So what happens now? That's the question Britain asks itself this morning. It would have been easier to answer if the country had managed to make its mind up yesterday. but for the first time since 1974, a British general election has produced no winner, only multiple losers.
Gordon Brown remains prime minister for now but his credibility is destroyed and it seems most unlikely that the country would wear any coalition deal he cobbled together. Having lost almost 100 seats and come a distant second in the popular vote the Labour party is ill-placed to form a government even if it could cobble together some kind of "Rainbow Coalition" to stymie the Conservatives.
Anyway, Nick Clegg appeared to rule that out, meaning that some poor Labour flunkey is soon going to be asked to tell the prime minister, "Gordon, it's time...". According to Clegg, “It seems this morning that it is the Conservative party that has more votes and more seats though not an absolute majority and that is why I think it is time now for the Conservative party to prove that it is capable of seeking to govern in the national interest."
And yet the election was hardly a ringing endorsement of the Conservatives, even though their margin of victory was clear. The desperate defeats of 1997, 2001, and 2005 had left the Tories in an awful hole from which David Cameron was almost, but not quite, able to escape.
The collapse in confidence in Brown's government obscured the fact that when Cameron became Tory leader in 2005 he suspected that he might need two elections to overhaul Labour's majority. Cameron actually won a greater share of the vote than Tony Blair managed in 2005 but while 35 percent of the votes was enough to win 356 seats for Blair, Cameron must make do with 50 fewer than that despite taking more than 36 percent of the vote.
Polling day produced a series of remarkable, often puzzling, set of results. The pre-election consensus had been that a seven point Tory victory in the popular vote would probably translate into a small overall majority. It didn't work out like that. The Tories got their seven point win—36 to 29—but their vote was spread and split in such a fashion that across the country Labour proved unexpectedly resilient.
Labour's Scottish fortress proved impregnable, while the party's vote held up well in London, too. Key Tory targets such as Hammersmith and Westminster North all slipped away. In Hampstead the Oscar-winning actress Glenda Jackson survived a Tory challenge by just 42 votes.
Earlier it had looked good for the Conservatives as they racked up double digit advances in Labour strongholds in the northeast of England. But where the votes really mattered, Labour clung on just often enough to stymie the Tories. Ed Balls, much loathed for being Gordon Brown's protege, survived a so-called "Castration Campaign" in his Yorkshire constituency.
For the Conservatives, however, the real damage was a failure to defeat the Liberal Democrats. In vital Tory-Liberal marginal districts, the Conservatives won just eight of the 25 most important battles. Yes, there was the occasional eye-opening gain—Montgomeryshire was 210 on the Tory target list for instance—but overall, and assisted by some measure of tactical voting by Labour supporters, the Liberals survived the Tory assault intact.
This despite the fact that it was a desperately disappointing evening for the party. The initial exit poll predicted that despite weeks of Cleggmania, the party might actually lose seats in this election. Though this was instantly dismissed by pundits as an improbability too far it remains the case that, with fewer than 20 seats to declare, the exit poll could be correct.
Certainly the 22 percent of the vote the Lib Dems won is far short of what they once dreamed, leaving the impression that the electorate's affair with Clegg was little more than an enchanting, but brief, summer romance.
And yet despite being squeezed in this fashion, Clegg can still play the role of kingmaker. Cameron reached out to the Liberal Democrats this afternoon, suggesting that there was enough common ground for the parties to work together. On electoral reform, however, he only promised that a parliamentary committee would look at the matter.
But since a deal between Clegg and Brown seems improbable, Cameron has essentially dared Clegg to reject the responsibilities and opportunity of office in order to preserve his purity in comfortable opposition. If he does that, Cameron will presumably try and soldier on as a minority government.
A minority ministry might be more credible than many analysts predict, but it's still more probable that David Cameron will look to return to the voters inside twelve months and that Britain will be given another chance to make up its mind, one way or another.
By then, however, Cameron will have begun the process of cutting government spending in order to stabilize the country's fiscal future. Nothing in that agenda is likely to be popular, which is just one more reason why the future remains pregnant with risk for all the parties.
Britain decided yesterday that it wanted change, but it also cautioned that it was wary, even afraid, of change. No wonder the results and the future are cloudy and imponderable.
A former Washington correspondent for The Scotsman, Alex Massie writes a blog for The Spectator.