The British people has spoken, but, as it was said last night, it is not clear what they have said, as the results of the parliamentary election send a message which is hard to interpret. However, it might seem as if Gordon Brown wants to reply what US presidential hopeful Mo Udall said after being defeated in a primary in 1975: “The people has spoken. The bastards”.
With all 649 constituencies counted, the Conservative Party has won 36 % (up 5 %), the Labour Party 29 % (down 6 %) and the Liberal Democrats 23 % (up 1 %), leaving the other parties with 12 % (up 2 %). Because of the electoral system with single member constituencies, this translates into the Conservatives winning 306 seats in the House of Commons (up 97), Labour 258 seats (down 89), the Liberal Democrats 57 (down 5) and others 28 (down 3).
This leaves no party with the 326 seats necessary to form a majority government, a phenomenon which is called a “hung parliament” and which has not occured in Britain since the election of February 1974.
This is in fact a defeat for all parties. Two years ago hardly anyone doubted that the Tories would win the next election and failing to do so when opposing an unpopular Prime Minister whose party has been in party for thirteen years is quite a significant failure. The Liberal Democrats’s strong showings in the polls recently failed to materialise into electoral success - despite the small increase in the percentage of votes, they actually lost seats in Parliament.
But the biggest defeat is for Labour and Gordon Brown, who has clearly failed to convince voters that they deserve a fourth term. Thus it is even more embarrasing to see that those who said Gordon Brown would cling to No 10 until all his fingers were broken away from the doorknob were apparently right.
True to his words that he would first talk to the party with the strongest mandate, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has agreed to talks with David Cameron about a coalition or at least a form of co-operation. And a coalition between Labour and the LibDems, which I personally would have thought the best possible outcome, will not in itself be able to command a parliamentary majority.
Yet Gordon Brown, despite coming second in the poll, seems intent on remaining at No 10 at any cost, having declared that he is willing to talk with any party. Edward Heath did the same in 1974, when he remained in office after failing to win a majority, while attempting to form a coalition with the Liberal Party. After four days he gave in and Harold Wilson formed a minority government. Wilson called a new general election eight months later, which gave him a narrow majority of three. I would not be surprised if the chaotic result of yesterday’s election also leads to a new election within a year or so.
As prime minister it is Gordon Brown’s constitutional right to remain so until another party wins a parliamentary majority or he is defeated in the House of Commons. But if the Tories and the LibDems succeed in agreeing on a coalition, Brown should have the dignity to step aside before someone finds it right to say to him what Oliver Cromwell told the Rump Parliament when dispersing it in 1653, words which Leo Amery repeated to Neville Chamberlain during the Norway Debate of 1940: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately. Depart I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God go!”