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Who Has a Mandate to Govern in Britain?

10:17 a.m. ET — Now it’s Cameron’s Turn

10:17 a.m. ET — Now it’s Cameron’s Turn
A moment of high drama … Conservative leader David Cameron, looking vigorous and energized despite having had no more than a few hours sleep, began an open and quite remarkable wooing of the Liberal Democrats. Making a televised statement to the nation, he urged the Lib Dems and their leader Nick Clegg to join the Conservatives in creating a stable government “in the national interest.” It was left unsaid whether it would be as a coalition with Lib Dems in the cabinet or an agreed deal to support him in return for specific pledges on bringing change to the electoral system. What made Cameron’s speech remarkable was that this is traditionally the kind of discussion that takes place behind closed doors (no more smoke-filled rooms … nobody smokes). Cameron spoke of a “big, open and comprehensive” offer and he told his own supporters there are areas where the Conservatives “can give ground” to the Lib Dems. Specifics about the offer will be discussed over the next day or so.

Whatever happens in the discussions, the statement will play well in the country. Cameron looked the part of prime minister. If the talks with Nick Clegg come to nothing — a possibility — Cameron has effectively begun to create in the public mind the idea that he is the next prime minister.

9:04 a.m. ET — Brown Addresses Country

Gordon Brown refreshed and sober-looking came out of 10 Downing Street and addressed the nation. He began by pointing out that the functions of government continue: his Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling is taking part in a conference call among G-7 treasury ministers today to discuss the implications of the Greek crisis on the euro and the global recovery. Then he came to the point: he had no problem with Nick Clegg saying that David Cameron having won the most seats should have a chance to form a government. Then he added, the Labour Party was prepared to talk to any party about forming a coalition government whose first order of business would be a referendum on changing Britain’s flawed voting system.

Then he turned around and walked back inside. Next up to make a statement, David Cameron.

8:17 a.m. ET — First chance for Tories?

Things are beginning to move. At 11 a.m. Clegg announced that since the Tories won the most votes and seats, “It is now for the Conservative party to prove that it is capable of seeking to govern in the national interest.” In other words, it was Cameron who should get the first chance to form a government. We will know what David Cameron is planning when he speaks to the nation at 2:30 local time (9:30 East Coast).

7:28 a.m. ET —Things Still Unclear
Gordon Brown is back at 10 Downing Street this morning having a nap. How long he remains there after he wakes up is unclear, like virtually everything else about this election.

As of 9 a.m. Friday in Britain there were 40 parliamentary seats where votes were still being counted. The Conservative Party is on course to win the most seats, about 306, roughly 20 short of the majority in the House of Commons that would give them victory. British voters have created a hung parliament and what happens next is up for discussion. Nevertheless, Conservative leader David Cameron said Gordon Brown had lost his mandate to govern. Whether Cameron has that mandate is as uncertain as anything else.

One thing is clear through the fog. The Liberal Democrats, whose surge in the public opinion polls following their leader Nick Clegg’s barnstorming debate performances, failed to translate that surge into seats. In fact they will end up with fewer seats than they won in 2005 despite increasing their share of the vote. That brings us to the crucial point about the horse trading that will go on in the next 24 hours over who forms the next government.

Britain’s first past the post system does not always reward the voters. The British electorate, despite former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s best efforts, remains primarily center-left in its preferences. When all the votes are finally counted, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are likely to have won the majority of votes cast: about 52 percent. That voter preference does not translate into seats however, and so, the odds have to remain on the Conservatives to form the next government. Cameron & Co. could just about govern by claiming the support of Northern Ireland’s Unionist parties — they did that the last time there was a hung parliament back in 1974. That alliance lasted all of nine months.

But what is a mandate in the United Kingdom anyway? The Conservatives are essentially a party of southern and rural England, not the whole United Kingdom. That didn’t change last night. They hold one seat in Scotland and not even a quarter of the seats in Wales. That is not a broad endorsement from the nation as a whole. It certainly doesn’t match the precedent shattering election of 1997 when Tony Blair led Labour to victory after 18 years of Conservative governments. Labour took seats in every part of the country.

Another way of looking at the mandate question is this: Since the last election in 2005 Britain has endured the worst economic crisis since World War II, seen a change of prime ministers without the voters getting their say — the PM in question being Gordon Brown whose approval ratings at one point dipped into the teens — and all the while the country has been mired in a war in Afghanistan that seems unwinnable, yet the Conservative share of the vote only went up by 3 percent. If Cameron has a mandate it is a weak one, even if that 3 percent translated into a hundred more parliamentary seats.

Anyway, that is something to chew over while the final votes are tallied and the hush-hush phone calls among the party leaders go on as they try to find their way out of the electoral fog.

Here is something very clear: if you like politics or are just an Anglophile the next 48 hours will be a compelling story to follow.

Read a live blog of last night’s results.