David Cameron called on Gordon Brown to quit as Prime Minister this morning as voters overwhelmingly rejected Labour but failed to hand the Tories an outright majority.
The Tory leader said that the Government ‘had lost its mandate to govern.’
The BBC predicted that the Tories would be the biggest party in a hung parliament after they secured their biggest swing against Labour for 80 years.
And with more than 500 results declared this morning, the Tories were on course to win around 37 per cent of the vote, well ahead of Labour on 28 per cent, with the Lib Dems on 23 per cent.
Generally the Tories seemed to have achieved bigger swings in the South than in the North – in many cases considerably greater than that needed for an overall majority.
But after a night of confusion the BBC finally issued a prediction at 5.30 this morning which seemed to confirm the early exit poll in its verdict of a hung parliament.
The Tories are on course to win 306 seats, with Labour on 262 and the Lib Dems on 55, with 27 seats for other parties, according to the BBC.
This would leave David Cameron 20 short of an overall majority.
And this morning Mr Brown returned to Downing Street in London. The question was: for how long?
Meanwhile Mr Cameron was holed up with his own advisors planning his next moves in the drama.
Frantic behind-the-scenes talks will dominate this morning if the BBC’s prediction is correct and the Tories have failed to secure an overall majority.
A spokesman for Mr Brown said: ‘The Prime Minister is to return to Downing Street to get some rest and see his family.
‘We will not rush into making any statements until the election results are clearer.’
But sources indicated he was ready to embark on days of talks aimed at piecing together a coalition.
As he was re-elected in his constituency in Witney last night, Mr Cameron said: ‘I believe it’s already clear that the Labour government has lost its mandate to govern our country.
‘I can see also that the Conservative Party is on target to win more seats at this election than we have done at any election in perhaps as long as 80 years.’
He added: ‘What’s clear from these results is that the country, our country, wants change.
‘That change is going to require new leadership and we will stand ready to do all we can to help bring that leadership.’
And Mr Cameron appeared to acknowledge that the Tories had failed to secure an outright win.
He left the door open to a coalition government as he said he would be guided by the national interest in the ‘hours, or perhaps longer than hours’ ahead.
Nick Clegg admitted that it had been a ‘disappointing night’ for the Lib Dems. But he urged caution for party leaders planning on making snap decision on possible coalitions.
‘I don’t think anyone should rush into making claims or taking decisions that don’t stand the test of time,’ he said.
‘I think it would be best if everybody were just to take a little time so people get the good government they deserve.’
Senior Labour figures immediately began touting for a power-sharing deal with the Liberal Democrats and other smaller parties in a desperate bid to cling to power.
To add to the sense of chaos around the result, voters were locked out of polling stations, ballot papers ran out and police were called as people staged sit-ins after being denied a vote.
Tens of thousands of people were denied the chance to exercise their democratic right to cast a vote in a night that shamed British democracy and which raised the extraordinary prospect of legal challenges to results in key marginal seats, further delaying any final outcome.
A dreadful night for Labour saw the party lose a string of high-profile figures. The list was topped by the disgraced former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, who was ousted on a huge 9.2 per cent swing to the Conservatives.
After giving a congratulatory speech to her successor, Ms Smith appeared visibly upset and fighting tears as she departed the Town Hall with her team, leaving in a waiting car.
Another former Home Secretary Charles Clarke – a persistent critic of Gordon Brown – also lost his seat to the Lib Dems.
But the Schools Secretary Ed Balls saw off a serious challenge from the Conservatives to hold his Morley and Outwood constituency in West Yorkshire. His majority was slashed from almost 10,000 to just 1,000.
And Shadow Home Secretary William Hague said that it would be ‘arrogant’ for Labour politicians to try and cling on ‘after such a decisive rejection’.
To win a majority the Tories would need a swing from Labour of around 7 per cent – but in many parts of the country they were doing better than that.
The Tories were striking unexpectedly deep into Labour and Lib Dem territory in some areas, but pollsters said Mr Cameron was till looking likely to fall short of a majority.
But if Mr Cameron’s party does fall short of an overall majority, as the exit polls suggest, Gordon Brown will remain Prime Minister and have the first chance at trying to form a viable government.
Mr Brown, speaking to reporters on his flight to Stansted Airport, said the Tories had not done as well as had been predicted.
He said: ‘I was to be part of the furniture, if you like, in this sweep into Downing Street.’
Mr Brown insisted that he had a duty to the country to deliver strong and stable government.
He said: ‘I am the leader of the Labour Party but I’ve also got a duty to the country.’
He added: ‘The economy is incredibly important to our future and we must be sending out the right message to the world.’
And in an apparent nod to the Lib Dem’s demand for a move to he said there was also ‘a mood for political reform in this country’.
Both Mr Brown and Mr Cameron were closeted with their inner circles watching results come in and discussing the way ahead.
