DUBLIN – British voters returned a hung parliament in the general election on Thursday, defeating prime minister Theresa May’s gamble of calling a snap election and potentially ending her tenure as leader of the ruling Conservative Party.

Polls closed at 10pm on Thursday (1am UAE Friday), and the counting of votes ran through the night. By early Friday morning, 625 out of 650 seats had been counted. By 7am, the Conservatives had won 312 seats, down from the 330 it held before the election. Labour had won 260, up from 229.

Exit polls indicated that the Conservative Party would fall short of the 326 seats needed to gain a working majority in the House of Commons. It was well short of a landslide Ms May aspired for at the time the prime minister called the election in late April, when the Conservatives enjoyed a 21-point lead of Labour in opinion polls.

The Conservatives will still be the largest party in parliament, and thus entitled to stake the first claim to form a minority government with the help of coalition allies. If a coalition cannot be formed, however, or if the minority government proves unstable, the UK could be headed into a second election within six months.

Another election would result in a period of instability in the UK, and it will delay the start of Brexit negotiations with the European Union, which are scheduled to begin on June 19.

For Ms May, the election result can only be read as an erosion of confidence in her ability to steer the UK through the choppy waters of Brexit. She had campaigned almost exclusively on her promise to secure a swift Brexit deal that would be advantageous to the UK.

The first exit poll, released just after voting booths closed, indicated the severity of the shock to the Conservatives, but party leaders urged patience. “Let’s wait and see,” Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, said at the time.

But those survey results were sufficient to prompt the first speculations of a long night. On the television channel ITV, George Osborne, a former Conservative parliamentarian and now a newspaper editor, said: “Clearly if she’s got a worse result than two years ago and is almost unable to form a government then she, I doubt, will survive in the long term as Conservative Party leader.”

The Liberal Democrats, which had won 12 seats as of early Friday morning, and who have allied with the Conservatives in the past, quickly ruled out the prospect of a new coalition with their past partner.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader who revived his party over the past six weeks, exulted: “Whatever the final result, we have already changed the face of British politics.”

By the time Ms May talked to reporters, at 2.45am, the outlines of the result were clear. Although the prime minister delivered what was formally a victory speech — since the Conservatives had won the most seats — her language was subdued.

“As we look ahead and wait to see what the final results will be, I know that the country needs a period of stability,” Ms May said. “And whatever the results are the Conservative party will ensure that we fulfil our duty in ensuring that stability so that we can all, as one country, go forward together.”

The speech gave no hints of Ms May considering her own future, but that has not stopped pundits from speculating

Notably, the odds of Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, taking over from Ms May have dropped from 66 / 1 to 5 / 1. Another strong candidate is David Davis, a Conservative parliamentarian who has, since last year, been Ms May’s Brexit minister, in charge of the legal tangles involved in separating the UK from the EU.

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