U.K.'s Top 2 Parties Locked In Election Standoff The Conservatives strongly outpolled Labour in Britain's general election Thursday but fell short of being able to govern outright. Labour lost around 90 seats in Parliament but still thwarted a Conservative victory that only a few months ago seemed inevitable. Now the top parties are each making a case to the third finisher to form a coalition, hoping to secure the balance of power.
NPR logo U.K.'s Top 2 Parties Locked In Election Standoff

U.K.'s Top 2 Parties Locked In Election Standoff

David Cameron positioned himself as Britain's next prime minister Friday after his Conservative Party won the most seats in the general election. AP hide caption

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David Cameron positioned himself as Britain's next prime minister Friday after his Conservative Party won the most seats in the general election.

AP

Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Conservative challenger, David Cameron, each made their case Friday for a coalition with the party that finished third in Britain's elections, hoping to secure the balance of power following an inconclusive vote.

Heard On Morning Edition

The Conservatives, who won the largest number of seats in Thursday's contest, suggested that lawmakers from the third-place Liberal Democrats could serve as ministers in a future Tory government. But they held back from promising the far-reaching electoral reform the Liberal Democrats have demanded.

Brown, whose left-leaning Labour Party lost more than 90 seats, is fighting to cling to power, promising to back the Liberal Democrats on reform and opening negotiations with Britain's smaller Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties.

The jockeying -- which could stretch on for days or even weeks -- was taking its toll on markets. The FTSE-100 fell more than 87 points amid the continuing uncertainty over who will take charge of Britain's ballooning deficit.

Cameron told reporters a stable government is needed quickly to calm markets and said the Tories would promise to implement parts of the Liberal Democratic election manifesto -- but only offered the party and its leader, Nick Clegg, an inquiry to examine the issue of electoral reform.

"I want to make a big, open and comprehensive offer to the Liberal Democrats," Cameron said.

Brown went further than Cameron in a similar public approach to the Liberal Democrats, saying he agreed with their demands.

"My view is clear -- there needs to be immediate legislation on this to begin to restore the public trust in politics; and to improve Parliament's standing and reputation, a fairer voting system is central," Brown said in comments clearly aimed at the third-place party.

NPR's Rob Gifford told Morning Edition's Renee Montagne that Brown "seemed very magnanimous."

"Trying to look very prime ministerial, he talked about the global economy, the problems that any leader will need to address, trying to just keep all his options open even though, under constitutional convention, [as sitting prime minister] he is the one who could actually have the first choice of who to form an alliance with to form a coalition," Gifford said.

Voters moved away from Brown's party in droves this election, Gifford said, partly because of disillusionment with politics in general. That gave the Conservatives a boost, but Gifford said Cameron "didn't seal the deal."

"It's clear there's been a big swing to [Cameron] from the Labour Party ... but not big enough to give him a mandate to govern. What he's got to do now is to find a party or parties within the system who can ally with him to take him beyond that [majority] magic number of 326."

The final results showed the Conservatives earned 306 seats -- 20 seats short of a majority; Labour held 258 and the Liberal Democrats had 57. Other parties, such as the Scottish National Party and Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru, held 28 seats.

Clegg did not immediately respond in public but said earlier that the party that had gained the most seats and the most votes -- the Conservatives -- should have "the first right to seek to govern."

Many of the Conservatives' old guard distrust the Liberal Democrats' pro-European leanings and fiercely oppose its call for proportional representation, which would make it hard for any single party to hold power alone -- effectively shutting out the Conservatives indefinitely.

"The Tories would fight [electoral reform] tooth and nail," said Bill Jones, professor of politics at Liverpool Hope University. "It's like asking a turkey to vote for Christmas."

Brown's left-of-center Labour Party is seen as a more natural coalition fit with the Liberal Democrats. Labour is much more amenable to demands for electoral reform, but even a deal with the Liberal Democrats would leave them a few seats short of a majority, meaning they would have to turn to the Scottish and Welsh nationalists for further support.

Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond, whose party held six seats, said he had already been invited to talks with Brown.

"Fate seems to have dealt us a mighty hand between ourselves and Plaid Cymru," Salmond told the BBC.

With the pound and the FTSE down, pressure mounted for a quick solution.

"A decision would have to be made very quickly," said Victoria Honeyman, a lecturer in politics at the University of Leeds.

She predicted that some sort of statement would have to be made before Monday when the markets reopen; if the uncertainty goes on too long, she said, the pound will start to crash.

NPR's Gifford said the time line is crucial: "We saw what happened on Wall Street yesterday, we can see the problems going on in Greece and around the global economy, and I think voters -- and never mind investors -- are going to want a decision soon, within a couple of days, to clarify who is going to be the next prime minister."

A period of political wrangling and confusion in one of the world's largest economies could unsettle global markets already reeling from the Greek debt crisis and fears of wider debt contagion in Europe. Britain's budget deficit is set to eclipse even that of Greece next year, and whoever winds up in power faces the daunting challenge of introducing big government spending cuts to slash the country's huge deficit.

Talks were expected to begin between political players Friday, aided by civil service guidelines detailing how the process should unfold.

Although Britain has no written constitution, senior civil servants have been preparing furiously to lay out the rules and avoid market-rattling uncertainty in the event of a so-called hung Parliament, a result in which no party secures a majority. The last time a British election produced such a result was in 1974.

"As you can imagine, there's a lot of horse-trading going on behind the scenes in the smoke-filled rooms of Westminster," Gifford said on Morning Edition. "You can be sure there are people of all the different parties looking at the permutations, how it's going to work, how they're going to put a deal together. At the moment, it looks as though either is possible -- Gordon Brown hanging on, doing a deal with the Liberal Democrats, or the Conservatives doing a deal with the Liberal Democrats and David Cameron becoming the prime minister."