Britain was heading for a hung Parliament and Prime Minister Theresa Mays political career was hanging in the balance early Friday as an exit poll suggested that her gamble in calling a general election three years ahead of schedule had backfired spectacularly.
The survey, produced for the U.K.s three major broadcasters and released once the polls closed at 10 p.m., predicted that the Conservatives would get 314 seats and the Labour Party 266. It projected 34 for the Scottish National Party and 14 for the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives held 330 seats in the last Parliament, compared with 229 for Labour, 54 for the Scottish National Party and nine for the Liberal Democrats.
With results from 250 of the 650 seats reported, Sky News projected that the Conservatives would win between 308 and 328 seats. Officially, a party needs to win 326 seats to gain a majority in the House of Commons. However, the actual magic number is closer to 323 because of several elected members who do not vote or take their seats.
If confirmed, the result would lead to a period of political uncertainty and could throw Britain’s negotiations to leave the European Union into disarray. The pound lost more than 2 cents against the dollar within seconds of the announcement.
If the Conservatives come close to 326 seats, they could form a coalition government with the help of several Members of Parliament for Northern Ireland. However, if negotiations prove unsuccessful, the two major parties could attempt to form minority governments an outcome that could lead to a second general election in the months ahead.
The projected result is a humiliation for May, who called a snap election in the hope of increasing her majority and strengthening Britain’s hand in exit talks with the European Union. In the wake of Thursdays exit poll, reports suggested that her premiership and standing as leader of the Conservative Party were in jeopardy.
“If the poll is anything like accurate, this is completely catastrophic for the Conservatives and for Theresa May,” former Conservative Treasury chief George Osborne told ITV. “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 forecast was a victory in all but name for the opposition Labour Party, which had been expected to lose seats. The party drew strong support from young people, who appeared to have turned out to vote in bigger-than-expected numbers.
Labour deputy leader Tom Watson, who easily won re-election in his seat, made a savage attack on May in a speech to his supporters.
She said she was strong and stable, the public saw that she was weak and wobbly, said Watson, playing off the Conservative leaders campaign slogan. She said she was a bloody difficult womanthe public saw she was just a woman finding it all a bit too bloody difficult.
The next few days look very uncertain but one thing is sure, Watson said. Theresa May’s authority has been undermined in this election.”
Ed Balls, a former Labour Treasury chief, said the result would hurt May’s negotiating position with Europe.
“I don’t see how she can be a strong and credible figure now to lead these negotiations,” he said.
In a message to supporters, Corbyn said that “whatever the final result, we have already changed the face of British politics.”
The result could be bad news for the Scottish National Party, which was predicted to lose 20 of its 54 seats though the pollsters cautioned that there is particular uncertainty around the Scottish forecast.
A big loss could complicate the SNP’s plans to push for a new referendum on Scottish independence as Britain prepares to leave the EU.
May had hoped the election would focus on Brexit, but that never happened, as both the Conservatives and Labour said they would respect voters’ wishes and go through with the divorce.
May, who went into the election with a reputation for quiet competence, was criticized for a lackluster campaigning style and for a plan to force elderly people to pay more for their care, a proposal her opponents dubbed the “dementia tax.” As the polls suggested a tightening race, pollsters spoke less often of a landslide and raised the possibility that May’s majority would be eroded.
Then, attacks that killed 30 people in Manchester and London twice brought the campaign to a halt, sent a wave of anxiety through Britain and forced May to defend the government’s record on fighting terrorism. Corbyn accused Conservatives of undermining Britain’s security by cutting the number of police on the streets.
Eight people were killed near London Bridge on Saturday when three men drove a van into pedestrians and then stabbed revelers in an area filled with bars and restaurants. Two weeks earlier, a suicide bomber killed 22 people as they were leaving an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester.
Rachel Sheard, who cast her vote near the site of the London Bridge attack, said the election certainly wasn’t about Brexit.
“I don’t think that’s in the hearts and minds of Londoners at the minute, (not) nearly as much as security is,” said Sheard, 22. “It was very scary on Saturday.”
That said, security was far from the only issue.
“It’s important, but it’s only one issue amongst several,” said 68-year-old Mike Peacroft. “I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s at the top. Obviously at my end of the (age) spectrum I’m more interested in things like pensions and so forth, NHS health care plus schooling, those are really my main concerns.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.