Reporting from London — Despite falling short of a majority in Parliament, Conservative leader David Cameron claimed the right to head Britain's next government Friday, inviting the smaller Liberal Democrats to join him in an effort to soothe world markets nervous over legislative stalemate.
Cameron tried to seize the momentum of the Tories' strong finish in Thursday's national poll, which landed them the most seats in the House of Commons and ended 13 years of Labor Party dominance.
Though he stopped short of using the word "coalition," he urged the third-place Liberal Democrats to act quickly on his "big, open and comprehensive offer" to join the Conservatives in governing on areas of common ground. Cameron warned that delay meant risking turmoil like that hammering Greece and other parts of Europe if Britain did not take immediate steps to rein in its runaway budget deficit of about 12% of gross domestic product.
"The world is looking to Britain for decisive action," Cameron said. "The new government must grip this deficit and prevent the economic catastrophe that will result from putting off the difficult and urgent action that needs to be taken."
Cameron's appeal came a few hours after the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, said that the Conservative Party had earned "the first right" at forming a government "either on its own or by reaching out to other parties." The two men reportedly held their first postelection discussion Friday afternoon.
But Labor, a distant second in the results, was not giving up. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who constitutionally remains in office until a new government takes power, tried some wooing of his own in hopes of staying put at 10 Downing St., the official residence he has inhabited for nearly three years.
He proposed a national referendum on reforming Britain's traditional voting system, which critics say often punishes smaller parties and produces governments lacking truly popular mandates. The Liberal Democrats have lobbied for such changes for years, and Brown's offer was a clear play for their support in some kind of "Lib-Lab" alliance.
"There needs to be immediate legislation on this to begin to restore the public trust in politics and to improve Parliament's standing and reputation," Brown said.
In contrast to Cameron, he did not counsel haste in putting a government in place, instead exhorting all parties to act responsibly in figuring out how best to deal with Britain's first "hung Parliament" in 36 years.
Financial markets, however, were spooked by the uncertainty.
The London Stock Exchange opened sharply down Friday after vote-counting through the night revealed the parliamentary stalemate. It recovered some ground during the day.
Investors are concerned that political indecision and infighting will put off action to deal with a government deficit nearly as large, proportionally, as Greece's. The Tories have made deficit reduction their top priority, promising to unveil an emergency budget within 50 days of taking office.
If the Liberal Democrats decide not to accept his olive branch, Cameron held out the possibility that the Tories could still rule as a minority government, cutting deals or working with the other parties issue by issue to push legislation through Parliament.
"It has been done before," he said, "and yes, we can try to do it again."
Such arrangements can be unstable. And though such negotiating and maneuvering is common in other European countries, British lawmakers are not accustomed to it.
But analysts said Cameron could make use of a minority government initially, to get his agenda off the ground, and then "go to the country" — that is, call another election — after a few months to ask the electorate for a clearer mandate.
With a total of 650 seats in the House of Commons, 326 was the magic number for a majority.
After all the votes were counted Friday, the Conservatives had 307 seats, winning 36% of all votes cast; Labor had 258 seats, with 29% of votes; and the Liberal Democrats got 57 seats and won 23% of votes. A handful of seats went to smaller parties.
Winning power now in Britain could actually prove a double-edged sword. Scrubbing the red ink out of the country's finances will require potentially deep cuts in social services that could rouse public anger. The governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, was widely quoted recently as saying that whichever party came into power now risked being voted out for a generation at the next election because of the unpopular decisions it would have to take.
But Tony Travers, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, said a bitter pill for the public did not automatically have to be a suicide one for the government.