"Messy, messy, messy," wrote the Daily Telegraph at 2:48 a.m. GMT. It's hard to argue with that assessment: The most exciting British election in recent memory has produced a riot of confusing statistics and contradictory results. The Tories appear to have won the most parliamentary seats but not a majority. Huge numbers of voters swung against the Labor Party in its traditionally "safe" constituencies, but the party unexpectedly picked up some new seats elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Nick Clegg proved to be the man you flirt with but never marry: Having given the Liberal Democrat leader a huge surge in the opinion polls, the British public failed to vote for his party on Election Day. Despite their best campaign in memory, the Lib Dems now have fewer seats than before the election.
As a result of all this I cannot tell you, as of 12:04 p.m. GMT, who will be the next prime minister of Britain; that might not be crystal clear for some time. However, there were a few clear winners and losers last night:
Pundits. Decades have passed since Britain last had a hung Parliament. Practically nobody knows the rules and procedures. Everyone who does know them will now emerge from nowhere to remind us what happened in 1910 or 1923. Those who actually remember what happened in 1974—when Labor leader Harold Wilson formed the most recent (and notably disastrous) minority government—will have a field day.
The queen. Technically speaking, she appoints new prime ministers and accepts the resignations of retiring ones. Usually these are formal duties, but if any squabbling ensues, she might have to play referee. In the event that the parties are unable to form a government, she has the right to call a new election. Suddenly, she matters again.
The Tory "modernizers." The Conservatives didn't get a clear victory, but they did win the most seats for the first time since 1997. And there is absolutely no evidence that a more "old-fashioned" Conservative leader would have done any better—on the contrary, the result might have been far worse. (And congratulations to my friend Nick Boles, one of the first openly gay Tories, who easily won Grantham and Stamford.)
Sterling. Britain faces the biggest budget crisis in living memory, and it isn't clear that there is going to be a government strong enough to cope with it. The pound fell rapidly against the dollar this morning and is still wobbly. Time to take that vacation in London?
The late evening voters. A Florida scenario looms in some British constituencies, where unusually high turnouts led to a shortage of ballot papers. Some last-minute voters were shut out of polling booths, too.
The "anti-establishment," throw-the-bums-out" voters (I called them British tea partiers, to many readers' disgust) who kept telling pollsters they were sick of everybody and who gave Clegg those high pre-election ratings. Instead of a clear change, they now find themselves in a foggy twilight zone. They might even get Gordon Brown back as prime minister, if he forms a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Imagine Gordon Brown, the Sequel: Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water …