Mr Brown went straight to his first-floor office suite at Labour HQ, accompanied by his wife Sarah and Lord Mandelson.
And Transport Secretary Lord Adonis – a former Lib Dem councillor, who has been tipped to play a key part in coalition talks – denied negotiations had already begun.
He said: ‘Obviously we will now be in discussion with the other parties. The constitution is clear that Gordon Brown has the first opportunity to form that government.
‘But we shouldn’t prejudge the final outcome.’
In the early hours of this morning, the Lib Dems held an emergency meeting at the Liberal Club in central London as senior politicians thrashed out their strategy as the polls pointed to a hung parliament.
The Tories staged a number of comprehensive wins including snatching Kingswood from Labour – number 137 on their target list – with a 9.4 per cent swing.
But on the other hand the Tories were struggling to make the necessary headway against the Liberal Democrats, particularly in the South West, and failed to pick up Tooting in London, a key target seat.
The Tories were also struggling to make the headway they needed, as a north-south divide developed across Britain.
Labour said it had secured ‘spectacular’ results in Scotland, regaining the two seats it had lost in by-elections, and saw increased majorities in a number of seats.
But the SNP failed to make breakthroughs in key target seats while the Tories and Liberal Democrats couldn’t replicate their successes in the south.
With the results of 400 seats declared, Labour was polling just 27.4 per cent of the popular vote – worse than that achieved by Michael Foot in 1983 and the party’s worst performance since 1918.
Sterling initially fell as exit polls suggested a hung Parliament, but rallied – as did UK government bonds – at news of a series of big Conservative swings.
A tired and defeated-looking Gordon Brown told constituents at his Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath count: ‘The outcome of this country’s vote is not yet known, but my duty to the country, coming out of this election, is to play my part in Britain having a strong, stable and principled government, able to lead Britain into sustained economic recovery.’
In what appeared to be a farewell speech, Mr Brown thanked his supporters for their ‘unwavering’ support and thanked his wife, Sarah, for her ‘love and support’.
In a vindication of the strategy masterminded by Mr Cameron and controversial peer Lord Ashcroft, the Tories appeared to be doing better in key marginal seats.
Even if Cameron’s party fails to win an overall majority the Tory leader may still be able to form a viable government with the support of Unionist MPs from Northern Ireland.
And although Mr Clegg may be disappointed at the night’s results, he may yet be able to secure a referendum on full-blown proportional representation as the price of his support of either of the two other parties.
In any case, it was clear that Britain had demanded change as voters took to the polls in massive numbers to end Labour’s 13 years in power.
Turnout was on course to be the highest since John Major’s shock victory in 1992.
In the most tumultuous election night for more than 30 years, wildly inconsistent results across the country cast doubt on the exit poll forecasts.
The Tories claimed the scalp of one of the Lib Dems’ highest profile MPs, Lembit Opik, in Montgomeryshire, with a massive 13.4 per cent swing.
But in other areas they were struggling to make the headway they needed, failing to pick up key target seats including Gedling and Tooting.
Labour appeared to be strengthening its position in Scotland, meaning a minority Tory government will be made up overwhelmingly of English MPs.
Business Secretary Lord Mandelson suggested that Labour intends to try stitch together a power-sharing deal with the Lib Dems and other smaller parties, probably with a new leader installed.
‘The constitutional convention is very clear,’ he said. ‘You know the rules. If it’s a hung Parliament, it’s not the party with the largest number of seats that has first go, it’s the government.’
Home Secretary Alan Johnson, asked on BBC News if he had any problem in forming a pact with the Liberal Democrats, said: ‘I have no problem at all.
‘If the will of the people is that no party has an overall majority, that’s where grown-up, mature politicians have to be.
‘I can’t see the Lib Dems forming a deal with the Conservatives. I certainly can’t see us forming a deal with Conservatives.’
Labour Foreign Secretary David Miliband said it was ‘reasonable and right’ that parties attempted to work together to form a government in the event of a hung parliament.
He told BBC News: ‘As far as I can see the exit poll projection suggesting that no party would win this election is being borne out.
Shadow foreign secretary William Hague said the Liberal Democrats had indicated they would support whichever party had the most seats and the most votes.
‘If the Liberal Democrats are true to their word and there is a hung parliament, then of course they would want the Conservative Party to be able to try to form a government,’ he told ITV News.
‘Labour politicians have to think much more carefully about what they have been saying in the past few hours, because for a Government to try and stay in office in these circumstances – after such a decisive rejection – would be shameless, would be arrogant.
‘And remember, they have got a Prime Minister who was never elected in the first place, and the one time he is up for election he is clearly massively rejected by the country.’
Mr Hague also said he could not ‘rule out’ a minority government, depending on the results.
