The Tories are to attempt to form a government after the Westminster election returned a hung parliament for the first time since 1974.
Despite gaining 94 seats and becoming Britain’s largest party, the Conservatives have fallen short of winning the 326 seat majority required to form a government.
The latest results, with 637 of the 650 constituencies declared, show the Conservatives have won 301 seats (+94), Labour are on 255 (-88), the Liberal Democrats are on 54 (-5) and other parties have won a total of 27 (-1).
Although the Tories could in theory attempt to cobble together a coalition without them, the Liberal Democrats are seen to be holding the balance of power between the Labour and the Tories.
The results in each of the remaining constituencies could prove crucial in negotiating a coalition government.
One constituency yet to be decided is Fermanagh/South Tyrone, where a recount is underway.
Tory leader David Cameron issued a statement this morning saying he would later set out “how he will seek to form a government that is strong and stable with broad support that acts in the national interest”.
He is to issue a further statement this afternoon shortly, effectively claiming the right to be Prime Minister.
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, who this morning said the Conservatives, as the largest party, had the “first right” to seek to form a government.
“I have said that whichever party gets the most votes and the most seats has the first right to seek to govern, either on its own or by reaching out to other parties and I stick to that view,” Mr Clegg said. “I think it is now for the Conservative Party to prove that it is capable of seeking to govern in the national interest.”
Mr Clegg did not rule out talks with Labour if negotiations with Mr Cameron did not result in a deal.
In a statement outside 10 Downing Street this afternoon, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he was willing to open talks with Mr Clegg and other party leaders on forming a government. However, he said he respected Mr Clegg’s position that he should first talk to Mr Cameron.
In a comment that will be seen as an overture to the Lib Dems, who have called for a referendum on proportional representation, Mr Brown called for “far reaching” reform of the British electoral system.
“There needs to be immediate legislation on this to begin to restore public trust in politics,” Mr Brown said. “A fairer voting system is central.”
Despite facing the prospect of Labour losing more than 90 MPs, Mr Brown said he wanted to play a part in the Britain “having a strong, stable and principled government”.
COUNT FOR COURT
Meanwhile, a third recount is underway in the Fermanagh South Tyrone constituency.
A second recount in the early hours of this morning put Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew just two votes ahead of the unionist unity candidate Rodney Connor.
Shortly before 3am, election officials said 21,296 votes had been counted for Mr Connor and 21,288 for Ms Gildernew and, given the difference of just eight votes, a recount was immediately called. The result of that recount put Mr Connor, with 21,295, ten votes behind Ms Gildernew with 21,305.
The results of a second recount were announced at around 4.30am, putting Ms Gildernew ahead by two votes at 21,300 to Mr Connor’s 21,298.
Mr Connor, a former chief executive of Fermanagh District Council, stood as an independent after the DUP and Ulster Conservatives and Unionists (UCU) agreed to run a joint unionist candidate.
A number of senior Sinn Fein figures are at the count centre in Omagh, including party president Gerry Adams. The DUP’s Arlene Foster and other senior unionists are also in attendance.
Ms Gildernew, who is the North’s Minister for Agriculture, said this afternoon the issue is “probably going to end up in court”.
Speaking to Irish radio, Ms Gildernew said she didn’t mind how small her majority is “as long as it’s a majority”.
People from “all shades of political opinion” had come out and voted for her, she said. “We have managed to unify the people of Fermanagh south Tyrone in a way that has not been done before”.
“It really is a fantastic achievement that we’ve polled so many votes and we’re looking forward to a result later on today,” she said.