In a cliffhanger election with more than half of the results in, the figures appeared to suggest the Clegg bubble had burst and gave credibility to an earlier exit poll for the BBC, ITV and Sky, which pointed to a hung parliament with the Tories on 305 seats, up 95 but 21 short of an overall majority; Labour on 255 down 94; the Liberal Democrats on 61 down one and others unchanged on 29.
Early results showed the Tories enjoying swings from Labour of up to 10% while turnouts in some seats were up, percent-wise, in the high 60s and low 70s.
On his flight to London, Mr Brown said: “I am the leader of the Labour Party but I’ve also got a duty to the country. The economy is incredibly important to our future and we must be sending out the right message to the world.” He added there was also “a mood for political reform in this country”.
In Downing Street, sources made clear the Labour leader would insist the sitting government had the first right to form an administration even
if it were not the biggest party and that a majority coalition government
would be better at a time of economic
uncertainty than a minority administration.
However, at his count in Oxfordshire, the Tory leader said the nation had voted for change and he was ready to put the national interest first by providing “strong, stable, decisive and good government”.
The Electoral Commission, meanwhile, said it would be undertaking
a thorough review after there were
several incidents of people being unable to vote by the time polls closed at 10pm.
Geoffrey Robinson, QC, the human rights lawyer, said people denied the right to vote had a right to sue. Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, said: “It’s
a third-world lack of democracy we’re seeing.”
Amid the constitutional wrangling, the nearest to a “Portillo moment” came when Jacqui Smith, the former Home Secretary disgraced by the expenses scandal, lost her Redditch seat to her Conservative opponent.
Earlier, the first upset came when Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson, dogged by controversy, lost his seat in east Belfast to the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long, the lord mayor of Belfast, with a massive 22.9% swing against the Democratic Unionist leader.
As the rollercoaster night of results began to unfold, Lord Mandelson admitted Labour was “obviously” prepared to consider a deal with the Liberal Democrats to keep the Conservatives out of power.
Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, when asked if he had any problem with such an agreement, 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.”
Peter Hain, the Welsh Secretary, claimed there was a “big anti-Tory majority” and referred to “a progressive majority” in favour of fundamental political reform while Jim Murphy, the Scottish Secretary, said: “All options are still open, including ...
a Labour-Liberal coalition.”
However, Tory HQ was incensed at such talk. A spokesman said: “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.”
William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary, branded Mr Brown’s pretensions to hold on to power as “shameless” while David Davis, the former shadow home secretary, said people would view a Lab-Lib coalition as “a coalition of losers”.
Late last night, Mr Cameron was congratulated on his “victory” by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The actor turned Republican governor of California said: “We know the Conservatives had a great day.”