Exit poll makes Tories largest party in hung parliament
Poll predicts near wipe-out for Labour in Scotland, with 58 seats out of 59 for SNP
Ballot papers for the Belfast West constituency are sorted by counting staff at the counting centre at the Kings Hall in Belfast, Northern Ireland on Thursday during the British general election. Photograph: Getty
British prime minister David Cameron was on track to secure an astonishing electoral triumph according to a shock exit poll that predicted the Conservatives would win 316 seats - up nine on 2010 - with Labour plummeting to 239 seats, down 18.
If the poll forecasts were borne out in the final Westminster tally, it would leave Mr Cameron within touching distance of an overall Commons majority without the need for the support of the Liberal Democrats.
The poll predicted a near wipe-out for Labour in Scotland, with 58 seats out of 59 for the Scottish National party and the Liberal Democrats collapsing to 10.
That would leave Mr Cameron hardly needing to wait to see whether the Lib Dems would support the Tories in a second coalition.
The exit poll was way out of line with national opinion polls that had showed the two main parties neck and neck. The projection would leave the Tories 57 seats ahead of Labour, with the combined Labour-SNP tally on 297, still behind the Conservatives.
Previous election exit polls have proved to be highly accurate in predicting seats for the winning party. But the presence of extra parties and the SNP surge has made the statistical process harder this time.
The poll, operated by BBC, ITN and Sky, covers 140 polling stations in key marginal seats and is expected to be within 20-25 seats of the final figure for the main two parties, a large enough variable to change the dynamics of a hung parliament.
Gains/losses from 2010: based on exit poll
Mori exit poll
The chief whip, Michael Gove, told the BBC that if the exit poll was accurate it would be the first time a government had increased its majority since 1983 and would represent an unprecedented vote of confidence in Cameron. He said the path was set for a stable government.
Mr Cameron will regard the numbers as good enough to try to open negotiations with the Lib Dems and Democratic Unionists to form a second coalition.
Many rightwing Tory MPs had been planning to demand that Mr Cameron govern alone, and that view will be strengthened by the size of the Tory vote and the party’s revulsion at the prospect of another five years in power with a weakened Liberal Democrat party.
It had been expected that Mr Cameron could afford to be less generous in offering cabinet positions to the Lib Dems if Nick Clegg’s party took fewer than 30 seats. But the prime minister may now feel he could govern alone or with the Democratic Unionists.
Mr Clegg may lose one of his chief lieutenants, Danny Alexander, and will have to tread carefully.
Mr Clegg had set up an elaborate system of internal party consultation so that his five-strong negotiating team do not find themselves reaching deals the party cannot tolerate.
The former Liberal leader Lord Steel has already urged the party not to go into coalition with the Tories but instead to work loosely with a minority Labour administration on constitutional issues such as Lords reform.
Vince Cable, the business secretary, has also made clear he is not willing to see the party grant Cameron an in/out referendum on British membership of the EU in 2017, saying opposition to such a referendum should be at the very top of the party’s priorities. Cable has also said the Lib Dems has very different priorities on cutting the deficit, capital investment and defending the welfare budget.
If the election result matches the poll it will be a devastating blow to Ed Miliband, who had been buoyed by his own strong performance in the campaign and opinion polls showing that the late momentum appeared to be with Labour.
Mr Miliband had been hoping for a closer result that would give him a stronger chance to challenge Mr Cameron to resign as prime minister on the basis that he had no viable route to the 323 seats he needs to secure a Commons majority.
Mr Miliband had hoped he could persuade the Lib Dems that he can make a viable alternative coalition partner, but Mr Clegg has made clear he will give the party with the most seats and votes the time and space to try to form a government first.
Labour are expected to argue the British constitution gives the premiership to the leader who commands the confidence of the Commons, not to the party with the most seats.
The message looks like it has already squeezed the potential Ukip vote, with the Tories making inroads in the south-west. The Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, struggled to keep his anti-immigration message relevant as other issues dominated the campaign.