David Cameron looked set set to remain Prime Minister last night with the Conservatives the largest party in the new Parliament, according to an exit poll released as ballots closed in the General Election.
In what would be a disaster for both Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg if borne out by results, the joint BBC/ITN/Sky poll put Conservatives on 316 – just 10 short of the magic number of 326 needed to command an absolute majority in the House of Commons.
Labour were forecast to secure just 239 – 17 fewer than their tally at the start of the election campaign – with the Scottish National Party almost achieving a clean sweep of 58 of the 59 seats north of the border.
Liberal Democrats were predicted to be reduced to a rump of just 10 seats – enough to form a viable coalition with Tories.
Ukip were predicted to secure two seats, their first ever in a General Election.
The exit poll of around 20,000 voters is dramatically at odds with polling during the election campaign, which suggested right up to the last day that Conservatives and Labour were heading for a dead heat.
However a YouGov poll for the Sun based on interviews with 6,000 people after they voted found the Tories and Labour tied on 34 per cent, with Ukip on 12 per cent, Lib Dems 10 per cent and the SNP and Plaid Cymru both on 5 per cent.
YouGov chairman Peter Kellner said the numbers endorsed his earlier prediction of 284 MPs for David Cameron, with Ed Miliband on 263, Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems 31, the SNP 48, Ukip two, Plaid Cymru three, and the Greens on one.
However if the main the exit poll proves correct, it would be the first time that a ruling party has increased its tally of seats since 1983, with Conservatives increasing its strength at Westminster by 14. It would give Mr Cameron the option of attempting to form a Conservative-only minority government without having to offer ministerial posts and a role in framing legislation to coalition parties.
Although a tally of 316 is lower than the 326 threshold for an absolute majority, it is very close to the lower figure of 321-322 needed for all practical purposes, assuming Sinn Fein MPs do not take up their seats.
A minority Tory government may hope to get its legislation through with the support of Northern Irish unionists, who are likely to win around eight or nine seats.
The arithmetic could even hand the balance of power in key votes to a pair of Ukip MPs, who could be expected to use any leverage this gives them to put pressure on the Prime Minister to bring forward his planned in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union in 2017.
If borne out by results, the polling figures would raise large questions over Mr Miliband’s future as Labour leader. A Labour source said: “It’s been close all the way through - and exit polls have been wrong in the past.
YouGov is very different from the BBC’s.”