David Cameron, Britain’s Conservative party leader, arrived at a press conference in central London, Friday.
An Uncertain and Difficult Road Ahead in London
By SARAH LYALL
LONDON — The Liberal Democrats hoped it would happen. The Conservatives warned that it could lead to disaster. And the Labour Party could potentially use it to cling to power for a little while longer.
On Friday, Britain faced a hung Parliament for the first time since the 1970s, a situation in which no party has an overall majority and so cannot pass legislation without support from another party. It is unclear how this relatively unusual situation will play out here, but there are a number of possibilities.
First, the Conservatives, who won the most seats, could try to form a coalition with one or more smaller parties. The leading contender for that role would be the Liberal Democrats, lagging a distant third, who would relish the chance to play kingmaker but have been coy about how they would go about it.
Alternatively, the Tories could seek to make deals with individual members of all the small parties in Parliament — the Ulster Unionists, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and others. Some of those parties are traditional ideological opponents of the Tories, and it is unclear at this point whether all the small-party votes combined would even be enough to allow the Conservatives to reach the 326 seats needed to form a majority.
On Friday, barring a late swing, with results declared from almost 620 of the 650 constituencies, it seemed mathematically unlikely that Labour and the Liberal Democrats would win enough seats between them to form a majority coalition. But they could try to join to form a minority-party coalition government.
That is what happened in 1976, with disastrous results, when James Callaghan became prime minister in a minority Labour government after his predecessor, Harold Wilson, resigned. Labour was forced to deal with members of various tiny parties, who used their unexpected clout to hold up legislation and make difficult demands. Mired in economic crises, the government eventually had to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
The leading wild card in all this is the Liberal Democratic Party. During an unexpected, and short-lived, surge in public opinion polls during the campaign, the Liberal Democratic leader, Nick Clegg, intimated that he would be reluctant to enter into a formal deal with another party but that he would consider legislation on a case-by-case basis.
He has also said that the party that wins the most seats and the most votes is entitled to his party’s “support,” though he has not said what he means by that. But his own electoral performance fell far short of most projections before Thursday’s election, narrowing his options.
Many elements of Mr. Clegg’s legislative program, which includes scrapping college tuition and overhauling the parliamentary election system, are anathema to the other parties, and it is unclear what kind of demands Mr. Clegg would feel he could make.
An interesting twist, British constitutional experts say, is that Gordon Brown, as the sitting prime minister, has the right to remain in office until another party can prove that it has the confidence of Parliament — that is, that it can amass enough votes to pass legislation.
Such an effort can prove risky and embarrassing, as the Conservative prime minister Edward Heath found in the general election of 1974, which also resulted in a hung Parliament. In that case, the Conservative government lost the election to the Labour opposition, but tried to remain in government by negotiating a deal with the Liberal Party.
But the effort failed, and Mr. Heath was forced to resign just four days later, paving the way for Mr. Wilson and his ill-fated minority Labour government to take over.
Many European countries are smoothly run by coalitions made up of different parties, but the British system does not comfortably accommodate coalitions.
Its legislative chamber is physically set up so that the governing party sits on one side and the opposition on the other. And even if the parliamentary parties are inclined to make deals, the leaders might have a hard time persuading grass-roots members to follow.
For a final element of unpredictability, because the sitting prime minister has the right to call an election whenever he or she wants, it is impossible to plan for long-term cooperation on any sort of legislative agenda, an unhappy prospect for the junior partner in the coalition.
Richard Berry contributed reporting from Paris.
Five Reasons the UK General Election Matters outside the UK
(L-R) Britain’s Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg , British Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the ruling Labour Party and Conservative Party leader David Cameron
By Nile Gardiner May 5, 2010
British voters go to the polls on Thursday in the tightest political race in the UK in a generation. Several opinion polls have indicated the strong possibility of a hung parliament, with a Conservative minority government led by David Cameron as prime minister. In order to guarantee passage of legislation under this scenario, the Conservatives would be forced to negotiate with other political parties, significantly weakening the government’s power. Other polls, concentrating on key marginal seats, have pointed to a small Conservative majority, which would give Cameron, if elected, a far stronger mandate to lead on his own.
Here are five key reasons why the United States and American foreign policy may be directly affected by the outcome of this week’s election in Washington’s closest ally on the world stage.
1. The British Economy
Britain is facing a massive deficit crisis , which the next government will have to deal with. Unless the UK implements huge cuts in public spending, it could eventually face a Greek-style economic meltdown. The U.S. and British economies are closely interlinked  through investment stock worth over $800 billion , with about a million American jobs depending on British companies and vice versa. UK direct investment accounts for a fifth of all foreign direct investment in the U.S. A hung parliament this Friday, which is a distinct possibility, would make it significantly more difficult to bring about much needed economic reform in Britain, and would have an immediately negative effect on the world’s two biggest financial markets in London and New York.
2. The “Special Relationship”
Under Gordon Brown and Barack Obama, the Anglo-American “special relationship” has reached its lowest point on a political level since the Suez Crisis of 1956. Rebuilding it will be a priority for a Conservative government, and David Cameron is likely to seek a strong partnership with the White House, even though President Obama has been indifferent, and at times even hostile, towards Britain. It remains to be seen of course whether the Obama administration will shift this stance, which has come under increasing fire in the British media. If Gordon Brown survives as prime minister, there is little likelihood of a recovery in the “special relationship,” with significant tensions and a distinct lack of chemistry between the PM and his U.S. counterpart. If left-wing Liberal leader Nick Clegg plays a role in the next British administration, he will press strongly for a pro-European approach, which downplays the alliance with Washington as well as the broader transatlantic alliance.
3. The War in Afghanistan
Britain has 10,000 troops fighting in Afghanistan, and is the largest contributor to the NATO-led mission after the United States. At present, all three main parties are against an immediate withdrawal of forces, despite strong public opposition to the war. However, a hung parliament with a minority government in place would make a firm long-term commitment to the war a far more difficult proposition for the public. In addition, if the Liberal Democrats have any role or influence in the next government, they are likely to press for a more rapid exit strategy for Afghanistan. It is also important to note that NATO is not even mentioned in the Liberal party manifesto, a clear sign of where their thinking lies on the Afghan mission.
4. The Iranian Nuclear Crisis
The Iranian nuclear threat is likely to be the top foreign policy issue confronting the United States and Great Britain over the next two years. The Conservatives are notably more hawkish than the other major parties on Iran, and have made it clear they will support the use of force if necessary against Iran’s nuclear facilities. David Cameron is likely to seek a prominent leadership role for Britain on the world stage on the Iranian nuclear question. In contrast, the Liberals are adamantly opposed to any military action against Tehran, and have been almost completely silent on the Iranian issue. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been relatively low key on Iran, unlike his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy, and if he remains in Downing Street he is unlikely to play a leading role in addressing the Iranian threat.
5. The War on Terror
The British election will have important implications for the UK’s national security strategy. The Conservatives are likely to back most aspects of the U.S.-led war on terror, and of the three British parties they are by far the most committed to addressing the threat of Islamist terrorism in the UK, which has a direct impact on U.S. national security as well. David Cameron has pledged to outlaw some Islamist groups operating in Britain such as Hitzb ut-Tahrir. On the opposite side of the political spectrum, Nick Clegg is strongly opposed to the war on terror, and has accused his own country of complicity in the “torture” of terror suspects. Neither the Liberals nor Labour have made the fight against terrorism a priority issue in their manifestos, and have almost completely ignored it as a campaign issue. If the Liberals play a key role in the next government, especially on national security, there may be significant, negative implications for Britain’s intelligence services and their ability to collaborate with their American counterparts.