UK Conservatives seen as largest party, no majority

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain was set for an inconclusive result to its closest election in three decades, with a forecast making the opposition Conservatives the largest party, but just short of a parliamentary majority.

An exit poll, which surveyed around 20,000 people out of around 45 million Britons eligible to vote yesterday, suggested Britain was on course for its first “hung parliament” since 1974.

Sterling fell to its lowest level in over a year against the dollar, with traders worrying about potentially long and complex talks over who should lead the government.

A Conservative spokesman said that the centre-right party would have a “basis to govern” if the forecast of winning around 305 seats in the 650-member parliament held true.

Adding to the confusion, there were reports from across the country that hundreds of people had been turned away from polling stations without voting when polls closed at 2100 GMT.

The exit poll suggested the centre-right Conservatives were likely to win 305 seats and Labour 255 seats in the lower House of Commons, both short of the 326 needed for a majority.

It put the Liberal Democrats, who had been expected to perform strongly, on 61 seats — surprisingly down two on their current number in parliament. The exit poll initially predicted 307 seats for the Conservatives and 59 for the Lib Dems.

Outgoing Prime Minister Gordon Brown would get the first chance to try to form a government under rules governing a hung parliament, but analysts said the most likely scenario was a Conservative minority government led by David Cameron.

“(It will lead to) almost certainly a minority government led by Cameron. Cameron is going to try and get policy programmes into place, demonstrate his competence and then call a second election this autumn or next spring,” said Mark Wickham-Jones, professor of political science at Bristol University.

Centre-left Labour, in power since 1997, made it clear it would not relinquish power easily.

“The rules are that if it’s a hung parliament, it’s not the party with the largest number of seats that has first go, it’s the sitting government,” Business Secretary Peter Mandelson said.

The first two constituencies to report — both in north-east England — returned Labour candidates but with a substantially reduced share of vote, much of it going to the Conservatives. If that pattern was repeated across the nation, it would give the Conservatives an overall majority in parliament.

Conservative Ken Clarke said markets wanted a government capable of tackling debt and deficit problems.

“I think the key thing is to produce a strong and stable government which we particularly need,” he said.

The next government will have to deal with a record budget deficit running in excess of 11 percent of national output, and demands for political reform following a parliamentary expenses scandal last year which left Britons disgusted with lawmakers.

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