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UK Election Night: When to Expect Results and What Comes Next

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It’s been 14 years since an opposition party won a general election in Britain. Opinion polling strongly suggests that streak is about to be broken by the Labour Party. As the voting comes to an end, here’s a guide to what’s likely to happen tonight and over the next few days.

The first indication of the outcome will come just after polls close at 10 p.m. local time (5 p.m. Eastern), when the major British broadcasters reveal the national exit poll. It’s a survey of thousands of voters just after they have cast their ballots, and has come close to the final result in recent elections, though there’s always a chance of that streak being broken, too.

The votes are counted overnight. A first couple of parliamentary districts usually finish their work within two hours of polls closing, and almost every district is expected to declare a winner by 7 a.m. local time (2 a.m. Eastern). Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the Labour leader who hopes to replace him, Keir Starmer, would customarily speak when the results are declared in their own districts, probably after 2:30 a.m. local time for Mr. Starmer and after 4 a.m. local time for Mr. Sunak.

Should there be a clear opposition victory, the transition of power would take place with ruthless speed.

“If the election results in an overall majority for a different party,” says the Cabinet Manual, which sets out the official guidance on the process, “the incumbent prime minister and government will immediately resign and the sovereign will invite the leader of the party that has won the election to form a government.”

“Immediately,” in practice, would mean Friday morning.

By “recent custom,” according to the House of Commons library, departing prime ministers pose with their families for a final set of photographs in Downing Street, their home and workplace while in office.

There might be a last speech. “When the curtain falls, it’s time to get off the stage,” John Major, the last prime minister to give way to an opposition majority, said in 1997. “And that’s what I propose to do.”

Then comes a short drive to Buckingham Palace, usually trailed by news helicopters, to resign in a private meeting with the monarch, now King Charles III.

The next prime minister would be close behind: In 2016, according to the Commons library, the car of the incoming leader, Theresa May, arrived at the palace 32 seconds after her predecessor, David Cameron, had left.

A new leader’s appointment would also take the form of a private meeting with the king, usually right after the resignation. It’s known as “kissing hands,” though it involves little ceremony and no kissing.

Expect a photographed handshake, followed by another speech in Downing Street, where the new prime minister would move in straight away, applauded by the permanent civil service staff on arrival.

The prime minister would then appoint other ministers. It’s not usually a matter with much suspense: British oppositions maintain a “shadow cabinet” of candidates for government positions.

The new Parliament would meet for the first time in the next couple of weeks.

All this, of course, assumes a change of prime minister. If Mr. Sunak’s government unexpectedly maintains its majority, there’s no ceremony — he would simply continue in office.

If no party were to win a majority of parliamentary seats, Mr. Sunak would stay on as a caretaker while parties negotiated with one another to decide who could govern.

It might not be a long delay, however: It took five days to reach an agreement in 2010, when Mr. Cameron fell short of a majority, and a couple of weeks in 2017, when Mrs. May did. And then, if the deal put someone else in charge, the cars would set off for the palace.

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