won a majority of seats and John Major remained prime minister. And patrons of British betting parlors, where election wagers are legal and very popular, were still betting after the exit poll was announced that Conservatives would win an absolute majority.
The bettors were also wagering that Liberal Democrats would win more seats than the exit poll projected. That was also implied by the pre-election polls.
The big story during much of the campaign had been the surge of the Liberal Democrats, which for years lagged far behind Conservatives and Labour. But Lib Dem support rose sharply after Clegg's strong showing in Britain's first televised debate between party leaders, and in some polls they even led the other two parties. But the Liberal Democrat surge seemed to ebb, and the exit poll showed them winning fewer seats than they won in 2005.
On British television, Labour and Conservative politicians presented very different scenarios of what would come next if the final result is a hung parliament. Labour strategist and Business Minister Lord Mandelson hinted that Brown would remain in office and would attempt to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. A key demand by that party would be to replace Britain's single-member districts with a system of proportional representation. That might give the Liberal Democrats the ability to choose prime ministers for years to come.
Conservatives, including the party's candidate for chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, argued that if Conservatives win more seats than any other party, they should choose the prime minister. A minority government could continue in office unless the other parties defeat it on a vote of confidence — something they might be unwilling to do, since it would trigger another general election.
At midnight British time, results had been reported in only three seats, all safe Labour constituencies, where Labour candidates won with reduced majorities and Conservatives significantly increased their vote.
Michael Barone, the Examiner's senior political analyst, can be contacted at email@example.com. His columns appear Wednesday and Sunday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.