MARGARET WARNER: Now to that no-decision British election. We start with a report from Simon Marks.
SIMON MARKS: As the votes were counted late into the night and early into the morning all over Britain, it soon became clear that the country was indeed sailing into uncharted political waters.
The election proved to be a disaster for all three major political party leaders. Gordon Brown suffered a drubbing at the polls. His ruling Labor Party lost 90 seats in parliament, though last night he claimed he was down but not necessarily out.
GORDON BROWN, prime minister, United Kingdom: 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.
SIMON MARKS: That’s because David Cameron of the opposition Conservatives failed to win a mandate of his own. His party gained more than 95 seats in parliament, its best result for 80 years. But it fell short of securing enough of them to enjoy an outright majority, and therefore the automatic right for Mr. Cameron to become the country’s next prime minister.
To secure power, he wants the support of Nick Clegg, leader of the third-ranked Liberal Democrats. Despite the electricity Clegg generated on the campaign trail and in televised debates, the Liberal Democrats actually lost seats in parliament.
But still the potential king-maker in British politics, Nick Clegg quickly opened the door to coalition negotiations with David Cameron and the Conservatives.
NICK CLEGG, leader, Liberal Democrat Party: It is now for the Conservative Party to prove that it is capable of seeking to govern in the national interest.
SIMON MARKS: Within hours, David Cameron seized on the opportunity presented by Nick Clegg’s willingness to begin a conversation.
DAVID CAMERON, leader, Conservative Party: I want to make a big, open and comprehensive offer to the Liberal Democrats. I want us to work together in tackling our country’s big and urgent problems– the debt crisis, our deep social problems, and our broken political system.
SIMON MARKS: Gordon Brown remained holed up in his Downing Street office. There were no traditional post-election pictures of moving vans arriving to escort the loser out of power. Late today, he said he’ll let Conservative/Liberal negotiations play out.
GORDON BROWN: I understand and completely respect the position of Mr. Clegg in stating that he wishes first to make contact with the leader of the Conservative Party.
Clearly, should the discussions between Mr. Cameron and Mr. Clegg come to nothing, then I would of course be prepared to discuss with Mr. Clegg the areas where there may be some measure of agreement between our two parties.
SIMON MARKS: So where does Britain go from here? All signs point to several days of uncertainty as the three party leaders jockey for position and horse-trade over policies in negotiations to create some kind of workable agreement.
For now, it’s impossible to predict just who will end up walking through the door of 10 Downing Street.
But it is possible to identify one of the key issues that will dominate coalition discussions — the Liberal Democrats’ passionate belief in reform of Britain’s electoral system.
They want the country to embrace proportional representation, a voting system used in many European countries that would give the country’s smaller political parties much more muscle in its parliament.
David Cameron moved quickly today to signal his willingness to discuss the issue.
DAVID CAMERON: I believe we will need an all-party committee of inquiry on political and electoral reform. So I think we have a strong basis for a strong government.
Inevitably, the negotiations we’re about to start will involve compromise. That is what working together in the national interest means.
ANTHONY HOWARD, political commentator: My view is that we’re going to see another election. Probably this year. If not this year, then very early next year.
SIMON MARKS: Britain is in for much political churn, says commentator Anthony Howard, a former deputy editor of “The Observer” newspaper. But the Gordon Brown era, he believes, is sure to end.
ANTHONY HOWARD: It’s also crystal clear that the Conservatives got sizeable, much larger slice of the national vote than he did. And though it’s difficult to know who won this election, one has to say we do know who lost it, and the one who lost is Gordon Brown.
SIMON MARKS: In Finchley and Golders Green, that closely-contested north London district the NewsHour profiled on Wednesday, it was the Conservative candidate who romped to victory.
Mike Freer will now be a member of parliament, but like everyone else, he doesn’t know if his leader, David Cameron, will be prime minister.
MIKE FREER, member of Parliament-elect, Conservative Party: Well, I think it’s not surprising that the prime minister will try to cling to power, despite having clearly lost the election, lost the popular vote and lost the confidence of the country.
And I think, well, as I understand the constitutional niceties, he really should step down and let a fresh party try and form a government.
SIMON MARKS: In the west London area of Notting Hill today, and across the country, voters were reacting to an era of uncertainty in British politics that many analysts argue reflects broad dissatisfaction with all the main political parties.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I think it is a great display of immaturity on the part of the British politicians that they can’t actually now say, “OK, we have to work together which is what the result is.”
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I think it was quite predicted to be the case. And I think it’s — I hope it’s going to be a good outcome, I hope that it means that parliament will have to be made up of people who are working together more than it has been in the past.
SIMON MARKS: And the drama that got underway in Britain today could soon involve another major player in British society.
In the event of a closely fought election, Queen Elizabeth II — usually thought of as merely a ceremonial head of state — has the constitutional power to determine which political leader is invited to form a government.
And that government needs to be formed soon. Parliament is due to reconvene on May 18, with the Queen ceremonially opening it one week later.