London: David Cameron is on course to secure an astonishing electoral triumph as Tories fended off a Labour challenge in the key English marginals and early results suggested the Conservatives could even win enough seats to secure an overall majority.
The result â€“ devastating Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and leaving Scotland a near one-party state under the control of the Scottish National party â€“ probably represents the biggest surprise in a general election since 1945.
The surveys taken at a large number of polling stations across the UK are traditionally released soon after the close of polling and were spot on with their predictions in the last 2010 general election.Â
This year’s exit results suggest the Tories will get 316 MPs to Labour’s 239 once all the results have been counted.Â
It suggests the Liberal Democrats will get 10 MPs, the Scottish National Party (SNP) 58, Northern Ireland’s DUP 8, Welsh Plaid Cymru 4, UKIP 2 and the Greens 2.Â
The exit polls, conducted by NOP/MORI for the BBC, ITV and Sky, indicate that Cameron has the option to go into a repeat coalition with the Lib Dems to strike the magic 326 required for a majority in the House of Commons or even cobble together one along with the DUP and a few other Independents.Â
The first official election result came in from Sunderland just 50 minutes after the close of polling at 2200 hours (local time) and it was a victory for Labour, which held on to its traditional stronghold.Â
The exit polls have left a number of poll pundits baffled as it is not in line with the opinion polls over the last few weeks, which had suggested a far more neck and neck race between the Conservatives and Miliband-led Opposition Labour.Â
A roll-call of Liberal Democrat ministers, including Vince Cable, the business secretary, were defeated, leaving a forlorn Nick Clegg to admit it had been a cruel and punishing night. Clegg narrowly survived in his own Sheffield Hallam seat but will return to Westminster to meet fewer than 10 fellow MPs, down from 57.
Across the Midlands, Scotland and even in London, the swings Labour needed in order to make gains simply failed to appear, and far from a swing to Labour, the results revealed the Conservative party strengthening its vote.
Ed Milband, speaking from Doncaster, effectively conceded defeat as he said he was â€œdeeply sorryâ€ about the result.
He said: â€œThe results are still coming in, but this has clearly been a very disappointing and difficult night for the Labour party. We havenâ€™t made the gains we wanted in England and Wales and in Scotland weâ€™ve seen a surge of nationalism overwhelm our party. Now, I want to say to all the dedicated and decent colleagues in Scotland who have lost their seats that I am deeply sorry for what has happened.â€
He made no mention of his own leadership but is heading for Westminster to await the rest of the results. It was expected that Miliband would announce plans to resign on Friday morning, but may stay on as an interim leader in the manner of Michael Howard to mount an effective opposition while the party mounts an inquest.
It has been argued that a weakened party should not immediately turn in on itself with a divisive leadership contest, something that in 2010 gave room for the Conservatives to shape the political debate.
If the exit poll is borne out in the final Westminster tally, it will leave a triumphant Cameron within touching distance of an overall Commons majority without the need for the support of the devastated Liberal Democrats or even the Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland. It is now looking possible that the Conservatives could exceed the 316 seats predicted by that BBC poll.
Speaking from his Witney seat in Oxfordshire, David Cameron said it had been a â€œvery strong nightâ€ for the Conservatives, showing there had been a â€œpositive response to a positive campaignâ€.
Despite having warned against the threat of Scottish nationalism in Westminster during the campaign, he said now was the time to mend divisions between England and SCotland.
â€œAbove all, I want to bring our country together, our United Kingdom, implementing as fast as we can devolution both for Wales and Scotland,â€ he said. â€œI want my party and a government I would like to lead to reclaim the mantle of one nation, one United Kingdom. That is how I will govern if I am fortunate enough to form a government.â€
Boris Johnson, newly returned for Uxbridge, said: â€œI am sure there is scope for a federal offer to be made to Scotland.â€
The result is a total vindication of Cameronâ€™s decision to campaign on the threat posed to England by a Miliband government dependent on the support of the Scottish National party.
Lib Dem election chief Lord Ashdown said, “If this exit poll is right I will publicly eat my hat.”
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon was also cautious about the exit poll, which places her party on the course of its biggest win in Scottish history.Â
“I’d treat the exit poll with HUGE caution. I’m hoping for a good night but I think 58 seats is unlikely!” she tweeted.Â
Pollsters interviewed 22,000 people in 141 polling locations in 133 constituencies throughout Great Britain for the exit poll.Â
A total of 650 Westminster MPs will be elected, with about 50 million people registered to vote in an election which has reported a fairly high turnout.
In Lutyen’s Delhi, British High Commissioner James Bevan hosted a select gathering to watch the election results even though the diplomats were tight lipped. The general view amongst was that a stable government in London will also provide impetus to the India UK relationship, which is expected to boom with Cameron’s second term.