This is quite long, so if politics bores you, please feel free to skip this post - come back on Monday for a yummy cookie recipe instead!
You're still here? Okay. Let's start with a recap of the past couple of days.
On Thursday, the UK went to the polls in a General Election. I went to vote at 7am (as soon as polling opened), spent most of the day writing Java code (just like any other day), and then went to a friend's house to spend the evening/night/morning watching the results.
The surprise news story of Election Day was the people who were left queueing outside at 10pm when the polls closed, and were turned away without getting chance to vote. I've never known anything like this before, and it provided a suitably dramatic backdrop as the results trickled in.
The first announcement came just before 11pm, and I managed to stay awake until 4.30am to hear that there was a new Conservative MP in my home constituency. My husband didn't go to bed at all.
By the time the final constituency finally announced their result on Friday afternoon, it was clear that no single party has managed to take a majority of the seats. (We knew this might happen.) For the first time since 1974, we had the much-anticipated 'hung parliament'.
So, what happens now? That Evita song is stuck in my head, because "another suitcase in another hall" is quite appropriate - the big question on everyone's minds is whether Gordon Brown stays in Number 10. By virtue of being the current Prime Minsiter, Gordon Brown gets the first chance: he stays as Prime Minister for the time being, and unless he resigns, the Queen will invite him to form a Government.
(Note for my American readers: anything the Queen does in this circumstance is dictated by convention, she doesn't just get a free choice of who's in charge.)
Mr Brown could try to form a Government either by attempting a minority government (a risky strategy), or by forming a coalition that can command a majority in Parliament. If he doesn't think he can do either of these, he will step down as Prime Minister, and the Queen will invite someone else to try to form a Government. In this case, that invitation would be extended to David Cameron (leader of the Conservative party); the general rule is that it should be whoever has the greatest chance of forming a successful Government. Cameron would then have the same options: a minority government, or a coalition.
In reality, discussions have already started, and there are a few possibilities in the coalition space. Our host for the election night party had created a number of coalition-themed cocktails, made with mixtures of appropriately coloured ingredients - and that's sort of how it all feels right now.
There are 650 seats in the House of Commons, requiring a majority of 326. The current numbers of MPs, and their respective shares of the vote, are as follows:
Of course if the Conservative and Labour parties got together, they could command a crushing majority - but that's incredibly unlikely to happen.
Once the current situation became apparent, Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said that the Conservatives (as the party with most seats and most votes) should have the first opportunity to form a Government - so the Conservatives and Lib Dems are currently in talks. Their combined 363 seats (306 + 57) would be more than enough for a stable majority.
Those two possibilities (the unlikely Conservative+Labour, and the currently-under-discussion Conservative+LibDem) are the only two-party options that have enough votes to form a majority without involving smaller parties.
If it was down to me (which it's clearly not) I'd be looking to form a short-term alliance to deal with the current financial situation and settle the markets, while leaving all the less-pressing issues on the table for later discussion. But this is politics, and reaching any kind of consensus is never simple.
If Labour wants to form a coalition, even with the Liberal Democrats on board (and it's not guaranteed they could get this), they would need an extra 11 seats from some of the smaller parties to have a majority.
On the other hand, if the Conservatives could find 19 seats from the smaller parties and independent candidates, they could form a coalition even without Lib Dem support.
If no group of parties can form a comfortable coalition, and minority governments look sure to crumble, then they could go back to the Queen and ask for another dissolution (i.e. another election). But would anyone in the UK vote differently in light of their local results...? I wouldn't, but maybe some supporters of minor parties, in marginal constituencies, would be persuaded to change their vote.
The only thing that's really clear is that we live in interesting times right now...
Heartfelt thanks if you read this far. If you have any questions about the process, I'd be more than happy to try and clarify.