Election: Who will lead Britain if no one wins?

Just a day before Britons go to the polls, politicians and parliamentary experts are getting ready to answer a tricky question they haven’t faced in decades: Under Britain’s unwritten constitutional rules, who gets the keys to No. 10 Downing Street in the event of an inconclusive result?

Polls suggest the election will produce a hung Parliament, in which no party wins enough seats to govern outright and a period of wrangling replaces the usual day-after-an election ritual, which sees the victorious party leader drive to Buckingham Palace, where Queen Elizabeth II asks him or her to form a government.

“The normal thing is someone wins, someone loses, the guy who loses will resign by lunchtime and will advise the queen to call for the person who’s won,” said Peter Riddell, senior fellow at the Institute for Government, said Wednesday.

Maybe not this time.

Whatever happens, Gordon Brown will still be prime minister Friday morning. Convention holds that, in the event of a hung Parliament, the sitting prime minister gets the first chance to try to form a government — even if his party wins fewer seats than the opposition — by making a formal coalition or a looser alliance with another party. But it’s likely that the deeply unpopular Brown may not be able to muster enough support in parliament to cling to power.

That opens the way to a potentially chaotic few weeks in which Britain’s centuries-old parliamentary system could come under unprecedented pressure and scrutiny amid demands for an overhaul of the electoral system.

“Brown gets first dibs at trying to establish a coalition,” said attorney Gavin Millar, an expert in constitutional law. “If he can’t do that he has to resign and the queen invites the next one down the constitutional pecking order, which would be Cameron.”

Britain’s so-called first-past-the-post parliamentary system usually produces a clear result: One party gets more than half the seats in the House of Commons — 326 is the magic number — and its leader becomes prime minister.

If one party gets the most seats but less than half the total — as the polls suggest will happen on Thursday — it’s known as a hung Parliament, and things get a little complicated.

The last time a British election produced a hung Parliament was in 1974. Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath got fewer seats than Labour but was given a shot at forming a coalition with the Liberals. When he failed, he resigned and the queen asked Labour leader Harold Wilson to form a government. His minority administration staggered along for about six months, when Wilson called a new election, which he won.

Although Britain has no written constitution, senior civil servants have been preparing furiously to lay out the rules and avoid market-rattling uncertainty in the event of a hung parliament.

The country’s top civil servant, Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell, has visited New Zealand, which has had a hung Parliaments for more than a decade, and civil servants have drawn up guidelines detailing what happens in such cases.

“There won’t be a constitutional crisis, but there could be a political crisis,” said Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at Oxford University.

“We are facing a large budget deficit, and it’s not clear we will get a government with the authority to do it that would satisfy the markets. The markets want a clear, quick decision.”


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