LONDON — LONDON -- In the closest general election in years, Britain's voters yesterday poured out in record numbers, and early today it appeared that they had given Prime Minister John Major, who waged a come-from-behind campaign for the Conservative Party, a slim mandate to govern them for the next five years.
With results in hand from 362 seats out of 651 contested, the British Broadcasting Corp. projected that Mr. Major's Conservatives would win a total of 328 seats, two more than a majority in the House of Commons.
Independent Television News projected the Conservatives winning 329 seats, the Labor Party 270 and the Liberal Democrats 24.
"We were written off at the weekend, but we didn't sink into defeatism," said Home Secretary Kenneth Baker, a former Conservative chairman.
The vote showed that the Conservatives had managed to reverse a trend, evident in the polls for a month, indicating that Labor would put an end to their 13 years' hold on 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the Prime Minister.
Should the election result in a hung Parliament, the first in 18 years, and the Conservatives emerge with the larger number of seats, it would not assure Mr. Major, who replaced Margaret Thatcher as party leader in November 1990, his own mandate. That would depend on what kind of deals Labor and the Conservatives could make with the smaller parties, especially with the Liberal Democrats.
In a hung Parliament, Labor would be better positioned in these negotiations. The policies of Labor's leader, Neil Kinnock, are much closer to those of Paddy Ashdown, head of the Liberal Democrats, who would be pivotal.
Also, Mr. Major has rejected the Liberal Democrats' demand for a system of proportional representation in Britain.
The only likely partners for the Conservatives, should they need an ally, would be the Ulster Unionists, who would probably demand an end to, or gutting of, the Anglo-Irish Accord as the price of their support.
Should Mr. Major's lead hold out, or should the two major parties come close in the number of seats they win, Mr. Major, as the incumbent, would be asked by Queen Elizabeth II to form a government. If he could not, and it seemed that Mr. Kinnock might be able to cobble together a majority, he would be asked to try.
Should neither be able to do it, the largest party might try to govern without a majority. But such governments rarely succeed, so a second election might be held in the near future.
Whatever the ultimate count, and despite the inconclusive result, there were several definitive outcomes. Perhaps the most important, for Britain's political health, the country once again has a genuine multi-party system.
The election put an end to the overwhelming dominance of the Conservative Party in the country, begun with Mrs. Thatcher's victory in 1979. She led the Conservatives to two further triumphs against Labor, in 1983 and 1987, and in the process demoralized and stripped Labor of much of its power and influence in the country.
That Labor did as well as it appeared in yesterday's poll is a tribute to Mr. Kinnock. Taking over as head of the party after its ignominious defeat in 1983, he purged it of extremist leftists, reshaped its policies, freed it of domination by union leaders, and generally moved the party closer to the center, making it more acceptable to the British electorate.
A. John Barnes, a biographer of Stanley Baldwin, three-time Conservative prime minister in the 1920s and 1930s, described Mr. Kinnock as "probably the best party boss we've seen in years."
Another outcome the election clearly indicates is something of a turning away by the electorate from the policies of Mrs. Thatcher, modified and carried into the campaign by Mr. Major.
Polls had consistently shown that the principal preoccupations of the British people were the state of the economy and, to a lesser but still significant extent, the condition of the National Health Service, the keystone of the welfare state erected here after the war.
Mrs. Thatcher's drive to privatize virtually every industry in sight led her and her successors to introduce free-market policies into the socialized medical system, which alarmed many people. During the campaign Labor seemed to gain much support by airing this issue.
Also, residual anger at one of her cardinal policies -- the poll tax, which Mr. Major began dismantling -- helped the Labor campaign.
Two recessions have afflicted Britain during the 13 years of Conservative rule, and they have created many victims in their wake.
As Mr. Major said at his last press conference Wednesday: "Recessions hurt people." This was his explanation as to why the race had been so close throughout. Without the recession, he was certain, the Conservatives would have won easily.
Whatever the final outcome, Mr. Major has seen his certitude redeemed. He insisted that his party would avoid the defeat predicted by both the polls and many media commentators. He fought off, it appears, Labor's powerful appeal to the electorate that it is time for a change.
So powerful was that message that even the Financial Times, the newspaper whose readers constitute the elite of the Conservative constituency, came out in support of Labor.
It is common for party leaders to predict only victories for their parties, but Mr. Major truly believed it. Whether this confidence will redeem him in the eyes of his party mandarins -- the men who threw Mrs. Thatcher out and put him in her stead -- is not certain. He did, after all, apparently lose the party's majority, and firm grip on the government.
Also, the Scottish issue has been further inflamed by the election, again according to a late night projection, which said that the Conservatives' representation from Scotland would be reduced to only 3 seats, and the Scottish National Party would move up to 7.
Scotland has 72 seats in the Westminster Parliament. Sentiment is strong in Scotland for a legislature of its own, which Labor has promised and the Conservatives oppose.
Throughout the campaign the Conservatives drew criticism from within for their lackluster effort, especially from grass-roots party workers.
When it started, in early March, Michael Heseltine, the Conservative environment minister, promised the campaign would be fought on three issues: Tax. Tax. Tax.
The Conservatives planned to beat Labor by portraying them as high taxers, and Mr. Kinnock as unfit to be the prime minister. As it turned out, Mr. Kinnock's stature grew during the campaign, and Mr. Major's shrank some.
By pounding on the issues of the economy and national health system, Labor was able to keep Mr. Major and the Conservatives on the defensive much of the time.
So how did Mr. Major turn it around?
There is no certain answer to this, but throughout the campaign the Conservatives had been banking on what was termed here the "cold feet factor." This describes the residual fear that would come over many voters when they got to the polls -- especially older ones who remember the chaos during the last years of Labor governance in the late 1970s.