Your typical UK election usually yields a clear winning party with an outright majority in parliament.
After a heated election campaign, the leader of the winning party congratulates the losers on putting up a good effort, then heads to Buckingham Palace for tea with the queen, who confirms him or her as the new prime minister of Britain.
But this was no typical election. The British polls closed at 10 p.m. local time (5 pm EST), and early exit polls indicate no outright winner.
Instead, it appears, that Britain now has a "hung parliament." The BBC projected 307 seats for the opposition Conservative Party, 19 seats short of a majority, with the Labour Party of incumbent Prime Minister Gordon Brown dropping to 255 seats. These numbers should be taken with a grain of salt since the final results, not due out for hours, are almost certain to be somewhat different.
But the absence of a clear majority is complicating the usual day after visit with the queen, and may see her role expanded beyond the broadly ceremonial one she generally occupies. She generally just "invites" the clear winner to form a government.
Now, Prime Minister Gordon Brown is likely to drive to the palace with neither a clear mandate govern, nor a clear successor to bow before. On Friday, he could either resign, stating that he does not have the ability to form a majority government, or else advise her that he intends to form a coalition with another party, or parties.
What the Queen does next is now a delicate matter. She theoretically has the power to exercise her own judgment as to who is most likely to be able to cobble together a coalition, and could invited either Mr. Brown or Tory leader David Cameron to do so. But that would be an unusual political intervention in a country whose traditions have left the reigning monarch as the head of state, but whose actions almost always are rubber stamps of the wills of voters and their elected representatives.
The Daily Telegraph reported Thursday that Queen Elizabeth II may delay a meeting with either leader until signs are clear over which man can attract the support from other parties to form a government.
"If Labour has won the most seats, Gordon Brown would be asked to try to form a government and could seek a deal with the Liberal Democrats. Mr Brown would be in a position to do a similar deal if he has only narrowly lost to the Tories," the paper wrote, citing a paper from a senior civil servant advising the queen on how she should handle the matter. "However, if Mr. Cameron has clearly 'won,' Mr. Brown would be under extreme pressure to concede and allow the Tory leader to try to form a government coalition or, more probably, lead a minority administration."
If the BBC's exit poll holds up, it's hard to see the queen asking Brown to give forming the next government a shot. The LibDem's were projected to have won 59 seats, enough votes to deliver 10 Downing Street to Cameron, but not enough for Brown to hold on. For Brown to form a government he'd need the LibDems plus 12 more seats from the various smaller parties that won a spot in parliament (29 total).
The only thing that's certain now is frantic horse trading between the parties tonight.