Britain holds a general election on May 7 in which Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives, senior partners in a coalition government since 2010, will seek enough support to govern alone.
The Conservatives are neck-and-neck in opinion polls with the main opposition Labour, who lost power at the last election in 2010. Experts predict either another coalition or a minority government this time.
Smaller parties like the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) and anti-EU UK Independence Party are expected to make major gains. Here are details of how British general elections work:
- A total of 650 seats in the House of Commons in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are up for grabs. Each comprises an area of around 70,000 voters represented by one member of parliament (MP).
- The "first past the post" system means that the winner of the vote in each constituency takes the seat. Overall national vote share is irrelevant in deciding who wins a general election -- it is all down to the number of seats each party wins. This system favours the Conservatives and Labour and disadvantages smaller parties, who can end up with strong percentages but few seats.
- The election date has been known for four years as it is the first to be held since fixed-term Parliaments were introduced in 2011.
- If on May 7 one party wins an overall majority -- 326 seats or more -- the leader of that party is invited by Queen Elizabeth II to form a government.
- If no party wins an overall majority, the result is a hung Parliament and Britain enters a period of uncertainty which risks unsettling financial markets.
- In this case, the incumbent prime minister and government remain in office for the immediate future.
- Negotiations start between different parties on whether they could form a coalition government together.
- The incumbent prime minister -- and, separately, the opposition -- can also consider forming a minority government. This is an administration which does not have a House of Commons majority but does have enough support from other parties to win a confidence vote. This backing usually comes in return for policy concessions from the government.
- Where two or more different options for a new government look possible, the parties are expected to hold talks to decide which would command most confidence from the House of Commons.
- The incumbent prime minister is expected to resign when it is clear that someone else is better placed to command the confidence of the House of Commons. This would happen if they could lead a coalition or form a minority government.
- That person is then invited to Buckingham Palace, where the queen will ask them to form a new government and appoint them prime minister. This process is known as the kissing of hands, although the appointment is not formalised until a later meeting -- and no hands are kissed these days.