The result would bear out predictions that this election would not give any party a majority, resulting in a destabilizing period of political wrangling and uncertainty.
LONDON — David Cameron’s rejuvenated Conservatives captured far more seats than Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s battered Labour Party but failed to win an absolute majority Thursday in Britain’s national election, according to television projections.
The exit polls did not bode well for Brown, Britain’s prime minister since 2007, and triggered uncertainty over who will form the next government. The country’s top three parties — the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats — immediately began jockeying to form alliances.
An analysis by Britain’s main television stations suggested the Conservatives will win 305 of the 650 House of Commons seats, short of the 326 seats needed for a majority. Labour was seen winning 255 seats and the Liberal Democrats 61, far less than had been expected after their support surged during the campaign.
If the results bear out these projections, a period of political wrangling and uncertainty is ahead for one of the world’s largest economies — a prospect that could unsettle global markets already reeling from the Greek debt crisis and fears of wider debt contagion in Europe.
A period of instability — or a weak government — would also likely depress investors who are hoping for a leadership strong enough to make the tough decisions needed to resolve Britain’s huge budget deficit.
In New York, the British pound sank to its lowest point in a year to trade at $1.4715.
Conservative leaders were adamant that the results meant Brown must go — but senior Labour figures lost no time in reaching out to the Liberal Democrats in hopes of blocking Cameron.
Business Secretary Peter Mandelson of Labour noted that in a “hung parliament” — one in which no party has a clear majority — the sitting prime minister is traditionally given the first chance to form a government.
He extended an olive branch to the Liberal Democrats, who have called for an end to the existing system in which the number of districts won — not the popular vote — determines who leads the country.
“There has to be electoral reform as a result of this election,” Mandelson said. The current system, he said, “is on its last legs.”
But such a coalition might still not work because the projections showed those two parties combined might still fall short of a majority. The gambit would also risk alienating many in Britain, a country without a constitution where political maneuvers are often governed by informal convention.
The projections showed the Labor Party with its smallest number of seats since 1987. The Conservatives appeared to gain 95 seats, all but one at the expense of Labour.
Turnout appeared to be high and hundreds of people across the country were turned away and prevented from voting when polls closed at 10 p.m.
Police said they were called to a polling station in east London when about 50 angry voters denied the chance to cast their ballot staged a sit-in protest. Voters in Sheffield, Newcastle and elsewhere in London also complained that they had been denied a vote.
The head of Britain’s Electoral Commission says legal challenges to some ballot results were likely.
Hard results began to trickle in about an hour after polls closed. The first three seats to declare were all Labour seats that the party held.
The Tories were adamant that Brown must go.
Theresa May, a senior Conservative Party lawmaker, said the incumbent Labour party had lost “the legitimacy to govern.”
“No way this man, who has failed this electoral task, can contemplate forming a government,” Conservative Party chairman Eric Pickles said.
The biggest surprise of the night was the poor performance of the upstart Liberal Democrats, whose telegenic leader Nick Clegg had shot to prominence on the back of stellar debate performances and had been expected to play the role of kingmaker. Instead of breaking out of perennial third-party status with strong gains, the party ended up losing three seats.
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Vince Cable described the outcome of the exit poll as “very strange” and insisted they had been “horribly wrong” in the past.
Cameron’s hefty lead gives him a strong chance to return the party of rightwing icon Margaret Thatcher to power after 13 years in the political wilderness. But he may have to seek deals with Irish nationalists or others.
In theory, a majority requires 326 seats. However, in practice Cameron could govern as a minority government with a dozen or so fewer because of ad hoc alliances he could form for key votes, and the fact that some parties would be unlikely to join a discredited Labour camp.
The results may yet change. Projecting elections based on exit polls is inherently risky — particularly in an exceptionally close election like this one. Polls are based on samples — in this case 18,000 respondents — and always have some margin of error.
Britain’s census is nine years out of date and the polling districts haven’t caught up to population shifts. Many voters also refuse to respond to exit polls.
Thousands have also already cast postal ballots but those results don’t factor into the exit polls. About 12 percent cast postal ballots in 2005.
It has been an electrifying and unpredictable race and the drama appears set to continue for days if not weeks.
The Tories are hoping to regain power for the first time since 1997, when they were ousted by Labour under Tony Blair. After three leaders and three successive election defeats, the party selected Cameron, a fresh-faced, bicycle-riding graduate of Eton and Oxford who promised to modernize the party’s fusty, right-wing image.
The stakes are high: Under Brown, Britain’s once high-flying economy, rooted in world-leading financial services, has run into hard times. The nation creaks under mountains of public debt and fears are rife that Greece’s financial crisis could spread and infect the United Kingdom. That could unsettle global markets as well.
On the eve of the vote came a somber warning from the European Union: Britain’s budget deficit is set to eclipse even that of Greece next year. Whoever wins faces the daunting challenge of introducing big budget cuts to slash Britain’s huge deficit.
Robert Worcester, an analyst for pollster IPSOS Mori, said the Liberal Democrats, poor showing came down to one factor: “Turnout.”
“The Liberal Democrat turnout has been low,” Worcester said. “They said they would vote and they didn’t.”
Despite the uncertainty, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — a known supporter of Cameron — said on his Twitter feed he’d already called the Tory leader to congratulate him.
“Even though results aren’t in we know the Conservatives had a great day,” Schwarzenegger wrote.