Britain in limbo as hung parliament looms

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Conservatives came top in Britain's close-fought general election but failed to deal a knock-out blow to Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, plunging Britain into political uncertainty on Friday.

While Conservative leader David Cameron insisted Brown had lost his mandate to govern, key allies of the prime minister indicated his party would bid to cling to power in a deal with the centrist Liberal Democrats.

Partial results and exit polls showed the Conservatives were in line to win around 305 seats -- 21 short of an overall majority of 326 in the 650-seat House of Commons -- against 255 for Labour and 61 for the Liberal Democrats.

If confirmed, the forecast would leave Britain with a so-called "hung parliament", where no one party has a clear majority, for the first time since 1974.

Brown's de facto deputy Peter Mandelson said Labour would "obviously" be prepared to consider an alliance that would allow it to stay in power.

Asked about a possible deal with the Liberal Democrats, Mandelson told Sky News: "You don't have to sound quite so horrified. Obviously we would be prepared to consider that."

He also hinted at offering to meet a key Liberal Democrat demand to change the country's first-past-the-post voting system, saying it was "on its last legs".

Another senior cabinet minister, Welsh Secretary Peter Hain, said he believed Brown would try and form a "progressive majority" with the Liberal Democrats.

"As the incumbent prime minister, he's entitled to do that constitutionally. Precedent is on his side," he added.

Brown also appeared to indicate he wanted to stay in power, raising the possibility of several uncertain days of horse-trading.

"The outcome of this country's vote is not yet known but my duty to the country coming out of this election is to play my part in Britain having a strong, stable and principled government," he said.

But senior Conservative figure Michael Gove told BBC radio a pact between Labour and the Liberal Democrats would be "a coalition of the defeated".

It was a night of bitter disappointment for the Lib Dems, the third-biggest party whose leader Nick Clegg had attracted a surge of support in the campaign but which looked set to actually lose seats compared with their 2005 showing.

Some commentators said the only solution might be fresh elections.

"The more we hear of the different permutations of who might work with whom after tonight, the more I feel there is only one certainty: we'll be having another general election before too long," The Guardian newspaper said.

At 7.30am (0630 GMT), the Conservatives had won 285 seats, Labour 233 and the Liberal Democrats just 50.

Clegg admitted: "This has obviously been a disappointing night for the Liberal Democrats. We simply haven't achieved what we had hoped."

Cameron tried to grab the momentum for the Conservatives by insisting Britain was crying out for "new leadership".

"We have to wait for the full results to come out, but I believe it is already clear that the Labour government has lost its mandate to govern our country," he said.

"What is clear from these results is that the country, our country, wants change. That change is going to require new leadership."

One notable political casualty was Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson, who lost his House of Commons seat after a sex and cash scandal involving him and his wife.

But he will stay on as Northern Ireland's leader due to his seat in the British-ruled province's devolved assembly.

High-profile Labour casualties included two former interior ministers. Jacqui Smith -- who was caught up in the expenses scandal after claiming for porn films for her husband -- lost her seat in Redditch to the Conservatives.

Charles Clarke, another ex-home secretary, slumped to defeat in Norwich South.

The uncertainty had an immediate effect on the pound, which plunged to its lowest level against the dollar in more than a year on Friday.

The polls were marred by a number of protests by voters prevented from casting their ballots in cities including London, Leeds and Sheffield because they were still queuing at 10:00pm when polling stations closed. Some commentators took this as a sign of a high turnout.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw said legal challenges could not be ruled out, while the Electoral Commission watchdog said it would carry out a "thorough review".

© 2010 AFP

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