, WITNEY, May 7 – Britain was plunged into political limbo Friday as the opposition Conservatives came top in a knife-edge general election but failed to deliver an immediate knock-out blow to Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
While Conservative leader David Cameron insisted Brown had lost his mandate, key allies of the prime minister indicated his party would bid to cling to power in a deal with the third party, the centrist Liberal Democrats.
Brown\’s de facto deputy Peter Mandelson said Labour would "obviously" be prepared to consider such an alliance while another senior cabinet minister, Welsh Secretary Peter Hain, said the prime minister was entitled to have first shot at trying to form a government.
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."
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 himself 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.
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 the Labour party 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.
At 4:00am (0300 GMT), the Conservatives had won 147 seats, Labour 120 and the Liberal Democrats 23 — on target to be far short of the breakthrough predicted for Nick Clegg\’s party during the election campaign.
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."
The results were being eagerly watched on the financial markets — London\’s LIFFE futures exchange opened more than six hours early to satisfy huge election night demand.
The pound sterling and British government bonds fell back slightly after initial gains on early results.
Senior Conservative Kenneth Clarke, a former finance minister, said that the markets were looking out for "a strong and stable government".
"Quite a lot of rather sharp traders will be placing their bets on whether or not Britain is capable of producing a strong and sensible government," he added.
More than 45 million voters were eligible to cast ballots, with observers predicting turnout could be as high as 70 percent after an unusual campaign transformed by the first televised leaders\’ debates in a British election.
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 (2100 GMT) 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".
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.
Exit polls have a mixed track record of accurately predicting the outcome of British general elections in recent years. Forecasts in the last close race in 1992 were a long way out but in the last election in 2005 they proved correct.