x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Britain heads for hung parliament

The British election leads to the first hung parliament since 1974, with the Conservatives garnering the most seats but with no chance of winning an overall majority.

LONDON // Conservative leader David Cameron is manoeuvring to oust Labour's weakened Gordon Brown and form a new government with the possible backing of smaller parties after a chaotic election in which no one group won a majority in parliament. The Conservatives strongly outpolled Labour in Britain's general election on Thursday but were projected to fall short of being able to govern outright. Labour was on track to lose nearly 90 seats in parliament but still thwarted the Conservatives from a victory that only a few months ago was considered inevitable.

The biggest - and surprise - loser was Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg, who failed to capitalise on his stellar TV debate performances, leaving his party stuck in its distant, third-place status. Despite producing one of Labour's worst showings in decades, Mr Brown could still end up staying in power, as his party eyed the Liberal Democrats as a possible lifesaver. Talks were expected between political players today but a definitive result could take days or weeks.

With 615 of the 650 seats counted, the Conservatives had secured 290 seats, Labour 247, the Liberal Democrats 51 and smaller parties 27 seats. At least 326 of the House of Commons' 650 seats are needed to form a government. "The country has spoken - but we don't know what they've said," the former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown said, summing up confusion. 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.

Polling stations around the country were overwhelmed by those interested in casting ballots in the most hotly contested election in a generation, but hundreds of people were blocked from voting due to problems with Britain's old-fashioned paper ballot system. Turnout for the vote was 65.2 per cent, slightly higher than Britain's 2005 election. Mr Cameron insisted that voters had rejected Mr Brown and his Labour party.

"Our country wants change. That change is going to require new leadership," Mr Cameron said today. Mr Brown vowed to "play my part in Britain having a strong, stable" government and indicated he would seek an alliance with the third-place Liberal Democrats, pledging action on election reform - a key demand of his would-be partners. Mr Clegg, who saw his campaign surge crumble, said he'll take his time to decide if his party will strike any deals with Labour or the Conservatives.

"I don't think anyone should rush into making claims, or taking decisions which don't stand the test of time," Mr Clegg told supporters in the northern city of Sheffield. Mr Brown has an advantage, for in a British election that produces no clear winner political convention allows the incumbent the first attempt to form a government. He has more than a week to hold talks aimed at reaching a pact with smaller parties.

* AP and AFP