‘If indeed no party has won an absolute majority then it seems to me perfectly reasonable and right that parties should talk to each other to see if they can find common ground to establish a strong and stable government.
‘There’s no harm in that. It’s a good thing to do when the voters have clearly not embraced any of us and given us the absolute majority that we are all seeking.’
But senior Tory sources said ‘could not possibly expect continue in government’ in any sort of power-sharing deal with the Lib Dems or other parties.
‘We appear to have gained even more seats than Mrs Thatcher managed. Labour can’t possibly expect to continue in government after this humiliating rejection. Having lost 100 seats, they are insulting the voters to suggest otherwise,’ said one.
Alastair Campbell, Labour’s director of communications under Tony Blair, said he believed the results so far meant the parties were in ‘hung Parliament territory”.
Speaking at Labour’s London headquarters, he said the public had shown they wanted progressive policies and had not turned to the Conservatives in the numbers some had predicted.
‘When you consider there has been a recession, the MPs expenses scandal, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Labour’s results are remarkable.’ Mr Campbell said.
But former Home Secretary David Blunket said that Labour have ‘regrettably’ lost the election.
The party must now ‘unite the anti-Conservative forces’ to form a coalition if possible, he said.
But he warned that he believes it is ‘quite likely’ the Conservatives will win an overall majority.
Shortly before 11pm, the new constituency of Houghton and Sunderland South became first to declare with Bridget Phillipson comfortably retaining the seat for Labour.
She won with a sizeable majority – but there was an 8.4 per cent swing towards the Tories.
The second result, in Washington and Sunderland West, cast doubt on the exit polls, showing an even bigger swing of 11.6 per cent from Labour to the Tories.
And Shadow Chancellor George Osborne said: ‘Labour politicians need to get real. The idea that Gordon Brown and Labour can cling on to power when they’ve been rejected so decisively is frankly shocking.
‘It’s clearly a very uncertain time in world markets and Britain will need a stable and responsible government.
‘I believe, looking at the exit polls, it’s pretty clear that Labour cannot continue in government. I think they need to get real.’
He told Sky News: ‘On the figures I have seen so far David Cameron has obviously won. He’s preferred above all others in what has been a rather presidential campaign.
‘Gordon Brown has lost.’
Tonight’s exit poll, conducted for the BBC, ITV and Sky, predicted the Tories would end up with 305 seats, short of the 326 needed for an overall majority, Labour would be down to 255 seats and the Liberal Democrats on 61.
Mandelson acknowledged on BBC News that the situation could lead to legal challenges.
‘What the returning officers should have done is brought everyone in and locked the door.’
Tory party chairman Eric Pickles said: ‘It’s ridiculous. Of course people should be able to vote.
‘Surely to goodness, the returning officers could have just put the people in the polling station and continued.’
The Electoral Commission said in a statement: ‘It is a cause for serious concern that many people who wanted to vote today were unable to do so by 10pm when polls closed.
‘The Electoral Commission will be undertaking a thorough review of what has happened in those constituencies where people have been unable to vote.’
The last ‘rogue’ exit polls failed to predict John Major’s Tory victory 18 years ago.
Two exit polls in the 1992 general election both predicted a hung parliament. In the event, the Tories secured an overall majority of 21 seats.
The polls variously showed that the Conservatives were 10 or 25 seats short of an overall majority and that Labour were 13 seats short.
The Lib Dems immediately signalled that they believed the Conservatives, having scored the biggest number of votes and the biggest number of seats, had the moral right to govern.
Sterling fell more than a cent against the dollar as fears over a hung Parliament prompted traders to bail out of the currency.
Bill Cash, Conservative candidate for Stone, told the BBC: ‘There is a huge amount at stake for the country.
‘I think a Lib Dem/Labour pact with Miliband, Mandelson and Clegg would be a kind of Greek tragedy.’
Ken Clarke told BBC News that it was a ‘certainty’ that Gordon Brown would be removed from office.
He said: ‘It looks as though there is a serious risk of a hung parliament but with the Conservatives not too far off and obviously the single biggest party.
‘One certainty, I think, is that Gordon Brown has been removed from office. It would be a complete travesty if Gordon Brown tried to carry on as Prime Minister because he has plainly been rejected and lost all authority to govern.’
Foreign Secretary David Miliband told Sky News: ‘If no party has an absolute majority, no party has a moral right to a monopoly of power.’
In those circumstances voters would have given politicians ‘an injunction to talk to each other’ to see if ‘strong and stable’ government could be achieved.
But Professor Vernon Bogdanor, a constitutional expert from Oxford University, said that if a swing of 8.4 per cent in the first seat to declare – Houghton and Sunderland South – is repeated across the country there will not be a hung parliament but an outright Conservative victory.
Shadow business secretary Ken Clarke said a ‘fairly unpredictable night’ lay ahead.
