, LONDON, May 7 – Opposition Conservatives won most seats on Friday in Britain\’s knife-edge election but failed to land a knockout blow on premier Gordon Brown, sparking a potentially bitter and prolonged power struggle.
Britain was forced into a hung parliament for the first time since 1974 after the Conservatives finished short of an absolute majority of seats, but their leader David Cameron insisted Brown had lost his mandate to govern.
The centre-left prime minister\’s key allies said his Labour party, which has ruled since 1997, would try to cling to power by seeking a deal with the centrist Liberal Democrats, who finished third in the election.
But Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said the Conservatives, as the largest party in the new parliament, had the "first right to seek to govern".
"It seems this morning that it is the Conservative Party that has more votes and more seats though not an absolute majority," he said.
"That is why I think it is now for the Conservative Party to prove that it is capable of seeking to govern in the national interest."
It was the first indication that the Lib Dems would be prepared to strike a deal with the Conservatives.
The Conservatives said Cameron would make a statement at 1330 GMT setting out "how he will seek to form a government that is strong and stable with broad support, that acts in the national interest".
Brown\’s de facto deputy Peter Mandelson said earlier Labour would be prepared to consider an alliance with the Liberal Democrats that would allow it to remain in power for a fourth term.
"Obviously we would be prepared to consider that," he told Sky News.
But Mandelson poured scorn on suggestions that Brown should stand down immediately. "I think that would be rather a surprising thing to happen… I don\’t think it would help matters if he were suddenly to stand aside," he said.
Brown also suggested he wanted to stay in power, but said it was his duty to "play my part in Britain having a strong, stable and principled government".
With 28 of the 650 seats still to be declared, the Conservatives had 292 lawmakers compared to 251 for Labour, making it impossible for the Tories to win the 326 seats they need to govern alone in the House of Commons.
Despite their potential role as kingmakers, the Liberal Democrats won just 52 seats – a disastrous showing after they had seen a surge of support in the campaign on the back of Clegg\’s strong performances in the leaders\’ TV debates.
After he retained his seat in Witney, southern England, Cameron tried to grab the momentum for the Conservatives by insisting Britain was crying out for "new leadership" after 13 years of Labour.
"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."
Some commentators said the only solution to the deadlock might be fresh elections.
"The more we hear of the different permutations of who might work with whom after tonight, the more I feel there is only one certainty: we\’ll be having another general election before too long," said the Guardian newspaper.
The uncertainty had an immediate effect on the pound, which plunged to its lowest level against the dollar in more than a year on Friday.
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 assembly.
High-profile Labour losses included former interior minister Jacqui Smith, who was caught up in an expenses scandal after claiming for porn films for her husband. She lost her seat in Redditch, central England, to the Conservatives.
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 2100 GMT when polling stations closed.
Justice Secretary Jack Straw said legal challenges could not be ruled out, while the Electoral Commission watchdog launched an investigation.