As the courting of the Liberal Democrats goes on, Britons wait to learn who will govern them
Britain may never have seen anything quite like it. Last night’s inconclusive general election was remarkable enough, producing as it did the first hung parliament since 1974. But it was matched for drama by the ensuing spectacle of the three main party leaders setting out their preferred paths towards some kind of strong and stable government, and doing so in public.First up, on the morning of May 7th, was Nick Clegg. Dejected at his Liberal Democrats’ surprisingly poor showing at the polls, he reiterated his rule of thumb that the party boasting the most votes in the country and seats in Parliament must be given the first shot at forming a government. That, he acknowledged, meant the Conservatives. It was a coded invitation to the Tories to bid for the support of his 57 MPs in running the country.
British Voters Swing to Tories, but Majority Is in Doubt
Published: May 6, 2010
LONDON — After one of the most passionately contested elections in decades, the Conservative Party was headed toward big, though not necessarily decisive, gains in Britain early on Friday.
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Andrew Testa for The New York Times
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Incomplete results from 650 House of Commons constituencies across the country pointed to a strong performance on Thursday by the opposition party, led by David Cameron, though the size of the increase in the Conservative vote raised doubts about the party’s ability to win the majority needed to be sure of regaining power after 13 years of Labour control.
What seemed sure was that the Conservatives would win the largest number of seats, probably dozens more than Labour, with the third party, the left-of-center Liberal Democrats, trailing in third. But without a majority, Mr. Cameron — and the country — could be heading for days of agonizing uncertainty as the two main parties set about trying to outmaneuver each other for power.
Mr. Cameron was restrained as he won re-election in his Oxfordshire constituency. He said his party appeared likely to win more seats than in any election in 80 years, but avoided making claim to the keys at 10 Downing Street, saying, “What will guide me will be what’s in the national interest.”
If that hinted at a Conservative bid to govern with the Liberal Democrats, he was unsparing in his remarks about Labour. “I believe it’s already clear that Labour has lost its mandate to govern,” he said.
But with the national picture unclear, a long line of powerful Labour figures appeared on television to set out what appeared to be an orchestrated rationale for hanging on to power, even if the party finished far behind the Conservatives in the numbers of Commons seats.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown, although winning re-election in his Edinburgh-area constituency with an increased majority, appeared subdued as he thanked voters. His remarks appeared deliberately ambiguous, leaving open the possibility that he would fight to stay on as prime minister, or step aside to make way for another Labour leader more acceptable to the Liberal Democrats. “The outcome is not yet known,” he said, “but it is my duty to play my part to form a strong and principled government.”
Partial results announced showed a sharp swing from Labour to the Conservatives in seats in northern England that had been Labour strongholds for decades, with voter shifts from one party to the other that ranged from 5 to 11 percent. And early returns from central and southern England suggested a similarly strong shift to the Conservatives — in some cases as high as 10 percent — that raised, at least briefly, Conservative hopes of gaining a clear majority.
Pollsters had said that a nationwide swing of 7 percent in the Conservatives’ favor might be enough for a slim majority. Across many parts of England, the party appeared to have approached or even surpassed that standard, and it made some surprising gains in Wales.
But the overall picture was spotty, with the Conservatives not posting the consistent gains across the country that they needed, and with the Labour vote holding up far better in some areas, especially Scotland, than in others. Notably, the Conservatives failed to win several seats that were high on a list of 116 that they identified as the most promising targets.
But perhaps the biggest surprise was the lackluster performance of the Liberal Democrats, who showed no sign of the major breakthrough that many had expected after the show-stealing performance of the party’s leader, Nick Clegg, in three televised election debates that were the centerpiece of the campaign. Partial returns suggested that they might win only about as many seats, 62, as they took in the last election, in 2005.
Peter Mandelson, the Labour Party’s chief strategist and an influential cabinet colleague of Mr. Brown’s, said that Labour had “the right to seek to form a government” by seeking support from other parties if the Conservatives fell short of a majority.
That pointed to a bid by Labour to form a coalition, or some other arrangement, with the Liberal Democrats. But the unimpressive performance of the Liberal Democrats stood as a potential obstacle to that plan, since a Liberal Democrat bloc of about 60 seats would be likely to leave Labour and the Liberal Democrats together with barely as many seats as the Conservatives.
In what appeared to be an opening bid for the Liberal Democrats’ support, Mr. Mandelson said that a fairer voting system should replace the existing one that resulted in smaller parties like the Liberal Democrats generally winning far fewer seats, proportionally, than their popular vote share. Mr. Clegg has said that a shift to another voting system fairer to small parties will be a non-negotiable demand in post-election discussions with Labour and the Conservatives.
The Labour attitude outraged leading Conservatives. “The idea of Gordon Brown hanging on to power, after being so decisively rejected, is frankly shocking,” said George Osborne, who as shadow chancellor of the Exchequer would assume management of Britain’s battered economy in the event of the Conservatives’ taking power. Citing the plunge in share prices on Wall Street on Thursday, Mr. Osborne said “Britain will need a stable and responsible government” in the choppy months ahead for the British economy, not a fragile coalition led by a party that had faced “a massive rejection.”
Although British election campaigns last barely a month, a fraction of the time that it takes to elect an American president, vote counting can be a protracted, through-the-night affair, as in the United States.
Election experts said a clear picture of the overall seat count would probably not be available until dawn in Britain on Friday, and that in a close finish between the two parties, results from some outlying areas, such as distant parts of Scotland, could take much longer.
One count, in Northern Ireland, was suspended because of a bomb scare, a reminder of the decades of sectarian violence that raged before the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998 that the Labour government counts as one of its major achievements. In dozens of other seats, voters gathered angrily outside polling stations after officials shut the doors as the voting hours expired with hundreds of would-be voters still waiting in line. The BBC said that the national turnout appeared to have been substantially higher than in the last election, in 2005, when barely 61 percent of an electorate of about 45 million people cast ballots.
Conservative hopes of forming a majority government were bolstered by the prospect of gaining the support of as many as nine members of Parliament likely to win seats for the mainly Protestant unionist parties in Northern Ireland. But if the Conservatives fail to obtain a majority, there could be a bitter, behind-the-scenes struggle for the right to govern. Mr. Brown, at 59, waited 10 years to succeed Mr. Blair as prime minister in 2007, and has survived several attempts by cabals of senior Labour figures to oust him as party leader, refusing to quit even when some of his closest cabinet associates deserted him.
A gritty, often grumpy and occasionally self-righteous man, proud of the dogged persistence and strict adherence to principle he says he inherited as the son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister, he has cast himself as the man who saved Britain from economic disaster with a Keynesian program that pumped tens of billions of pounds into saving Britain’s banks and had the Bank of England channel tens of billions more into propping up the wider economy. In effect, he has put himself forward as the indispensable man.
But a hung Parliament, with no party securing a clear majority, could test the principles of all the contenders, and risk further alienating an electorate already deeply distrustful of politicians as a result of a scandal over parliamentary expenses last year that showed scores of members of Parliament enriching themselves with dubious claims.
If Labour has already signaled its willingness to barter a new voting system as the price of winning the Liberal Democrats’ support, the Conservatives are said to be weighing the possibility of assuring unionists in Northern Ireland not to make a $300 million cut in government subsidies mooted as part of a Conservative program to cut Britain’s record-high levels of debt.