The Liberal Democrats looked set to suffer a more nervous election night than they had anticipated after early indications suggested the party had not managed to secure the major electoral breakthrough it had hoped for in the run-up to the ballot.
Early results appeared to back up a shock exit poll result suggesting the party was far from securing the second place that had once looked possible, largely squandering the surge in support it had enjoyed during the campaign. The high hopes of Liberal Democrat staffers and members packed into the National Liberal Club, in Westminster, were dented early on in the evening as the party failed to win the seat first on its target list. It also suffered the shock loss of Montgomeryshire, which had been represented by Lembit Opik, with a massive swing to the Tories.
Senior figures had argued the party was set to achieve its record result in the run up to election day, aiming to exploit Nick Clegg's success in the leaders' debates to build on the 63 seats it held going into the election. But a surprise exit poll released at 10pm last night suggested that a fall in support could even see it lose two seats.
Spinners for the party immediately suggested that they had been expecting the exit poll to underestimate their vote. The party's big hitters attacked it as untrustworthy. Vince Cable, its Treasury spokesman, said the poll was "very strange", adding they had proved to be "horribly wrong" in past elections. Lord Ashdown, a former leader and an adviser on the campaign, said the poll was "inaccurate" as it had not taken postal votes into account.
However, early jitters intensified after the poll's findings seemed to be reflected in the first result of the night, as the party's share of the vote fell by 0.6 per cent in Houghton and Sunderland South, a Labour stronghold. At just before 2am, it learned that it had failed spectacularly to win its number one target seat, Guildford. It had needed a swing of 0.09 per cent to snatch the constituency from the Tories. But the Conservatives comfortably held on to the seat, earning a seven per cent swing from the Liberal Democrats. However, it did gain Eastbourne from the Tories, its number seven target.
Conversely, key seats in the South-west later suggested it was performing well against a resurgent Tory party. It held on to Torbay, a seat targeted by the Conservatives. Adrian Sanders secured a 1.1 per cent swing from the Tories in winning the seat with a 4,000 majority. David Heath held on in Somerton and Frome, where he was defending a wafer thin majority of 802, earning a 0.9 per cent swing from the Tories.
Chris Huhne held Eastleigh by less than one thousand votes, while Jeremy Browne saw off a strong Tory challenge in the ultra-marginal seat of Taunton Deane. Party members packed into the National Liberal Club cheered as their MPs in tight seats in the South-west held on, but expressed disbelief at Mr Opik's loss. "We feel like it must be an anomaly," said one.
As more results trickled in, it appeared that a major breakthrough for the Liberal Democrats that would see it move above Labour into second place was not emerging. A target seat of Durham was held by Labour, with Mr Clegg's party suffering a slight decline in support. Behind the scenes, there had been concerns about faltering support in the final days leading up to the ballot. Predictions that the party was "on the verge of its record result" had disappeared during the week as opinion polls began to show the Liberal Democrats had fallen back to third place, behind Labour.
It provoked fears that the boom in support could turn into a slow and steady decline. One campaign chief told The Independent yesterday that it "may well be the case" that the constant calls from the other parties about the effect of voting for the Liberal Democrats may have influenced voters. "The Tories have been shouting from every orifice, 'Vote Lib Dem – get Brown," they said. "Labour has been saying a vote for us will deliver a Cameron government. They've done this with some success in the past."
They were also hoping that what looked like a high turnout meant they had won over many voters who had given up on politics with their pledge to deliver radical changes in the tax system and campaign for voting reform. However, they conceded that the high number of voters was a double-edged sword. "Looking at my own constituency, it really does look like high numbers are coming out," said one senior Liberal Democrat MP. "If that means all those young voters who Nick has filled with enthusiasm have come to vote, it's great for us. But if it means Labour has managed to mobilise its core support at the last minute, it could work against us."
Last night, senior Liberal Democrats said even holding on to the 63 MPs they had going into the election would have been viewed as a good result when the campaign was officially launched on 6 April. "When the election was called, all the pundits were saying that we would lose seats and our vote would go down – that was the narrative about us," said one senior member of Mr Clegg's team. "We always had faith in Nick would do well, but the extent to which he has cut through has been incredible."
Oxford East, a constituency requiring just a 0.37 per cent swing to be seized by the Liberal Democrats, was held by Labour.