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Hung Parliament, Political Brinkmanship Anticipated After U.K. Election

The votes are being counted in Britain's heated national elections, as three parties attempted to claim a majority in Parliament. Margaret Warner gets the latest after the close of the polls from reporter Ned Temko in London.

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    And Margaret Warner has more.


    And for latest on today's elections, we turn now to Ned Temko, a writer for The Observer, the Sunday edition of The Guardian newspaper in London. He's writing a book about British politics.

    And, Ned Temko, welcome.

    What do you think we can tell, based on the exit polls and the very, very sketchy actual count that's in?

  • NED TEMKO, The Observer:

    Not a lot.

    I mean, if these exit polls are correct, it will be an extraordinary election. It will be the first time in 36 years that none of the major parties, has had a working majority in the Commons. And if that indeed happens we're in for a lot of horse-trading and a lot of kind of political brinkmanship, because both of the major parties, Labor and the Conservatives, will want a first crack at forming a government.

    But the one very important caveat is, as you say, very few votes have actually been counted. I think two of the 650 constituencies have so far reported. So, it's a long night. And they will change the exit poll in the next few hours. They have already amended it a tiny bit, so that I think the latest Conservative projection is now 305 seats, instead of 307.

    But the fact is, we're pointed towards what's called a hung Parliament, with no overall majority for either party.


    So, right now, it's 6:30 Eastern time. It's 11:30 in London. How soon will at least enough of the vote be in from the actual constituencies to have a pretty good idea about whether the exit polls are on the right track?


    Well, the closer an election like this is, the longer it takes.

    I think the — the expectation is that, sometime in the next two or three hours, we will have a much better idea. I mean, the reality is, there are 650 seats in the House of Commons. A good 400 or so — more, 450, probably — are safe seats. That is to say, Labor or the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats have held them comfortably enough for long enough that you can sort of pencil them in as winners again for this election.

    The outcome of the election will be decided on 100, 150 marginal constituencies. And that's what we're waiting for. When we get a significant number of those, we will know what the swing is.

    I think, generally, the exit poll is correct in the following sense. The Conservatives will probably be the largest party. They will have the most seats. Labor will be second. The Liberal Democrats will be third. But the arithmetic is absolutely crucial, because that will determine who's prime minister and what kind of deals get — get made.


    Now, this is also complicated by an anomaly, which is that there can be a disparity between the percentage of the total popular vote that a party wins and, actually, the percentage or number of seats that that party gets in Parliament.

    Explain, if you can, simply, to an American audience why that is.


    I mean, for lots of reasons, but the main one is that the way the districts of — or the borders of these electoral districts are drawn is not perfectly equal.

    So, therefore, for instance, some Labor seats will be, let's say, 80,000 or 90,000 voters in each constituency. Some of the Tory seats, just by accident of geography, will be 30,000, 40,000. So, therefore, you can't just extrapolate from the popular vote to how many seats.

    But, in calculating this exit poll, I think they have made some of that calculation. The real question mark is, because it is so close, whether the Tories in these 100, 150 seats, these marginal seats I'm talking about, will do better than the national average, in which case they — the exit poll will change, or whether they will do a little worse.




    And it really depends on who you talk to. The Tories are quite upbeat — the Conservatives, that is. Labor is putting a brave face on it.

    The real puzzle here is the Liberal Democrats, who were supposed to have made this huge breakthrough. And, unless the exit poll is wrong, which it may be, they seem to have done more disappointingly than they had hoped.


    So, explain what — what are the best scenarios, the most likely scenarios — I'm not asking you to predict — but possible scenarios, then, for tomorrow?


    Well, the two main ones, if the Conservatives get an absolute majority, unlike in the states, a changeover of power here is almost instantaneous.

    David Cameron would be in Number 10 Downing Street sometime early tomorrow afternoon. Gordon Brown, the prime minister, would call in a moving van. So, that's the simplest outcome.

    If there is not an absolute majority, but the Tories, the Conservatives, have the largest single number of votes, it will be fascinating, because, basically, there will be a lot of pressure, particularly from the Conservatives, to say that, because the Conservatives have the largest vote number and seat number, they should get the first attempt to form a government.

    The rules in Britain, the constitutional convention, is quite the opposite. The prime minister remains prime minister until he resigns. And you could see Gordon Brown and Labor, as, indeed, they have indicated they will do, holding on and trying to form a coalition themselves, until they're absolutely sure they can't do that.




    And, if that happens, we could be in for three, four days, even a week, 10 days, of quite — quite delicate negotiations.


    So, just to be clear here, Gordon Brown could say: "I don't really care what the popular vote is. I'm still prime minister. I'm not leaving this chair. I'm going to try to make some deals"?


    Yes. And, basically, that's what the rules say.

    I mean, there's been a lot of criticism of the rules, but, in a country where all of this is done on precedent, because there's not a written constitution, civil servants in Downing Street and elsewhere have drawn up this — this kind of rule book.

    And, indeed, in 1974, the last time there was a hung Parliament, there was a Conservative prime minister who did much less well than Labor had done in the polls, but held on for a few days, tried to make a deal, and finally had to give up. And Labor, at that point, which was opposition, formed a minority government.


    All right.


    That's what the Conservatives are hoping will happen this year. But it — it really depends on exactly how many seats each of them have.


    All right. Well, Ned Temko, thank you so much for leading us at least through the beginning of this labyrinth.

    Thanks so much.

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