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LONDON — Political turmoil gripped Britain on Friday after an election in which no party won enough seats to form a government — forcing Prime Minister Theresa May to cozy up to ultra-conservative lawmakers to retain power.
The shock result plunged the country into uncertainty just 10 days before complex and high-stakes talks with Europe over Brexit are due to begin.
"We ran a pretty dreadful campaign"
Instead, her hold on power was weakened as she lost her majority in the House of Commons.
Her Conservatives retained the most seats — 318 out of 650 — but were unable to govern without a deal involving another party — leaving a so-called "hung parliament."
May visited Queen Elizabeth II early Friday, seeking permission to form a minority government with the help of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party — which is anti-abortion and doesn't support same-sex marriage. Such a request is a formality under the British system.
Speaking after returning from Buckingham Palace, May tried to convey a sense of business as usual, promising to govern "over the next five years" and push ahead with Brexit, saying: "Let's get to work."
"What the country needs more than ever is certainty, and having secured the largest number of votes and the largest number of seats in this election, it is clear only the Conservative party has the legitimacy [to govern]," she told reporters.
But her minority government might not endure. Britain's last such arrangement, in 1974, lasted only nine months.
Earlier, the opposition Labour Party also signaled it could attempt to band together with smaller parties and offer to form a government.
Speaking to ITV News, former Conservative Treasury chief George Osborne described it as a "catastrophic night" for May. He later told BBC Radio 4 that "I don’t see how she can survive in the long term.”
Calling an election seemed a shrewd move six weeks ago, with some opinion polls putting the Conservatives as much 20 points ahead.
But after a disastrous campaign that was paused twice due to the Manchester and London Bridge terror attacks, speculation swirled about whether May could survive.
By the time voters cast their ballots, May had earned the moniker "Maybot" for her robotic performances, was openly mocked by audience members at a question-and-answer session and jeered during a tour of a London market. May also refused to participate in televised debates.
The left-leaning Labour Party, led by socialist Jeremy Corbyn, celebrated a 9.5 percent increase in its share of the vote. By noon local time (7 a.m. ET), Labour had won 261 seats.
That represented a stunning victory for Corbyn, who was widely described as "unelectable" when he became party leader in 2015. The 68-year-old has been depicted as an outsider as well as a hardliner who cozies up to terrorists.
Corbyn's path has not been a smooth one; the resignation of two-thirds of his "shadow" Cabinet over one weekend last summer was followed by a no-confidence vote by the vast majority of his party's lawmakers. But Corbyn survived the revolt thanks to his popularity with the grassroots of the Labour Party.
Labour proposed raising taxes for the richest five percent of Britons, scrapping university tuition fees, investing $315 billion in infrastructure plans and re-nationalizing the railways and postal service.
"More than anything else this country needs a period of stability," a grim-faced May said after winning her own seat.
Among the night's losers were the United Kingdom Independence Party, more commonly known as UKIP. The party was credited with helping deliver Brexit last year, but with the referendum won, many voters saw it as a single-issue party whose sole purpose had been achieved.
UKIP lost its only lawmaker and its vote-share crashed spectacularly to just 1.8 percent.
May went into the election with a reputation for quiet competence. However, she 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."
Conservative lawmaker Anna Soubry was the first in the party to disavow May in public, calling on the prime minister to "consider her position."
"I'm afraid we ran a pretty dreadful campaign," Soubry said.
The pro-independence Scottish National Party suffered major setbacks, including the defeat of its two most prominent members of the British parliament, but still won the most seats in Scotland. The result complicates its plans to push for a new referendum on Scottish independence.
Earlier, an exit poll predicting that May would lose her majority caused the value of the pound to dip by 2 percent against the dollar. The currency later recovered some ground.
JPMorgan suggested Britain may have to delay Brexit talks — which are due to begin on June 19 and last at least two years — in the absence of a working government.
"Perhaps the most obvious conclusion is that the likelihood of the U.K. needing to request a delay in the Brexit process has risen substantially," said Malcolm Barr, an economist at JPMorgan.
Among the biggest issues for markets and the economy are whether Britain manages to get a deal to remain part of the EU single market or, short of that, negotiate some privileged access to the 28-country bloc, the country's biggest trading partner.
"The big picture is that political uncertainty could take weeks or months to be resolved and it is likely to weigh on both financial markets ... and the economy," said Paul Hollingsworth, an economist at Capital Economics in London.
Reuters contributed to this report.