Millions of people across Britain will today go to the polls in the most tightly-contested General Election in a generation.
A string of eve-of-election opinion polls gave David Cameron’s Conservatives a clear lead over Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but suggested that the Tories will not reach the level of support they need to claim an overall majority in the House of Commons.
With around 50,000 polling stations opening at 7am today, there was more uncertainty about who would eventually emerge as Prime Minister than in any election since 1992 and a real expectation of a hung Parliament for the first time since 1974.
On Wednesday night David Cameron urged the public not to allow fear to “triumph over hope” as he sought an outright victory with a final appeal to millions of undecided voters.
The Tory leader completed a gruelling 36-hour campaigning drive across the country with a pledge that he could make Britain better.
In a final rally in Bristol he told supporters: “In this election, don’t let fear triumph over hope. A Conservative government can get our economy moving again, can tackle our social problems, can make politics accountable.”
Meanwhile Gordon Brown returned to Scotland, where he rounded off his campaign at a rally in Dumfries with a plea to wavering voters: “At this moment of risk to our economy, at this moment of decision for our country, I ask you to come home to Labour.”
And Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg addressed a crowd of hundreds of people on the steps of Sheffield City Hall, with an appeal for voters to “aim higher, don’t settle for second best”.
The final newspaper polls of the campaign all put the Conservatives in the lead with support ranging between 35 per cent and 37 per cent.
The other two parties were vying for second place, with Labour apparently edging slightly ahead on 28 per cent-29 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 26-28 per cent.
On an even swing, the figures would make the Tories the largest party, with between 268 and 294 seats in the House of Commons, but leave them well short of the 326 MPs Mr Cameron needs to lead a majority administration.
The polls suggest Labour could emerge with around 248-274 MPs, with the Liberal Democrats holding the balance of power on 77-82 seats.
The most up-to-date Guardian/ICM poll shows the Conservatives with an eight-point lead over Labour, just short of what they need for an overall majority.
The survey put the Conservatives on 36 per cent, Labour on 28 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 26 per cent.
But much will depend on performance in individual constituencies, particularly the 100 or so Labour/Conservative marginals which hold the key to tonight’s result and where the fiercest battles have been fought.
Strategists believe that an unusually large number of voters will only make their minds up when they get into the polling booths, adding an additional layer of uncertainty to the result.
If the Lib Dems suffer from a classic last-minute “third party squeeze”, with voters gravitating to the two larger parties, it could even have the effect of handing the balance of power to the Welsh and Scottish nationalists or the Northern Irish parties.
The Democratic Unionist Party last night claimed they were being courted by Mr Brown ahead of a possible hung Parliament, releasing a letter in which the Labour leader promised to maintain the size of the block grant from Westminster to Northern Ireland if he remains in 10 Downing Street.
The national newspapers did their bit to boost the chances of their preferred candidates.
The Sun hailed Mr Cameron as “Our Only Hope” in a front-page echoing the famous campaign posters of Barack Obama, while the Daily Mirror painted a less flattering picture, asking “Prime Minister? Really?” alongside a picture of the Tory leader and a CV featuring his Eton education and support for foxhunting and listing his real-life experience as “None”.
Mr Cameron and wife Samantha will cast their votes early today in his constituency of Witney in Oxfordshire, while Mr Brown and Sarah will go to the polling station in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath.
Mr Clegg will be accompanied by wife Miriam Gonzalez Durantez to the polls in Sheffield Hallam, but she will not be able to vote for her husband as she is a Spanish citizen.
As well as the 650 MPs of the new Parliament, voters are also electing councillors in 166 local authorities across England – including London boroughs – and mayors in Hackney, Lewisham, Newham and Watford.
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