A struggle for power broke out today as Britain voted for a hung parliament with the Conservatives as the largest party but Labour refusing to hand over the keys to Downing Street.
In the early hours, as the Tories prepared to claim victory, Labour made clear it would try to hang on to power by trying to forge a partnership deal with the Liberal Democrats. Downing Street sources said Gordon Brown would try to form a coalition government, arguing that the sitting government has the first right to form an administration even if it is not the biggest party.
For the Liberal Democrats the hopes that had been raised by 'Clegmania' since the first televised leadership debate seemed largely to have evaporated. Far from making a string of gains the party was left to mull a succession of lost seats and Nick Clegg admitted he was "disappointed" by the results.
Mr Brown, after retaining his Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath seat, made clear that staying in Number 10 was high on his agenda. He said “My duty to the country coming out of this election is to play my part in Britain having a strong, stable and principled government, able to lead Britain into sustained economic recovery and able to implement our commitments to far-reaching reform to the political system upon which there is a growing consensus in our country.”
However, he left open the question of whether he might stand aside to make it easier for Mr Clegg to take his party into partnership with Labour. The Liberal Democrat leader has hinted that this could be his price for sustaining Labour in power.
Mr Brown reached the party HQ in London shortly after dawn and disappeared inside for meetings with Lord Mandelson, Harriet Harman and other senior Labour figures. He returned to Downing Street at 7am. A senior official said when asked what the next move was: "It's up to Gordon."
With Labour and the Tories braced for a hung parliament, a row erupted between the big two parties over who had the right to government the country. David Cameron said just after 3am: “I believe it is already clear that the Labour Government has lost its mandate to govern the country… What is clear from these results is that our country wants change. That change is going to require new leadership.” He promised to provide “strong, stable, decisive and good government”.
William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said Labour was on course to lose about 100 seats. “For a government to try and stay in office in these circumstances after such a decisive rejection would be shameless, would be arrogant,” he said.
Nevertheless, among Labour ministers there were hopes of retaining power to ensure they could carry through reforms.
Peter Hain, the Welsh Secretary, was among those to voice hopes of power sharing with the Liberal democrats. "I think there is an obligation on us, in the Labour Government led by the Prime Minister, to see whether we can form a progressive majority government," he said.
The Liberal Democrat leader urged members of all parties to allow a period of reflection before deciding on what deals they made to secure power.
"I don't think we should rush into making claims or taking decisions which don't stand up to the test of time," he said. "I think it would be best if everybody took a little bit of time so people get the good government they deserve in these very difficult and uncertain times."
And in a hint of what he will expect from Mr Brown or Mr Cameron in return for his backing he said: "Whatever happens in the next few days, weeks, months, I will be guided by the values and principles on which we fought this election - of fairness in our society, responsibility in providing stability and growth to the economy ... and real change to the way we do politics."
With the Tories uncertain of passing the 326-seat mark needed for an overall majority, Labour was hoping to keep Mr Cameron’s tally below 300 so that a deal with the Liberal Democrats would have greater legitimacy.
Such a hope seemed increasingly forlorn - with 583 of 650 seats declared just under half the results declared the Conservatives had won 36.4 per cent of the votes and 281 seats, Labour 28.6 per cent and 227 seats, and the Liberal Democrats 22.8 per cent of the vote with 48 seats. Forecasts suggested the Conservatives would end on 309 with Labour on 259 and the Liberal democrats on 54.
The Tories gained Kingswood, Bolton North East, Dover, Battersea, Aberconwy, Vale of Glamorgan, Tamworth, Nuneaton, Leicestershire North West, Erewash, Dartford and South Basildon and East Thurrock from Labour and ousted the Liberal Democrat Lembit Opik in Montgomeryshire.
Jacqui Smith, the former Home Secretary, was among the biggest scalps to fall to the Conservatives. She was crushed by a 9.2 per cent swing to Karen Lumley and trailed by almost 6,000 votes.
But Mr Cameron’s party failed to seize Torbay from the Liberal Democrats and Telford, Bolton North East, Bolton West, Tooting and Gedling from Labour, in a blow to his hopes of an overall majority.
There were disappointments for the Liberal Democrats as they failed to capture target seats such as Guildford and Oxford East despite their surge in the polls during the campaign. But they did storm Redcar to topple Labour's Vera Baird, the solicitor general, and they turfed Charles Clarke, the former home secretary, out of Norwich South.
Ms Baird was one of at least 11 ministers to be ousted by voters. The others were Energy and Climate Change Minister David Kidney, Third Sector Minister Angela Smith, Communities Minister Shahid Malik, Public Health Minister Gillian Merron, International Development Minister Mike Foster, Care Services Minister Phil Hope, Health Minister Mike O'Brien, Work and Pensions Minister Jim Knight, Junior justice minister Claire Ward and Armed Forces Minister Bill Rammell.
The first surprise of the night came when Peter Robinson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and Northern Ireland’s First Minister, lost his East Belfast seat to the non-sectarian Alliance Party, giving it its first seat at Westminster.
The early indications were that turnout was up significantly from the last two general elections. With approaching a third of seats declared turnout was 64.6 per cent, up from 61.4 per cent in 2005 and 59.4 per cent in 2001.
There were chaotic scenes in several constituencies as the polls closed. Some polling stations extended operating times for an extra half-an-hour, while others shut their doors, leaving angry people claiming they had been disenfranchised. Police were called in Sheffield, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne and several London seats as late voters were locked out. In Mr Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam constituency, several voters who had been turned away protested outside the Liberal Democrat leader’s house. Some polling stations ran out of ballot papers because of the unexpectedly high turnout. Electors in the Liverpool Wavertree constituency were told they had to wait for new forms to be delivered. Some left before the extra papers arrived. There could be legal challenges and calls for some close contests to be re-run. A Labour source said the party was “deeply concerned” about it, while a Tory spokesman said: “These are very disturbing stories which clearly need to be thoroughly investigated.”
The Electoral Commission said: “It is a cause for serious concern that many people who wanted to vote today were unable to do so by 10pm when polls closed. By law, polls must close at 10pm and any voter issued with a ballot paper by 10pm should be allowed time to cast it, but no ballot paper should be issued after 10pm. There should have been sufficient resources allocated to ensure that everyone who wished to vote was able to do so.”
Sterling fell more than a cent against the dollar after the exit poll as fears about a hung parliament prompted traders to bail out of sterling. The pound dropped from $1.486 before the forecast to $1.474, suggesting some investors are worrying about the implications of no clear result and its impact on tackling the UK’s massive deficit. Sterling also fell against the euro, down from €1.174 before the poll to €1.168.
Labour still hoped to do better than the exit poll so Mr Brown could offer a “partnership deal” to the Liberal Democrats. Lord Mandelson, who led Labour’s campaign, said: “The Liberal Democrats I would suspect would talk to both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party.”