Britain's political future was uncertain last night after its general election failed to produce a clear winner. Although the ruling Labour Party ended up with fewer parliamentary seats than the Conservatives, prime minister Gordon Brown was obdurately clinging to power in the hope of forming a coalition with the third placed Liberal Democrats.
David Cameron, whose Conservative Party was short of an overall majority with 306 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons, showed his determination to become the next prime minister by making his own "big, open and comprehensive" offer to the Liberal Democrats. He said the Tories and Lib Dems had priorities in common that could provide "a strong basis for a strong government". But he reassured party activists that he would not soften his stance on the European Union, immigration or defence to secure Lib Dem support.
Mr Cameron had, at least, the tacit blessing of Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, who said he believed the Tories had the "first right to seek to govern". "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," he said. "That is why I think it is now for the Conservative Party to prove that it is capable of seeking to govern in the national interest."
After the final results were declared yesterday afternoon, the Conservatives were short of an outright Commons majority of 326 by 20 seats. They won about 36 per cent of the vote compared to Labour's 29 per cent, which brought Mr Brown's party 258 seats. The Lib Dems, who were squeezed out in the last few days of the campaign, ended up with only 23 per cent and 57 seats. Although coalition government is the norm in most European Union states, it is an exception in Britain and has not happened for 36 years. Historically, peacetime coalition governments in Britain are short-lived before a new election is necessary.
Mr Brown tried to woo the Lib Dems yesterday by promising immediate legislation for a referendum on electoral reform, including a move towards proportional representation (PR), in place of the current first-past-the-post system. In a statement on the steps of 10 Downing Street, he said he respected Mr Clegg's decision to talk first to Mr Cameron but stressed that Labour and the Lib Dems shared "common ground", not only on voting reform, but also on the economy.
Mr Brown, who will remain prime minister until he goes to the Queen with his resignation, said he expected negotiations on any coalition to be "prolonged". He added: "Clearly if the discussions between Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg come to nothing, then I would, of course, be prepared to discuss with Mr Clegg the areas where there may be some measure of agreement between our two parties." The principle stumbling block for Mr Cameron on heading a coalition is that the Conservatives are opposed to any form of PR, which has been a key Lib Dem demand for decades. However, Mr Cameron has now offered to set up an all-party committee to draw up proposals for electoral reform.
Given the urgent need to reduce the national deficit, Mr Cameron is hoping he can reach an informal agreement with Mr Clegg that, at the very least, the Lib Dems will not oppose a Conservative government's budget to cut public expenditure. Mr Clegg's dilemma is that while Labour seems a more natural, left-of-centre partner for the Lib Dems, the electorate might never forgive the party for getting into bed with Mr Brown at a time when his government has been roundly, if not overwhelmingly, defeated.
The Times commented: "Any government formed in the next few days will not be able to command a stable or overall majority in the Commons. "So the new Parliament is unlikely to last more than a year or so. A second general election is probable either later this year or in the spring of 2011. Everything else is uncertain. "The only way out - a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition - looks highly unlikely because of Tory opposition to electoral reform.
"As politician after politician said overnight, the public has spoken. But it is not clear what they have said." Across the country, about 30 million of the 44 million registered voters cast a vote, although hundreds were denied the opportunity when, at the 10pm cut-off point on Thursday, long queues of people were still waiting outside polling stations. The Electoral Commission, the election watchdog, launched an inquiry yesterday into why so many people were turned away at polling stations in major centres including London, Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, Liverpool and Newcastle.
One polling station in Surrey did not even have enough ballot papers, and a senior election official in Sheffield said that the turnout in some areas had been the highest for 30 years and had "caught us out". Jenny Watson, the chairman of the Electoral Commission, described Britain's voting arrangements as "a Victorian system not fit for purpose". "The great frustration for us is that we have been warning for many years that the system for electoral administration was at breaking point. And last night, it broke."
The election did not provide any breakthrough for the far-right British National Party. Although its overall share of the vote increased by 1.83 per cent to 514,819, it failed to win a seat despite fielding more than 300 candidates. Nick Griffin, the leader of the anti-immigration party, which has recently had to drop its "whites only" membership rule, finished a poor third in the Barking seat he had been hoping to win.
Margaret Hodge, the sitting Labour MP, cruised home with a majority of more than 16,000 and told Mr Griffin afterwards to "pack your bags and go". High-profile MPs who lost their seats when the results were announced yesterday included two former Labour home secretaries, Jacqui Smith and Charles Clarke, the colourful Lib Dem MP, Lembit Opik, and Peter Robinson, the Democratic Unionist leader and First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The Commons also got its first ever Green Party MP: Caroline Lucas, who won a seat in Brighton. The number of Muslim MPs doubled to eight, including the first three women Muslim MPs, Yasmin Qureshi, Shabana Mahmood and Rushnara Ali, all from the Labour Party. Two Muslims were also elected in Conservative seats for the first time. Nadhim Zahawi, an Iraqi Kurd, also captured Strafford for the Conservatives.