But he told ITV News: ‘One thing is clear: Gordon Brown can’t possibly carry on as Prime Minister.
‘He has lost all authority to govern. He is going to fall away very badly.’
Mr Osborne told BBC News the exit polls were indicating a ‘rejection of the Labour Government’.
He said: ‘It’s clearly a very uncertain time in the world markets and Britain will need a stable and responsible government.
‘I believe that looking at the exit polls, and we haven’t had many of the results yet, but on the basis of that I think it’s pretty clear Labour cannot continue in Government.’
The huge turnout, dwarfing that of recent elections, was being seen as a response to what has been dubbed the ‘rotten Parliament’, mired in the expenses scandal and an exhausted government that has left public finances in unprecedented turmoil.
Lord Mandelson said: ‘Of course, many people have turned away from the Labour Party but what they haven’t done is to fly into the arms of David Cameron’s Tories.’
However, Home Secretary Alan Johnson admitted that the Tories ‘seemed to have done very well’.
Harriet Harman, the deputy Labour leader, said she thought it was ‘arrogant’ of David Cameron to ‘declare a victory in advance’.
‘It does not appear from the exit poll to be a massive endorsement of the Conservative Party. It is too early to say.’
Meanwhile Conservative Party chairman Eric Pickles told ITV: ‘I think we’re going to see a very interesting night.
‘If I was a member of the public, I would be staying up all night because I think we are going to see things that occur above what you are saying and things that are going to occur below.
‘And I think we are going to see an enormous amount of churning between the political parties.’
Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove said he ‘absolutely believed’ it was possible for the Tories to win a majority, adding there may be some ‘quirky’ results in parts of the country.
Lib Dem frontbencher Simon Hughes played down the exit poll results. He told Sky News: ‘The people will be the king-maker, not the exit polls.’
In perhaps the most surreal moment of the night, Arnold Schwarzenegger phoned Mr Cameron to congratulate him on victory.
‘The governor of California posted on the micro blogging site Twitter: “Just called @davidcameron to congratulate him on the victory. Even though results aren’t in we know the Conservatives had a great day.’
Tonight, Gordon Brown was facing calls to quit as Labour leader as polls suggested the party has endured its worst drubbing since Michael Foot led it to disaster in 1983.
Observers predicted turnout could be the highest since 1992, when it hit 77.7 per cent as John Major confounded the polls to cling to office.
Turnout slumped to a record low of 59.1 per cent in 2001, and increased only to 61.4 per cent in 2005.
But with the outcome uncertain, and the campaign energised by the televised leadership debates, polling stations reported queues from 7am yesterday morning.
There were reports tonight that hundreds of people were unable to vote as they were still queuing when the ballot boxes closed at 10pm.
Voters in Hackney, east London, were turned away from a polling station in Triangle Road after some had been forced to queue for more than an hour and a half, they said.
And police were called to a polling station in Manwood Road, Lewisham, south London, where around 300 people had yet to vote by 10pm, Scotland Yard said.
There were reports of similar situations in other parts of the country.
In Hackney, where residents were voting for their MP, councillors and the borough’s elected mayor, at least 150 people were still queuing when the polls closed, according to Andrew Boff, Conservative mayoral candidate.
He said the number who were not able to vote before the 10pm deadline could be double that figure, as some people had given up in the face of long queues – and that ‘it was getting ugly’ after people were told they could not vote at the polling station which had just three staff.
‘At 10pm the ballot boxes were closed and people were told they would not have a vote,’ he said.
‘People were very angry.’
Would-be voters staged a sit-in protest at the building after the ballot boxes closed and police had to be called.
Liz Veitch, the last person to vote at the polling station after waiting for more than an hour and a half, said the queue had been snaking out of the building and down the street.
‘There are an awful lot of extremely angry people around here. It’s an absolute scandal. I can’t see how the results for Hackney can be counted as the results of the election,’ she said.
Former Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown said politicians should wait until next week to ‘make more sensible decisions’ if a hung parliament is delivered.
He also told ITV News the Tories would ‘try to play the trick of Milosevic of turning an election into a street battle’.
He said: ‘What you have got here is an uncertain result – a rather poor result for Mr Cameron – but the phrase ‘a comprehensive rejection of Labour’ is the phrase you are going to hear.’
But Tory former Cabinet minister Ann Widdecombe said Lord Ashdown was being a ‘bit pompous and premature’, adding: ‘Not only is this a comprehensive rejection of Labour, but it is the nation actually saying they do not want Labour to govern.
‘Now if the Liberal Democrats decide that they are going to prop up a discredited government, well, I think they will pay the price in about six months’ time.’
Shadow work and pensions secretary Theresa May said it would be ‘absolutely extraordinary’ if Labour tried to cling on to power after what could be its ‘worst result since 1931’.
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