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[LONDON] Britain's political future was thrown wide open after a shock exit poll indicated that Prime Minister Theresa May might not win a majority after Thursday's general election, casting doubt over her political future just days before Brexit negotiations are due to begin.
The pound fell to the lowest since April after the BBC and other broadcasters said May's Conservative Party is on course to win just 314 seats in the 650-strong House of Commons.
That's down from the 330 she held before calling the snap election seven weeks ago and less than the 326 needed for a majority. Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party will win 266 seats, compared with 229 before the election, according to the joint poll.
Such polls have generally been reliable, although political leaders on both sides immediately said it's too early to read too much into it. In the first wave of results, the Conservatives failed to gain their key early target seats in Wrexham, in North Wales, and Darlington in northeast England.
Investors are balking at the prospect of another round of political turmoil less than a year after Britain voted to leave the European Union. While Mrs May could still win a majority, attention will turn to her future after the decision to call an early election and strengthen her mandate backfired. She will now need to decide whether to resign or try to form a new government. Another election is also a possibility.
"If the poll is anything like accurate, this is completely catastrophic for the Conservatives and for Theresa May," former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne told ITV.
The pound dropped as much as 1.9 per cent before recovering some of those losses to trade at US$1.2723 at 1:30am in London.
The exit poll throws up big questions about Brexit. Talks with EU leaders are due to start in less than two weeks and those meetings may now need to be delayed, further eroding the time that Britain has to clinch a deal before it leaves the bloc in March 2019.
The initial projections also raise the prospect - albeit a remote one - of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister if he can form a government with support from an array of smaller parties.
The SNP were projected to win 34 seats and the Liberal Democrats may get 14, the exit poll showed. Labour won a seat from the SNP at Rutherglen, in Scotland, reversing one of the party's losses in 2015, and was projected to win more.
John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, who headed the team behind the exit poll, urged caution over its findings, which have a broad margin of error.
"We certainly, certainly cannot rule out the possibility that the Conservatives will still have an overall majority," Mr Curtice told BBC TV.
"A majority of 30 or 40, I still think we have to regard as possible."
May in Jeopardy
Even in that scenario, Mrs May's job would still be in jeopardy and uncertainty would surround the future course of Brexit. It would also considerably weaken the hand of the next prime minister - whether it's Mrs May or someone else - in the negotiations with the EU.
Trade Secretary Liam Fox was equivocal about Mrs May when asked on BBC TV if she has been damaged by the election.
"We'll see what happens in terms of the number of seats we have and what happens in terms of the vote share before we make any assumptions," Mr Fox said.
"It's entirely possible that we'll still get an overall majority."
Mrs May campaigned for a so-called hard Brexit in which the UK would quit the single market in return for reclaiming power over immigration, laws and money. She also declared herself willing to walk away without an agreement if pushed.
If the Conservatives retain power, the Brexit agenda will likely be set by lawmakers who campaigned for the cleanest break with the EU. That would limit room for Mrs May or her successor to make concessions, increasing the risk Britain crashes out of the bloc.
On the other hand, a rejuvenated Labour opposition could unite with Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists and pro-EU Tories to soften the government's approach.
Mr Corbyn wants to stay in the EU's single market for goods and services, as do the Scottish nationalists. The Liberal Democrats want a second referendum on the final deal that Britain negotiates with the EU.
"The exit poll seems to indicate that no party will have an overall majority and it's possible we could form the next government," Labour foreign-affairs spokeswoman, Emily Thornberry, told BBC TV.
"There's no coalition, there's no deals, either the Conservatives will be the minority government if this exit poll is right, or Labour will be the minority government."
Rather than seeking a coalition, Labour would put forward a programme for government in the Queen's Speech and a budget and call on other parties to back it in the House of Commons, Ms Thornberry said.