Britain’s exit from the European Union has been plunged into uncertainty.
Whatever the final election result, Theresa May has not secured the clear mandate that she sought for her version of a hard Brexit.
When she called the election, she declared: “Every vote for the Conservatives will make me stronger when I negotiate for Britain with the prime ministers, presidents and chancellors of the European Union.”
Well, she is not stronger.
She has fewer seats than she started with.
As a result, it will now be hard for the government – whatever shape that government will be – to start talking to the EU in nine days time as planned without rethinking its strategy.
Recipe for survival
The EU will be dismayed at the uncertainty the election has created.
They had hoped Mrs May, with a healthy majority under her belt, would be a strong negotiator, liberated from the strictures of the Brexit ultras in her party.
Instead, the 27 other EU member states are facing a divided British parliament in a divided Britain.
The EU’s budget commissioner, Gunther Oettinger, told German radio he was unsure the Brexit negotiations could begin on time.
He said having Britain as a weak negotiating partner could result in what he described as “a poor outcome”.
If the Tories form a minority government, Mrs May could start negotiations but she might have to water down her plans if she wants to get any Brexit-related legislation through the House of Commons, where she will need the support of other parties.
Much will depend on the wishes of the Democratic Unionist Party MPs from Northern Ireland, who would be her most likely allies.
This would be a recipe for survival, not stability.
If Mrs May stands down as prime minister, any negotiations over Brexit may have to be delayed while the Conservative Party chooses a replacement for her and discusses if or how to change its approach to Brexit.
This would not be straightforward because Tory divisions over Europe would remain and potential leadership contenders would have decide whether to argue for a soft or hard Brexit.
The key question would be this – could the Tories continue pushing for a hard Brexit, defined as a free trade deal with the EU outside the single market, the customs union and the free movement of workers?
Or would the Tories be forced to consider a softer Brexit that involved, say, some single market membership in order to secure the support of other parties?
Might that put the so-called Norway option back on the table?
Norway, it must be remembered, has access to the single market through its membership of the European Economic Area but is not a member of the EU.
Speaking on ITV News, the former Chancellor George Osborne said: “Hard Brexit went into the rubbish bin tonight.”
There will now be a battle royal within the Conservatives between those who agree with Mr Osborne’s analysis and those hardline Brexiteers who do not.
If, in this hung parliament, it takes a while to form a government, then potentially there could be a formal delay to Brexit negotiations.
If no party leader commands the confidence of the House of Commons, then the existing Tories government will still remain in office.
But the party would have to operate under “purdah rules”.
These state that: “It is customary for ministers to observe discretion in initiating any new action of a continuing or long term character.”
Second general election?
That would mean the Tories could not begin negotiations over Brexit on 19 June as expected and would have to wait until a new government is formed.
And of course there is always the possibility that a second general election could be called.
This would yet more take time and yet more delay to any Brexit discussions.
One big question is whether the UK could stop the clock on the Article 50 Brexit negotiations which is ticking away until it automatically leaves in March 2019.
That would be hard but not impossible.
But it would require the political agreement of all 27 other EU member states and they would demand a high price.
Theresa May called this election to strengthen Britain’s negotiating hand. She appears to have ended up weakening it.