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The British election: A guide

Want to know what "hung parliament" and "first past the post" mean? Read on.

  • Britain doesn't have a constitution in the sense that the United States and other democracies have one. It has centuries of traditions, precedents and laws that are considered "constitutional," but no single written document called a constitution outlining the rules of an election. The cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, Britain's top civil servant, has drawn up guidelines to be used in the event of a hung parliament. It is based on previous precedents, like 1974. But they are just guidelines, they don't have the force of law and if one party wants to aggressively challenge them, well, journalists will be very busy.
  • Scenarios: based on the latest polling, a hung parliament is the likely result of Thursday's vote, with the Conservatives winning the most seats but about nine seats short of a majority. Custom and Sir Gus O'Donnell say the serving prime minister, in this case Gordon Brown, is given the first chance to form a government. Brown would enter negotiations with Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, whose first demand would be legislation to change the voting system to something like proportional representation. Clegg has also said that if Labour comes in third in the overall vote Brown would have to resign.

But the spin has begun and David Cameron's circle has been giving unattributable quotes to journalists indicating their man could demand the right to set up a minority government based on winning more popular votes as well as the most seats. As of today, this is the most likely scenario. Like Heath in 1974, Cameron could set up a loose coalition government with the Ulster Unionists, try and pass some popular legislation, like rescinding Labour's expensive and unloved plans for everyone to have bio-metric identity cards, and build on that momentum to call another election in the autumn in the hopes of winning his outright majority. Cameron has to be careful though: Heath tried the same thing in October 1974 — and lost.

There is a third possibility: The Conservatives close with a rush and win a majority.

But if you follow the wisdom of crowds you would have to say that is unlikely. As of now, most wagers at sports betting sites in Britain are still on the Conservatives as the largest party in a hung parliament. Come Friday, we might get a chance to see how long Sir Gus's guidelines last.