Britain’s currency gets pounded by ‘hung Parliament’ concerns

By Gregory Katz
Associated Press / March 13, 2010

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LONDON — The latest buzz word in the clubby world of British politics is “hung Parliament.’’

It doesn’t mean the current Parliament would be hanged, although some voters in these troubled economic times might relish that idea. It means an election so close that no party receives more than half the seats in the House of Commons, the lower house of Parliament.

It’s commonplace in most parliamentary democracies, but hasn’t happened here for more than three decades — and the very idea has sent financially battered Britain into a tizzy, causing the pound to tumble.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown must call a vote by June 3, with an early May date deemed likely. The widespread assumption that Conservative Party leader David Cameron would win an outright majority in the new Parliament has evaporated.

“It’s just about 50-50 that we’ll have a hung Parliament,’’ said Bob Worcester, founder of the Ipsos MORI polling firm, which will be conducting Election Day exit polls for British news stations.

Voters seem tired of Brown and the Labour Party apparatus after 13 years in power, but it is not clear if they have really warmed to Cameron in sufficient numbers to give him full control of Parliament.

If Cameron falls short, is Britain headed for its own hanging chad moment? In the contested US election of 2000, the electoral college rules were clear, but the state of Florida’s vote-counting mechanism was subject to all kinds of hiccups.

Britain suffers from the opposite problem: the voting process is smooth but constitutional arrangements are fuzzy.

The prospect of a hung Parliament might have insiders reaching for their copy of the British constitution — only there isn’t one. This proud, time-tested democracy relies instead on a series of precedents and accepted conventions that comprise its complex unwritten charter.

No one knows exactly how a hung Parliament would play out. An election in which no party gets an absolute majority raises a number of possibilities:

There may be political horsetrading leading to a coalition government, a rarity in Britain; a weak minority government chronically unable to muster policy support; or a second election, as was the case in 1974, another year in which Britain was going through an economic crisis.