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.
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,
Labour came second in Thursday’s vote, which for the first time since the 1970s produced no outright winner. The Conservatives gained the largest number of seats but fell short of the parliamentary majority needed to govern alone.
With the results of all the country’s contests declared, Conservatives earned 306 seats, 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.
As sitting prime minister, Brown would traditionally be given the first chance to put together a government. His left-of-center Labour Party is seen as a more natural coalition fit with the Liberal Democrats.
Many of the Conservative party’s 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. 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.
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.