Twelve hours that left the nation dazed and confused

For those following the results as they were declared, it was as draining a night as it was for the politicians. Paul Vallely reports

Oh what a night. It should perhaps have been clear from the outset that the 12 hours which followed the closure of the polls would be full of odd little ups and downs, and twists and turns, as had been the campaign which preceded the long journey into night and beyond.

22.00 Two signals intertwined from the moment the polls closed. There was the first of a string of reports of hundreds of voters being disenfranchised by chaos in under-staffed and under-equipped polling stations. Officials had slammed the doors shut at 10 o'clock regardless of how many people were queuing outside, many of them having stood in line for an hour or more.

At the same time, the television channels published the result exit polls for which 17,000 voters had been interviewed after they had voted. The result predicted the Conservatives would get 307 seats, Labour 255, the Liberal Democrats 59 and others 29. That would mean a hung parliament with the Tories 19 seats short and no single party able to command a majority. Across the nation, politicians began to do back-of-the-envelope calculations about the deals that would need to be made.

22.08 The first to go public with his views was the Home Secretary Alan Johnson. "The Tories seem to have done very well. Our vote has held up," he said, no doubt relieved that Labour had not been relegated to third place as some had earlier predicted. But for the Liberal Democrats "it sounds like the air has gone out of their tyre", he concluded. How accurate would that instant verdict prove? The night that followed was long and tortuous and full of false starts and surprises.

22:10 The tone was set by an early exchange between Labour's deputy leader, Harriet Harman, and the Conservative education spokesman, Michael Gove. "The country hasn't turned overwhelming towards the Conservatives," Ms Harman said. But this was a difficult time and "the country needs a strong and stable government". Moreover "it's clear we need to change the voting system", she added, sending out Labour's first signals of the evening to the Liberal Democrats about the outline of the deal Labour would offer in an attempt to stay in power.

No, said Mr Gove, the country had signalled "a comprehensive rejection of Gordon Brown and a vote for change". The Tories had benefited from the biggest swing to them in more than 80 years and they would do all they could "to provide a stable and responsible government". The battlelines were drawn in the debate over who would have the right to govern in the event of a hung parliament.

As sixth-formers sprinted with ballot boxes into the count in Sunderland, which was striving to be the first constituency to declare a result, Peter Mandeslon, Labour's election éminence grise, was sending out even more overt signals. Asked by Jeremy Paxman on BBC One how he'd feel about Labour doing a deal with the Liberal Democrats he replied: "I have no problem in principle". In a hung parliament the British constitution allowed the sitting party to have the first crack at forming a government, he said smoothly. For the Tories, Theresa May proclaimed that the voters had issued a clear repudiation of Gordon Brown. "It's rather more nuanced than that," Lord Mandelson replied. But was it?

22:26 For a start many people did not believe what the poll was saying. Exit polls had been accurate at the last election, the Liberal Democrat, Simon Hughes, told Sky TV, but wildly out the time before. The exit poll result was "very strange", said the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman Vince Cable. It did not take into account postal votes, insisted the party's former leader, Paddy Ashdown. Even the ex-Labour leader Neil Kinnock pronounced that the Liberal Democrat figure was "almost certainly wrong". The editor of the ConservativeHome blog, Tim Montgomerie, said that he expected both the Tories and Liberal Democrats to get more seats than the poll predicted. Only Lord Mandelson was more reserved, predicting that the night would be a "cliff-hanger".

22:52 The first result, thanks to the sprinting sixth-formers, was from Houghton and Sunderland South. The first MP of the new parliament was Bridget Phillipson, aged just 26, who held the seat for Labour. But the swing to the Tories – 8.4 per cent – was bigger than expected, and than the poll predicted. A national swing of that order would give the Conservatives an outright majority.

That idea was reinforced with the next seat, also in Sunderland, which showed an 11.6 per cent swing, double that of Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

Tory spin doctors began texting and tweeting briefing notes saying Labour had lost this election and that the result was historic – the most seats and biggest swing for the Tories since 1931. It was a basis for government. In the money market, gamblers began placing bets on the exit poll having overstated Labour. But then came the third Sunderland seat, and a swing of only 4.8 per cent even though the Tories had expected to do best there.

The evening's pattern of "no pattern" had begun to be set, though one consistent factor was that smaller parties – and the Liberal Democrats – were not getting the breakthroughs that pundits, punters and pollsters had predicted. But perhaps things would settle?

23:00 And yet that was certainly not happening in the polling stations. The full extent of the chaos there was by now emerging with angry scenes inside and outside those stations where local people had been prevented from voting by lack of ballot papers, long queues and the prompt closure of the booths. Police were called in several cities. In Sheffield, disenfranchised voters blockaded a polling station to prevent the ballot boxes being taken to the count. Sky TV had amateur footage of outraged voters berating polling officials.

23:46 Telling details began to emerge about smaller parties. The vote of the British National Party had doubled in Washington and Sunderland West where it had saved its deposit. In Northern Ireland the Ulster Unionists, on whom David Cameron could be forced to rely, were doing badly.

23:57 The Foreign Secretary David Miliband joined in the public semaphore to the Liberal Democrats as he arrived at the count in his South Shields constituency. "If no party ends up with a majority, then no party has a right to a monopoly of power," he repeated, which meant voters were instructing the parties to do deals. There's then "an injunction from voters on parties to talk to each other", he added. The veteran Conservative, Ken Clarke, countered that it would be "a travesty" if Gordon Brown tried to hang on to power, but he conceded urbanely that this election was the most complex in which he had ever taken part.

00:49 As if in confirmation of that, the first big shock of the evening followed. Northern Ireland's First Minister, Peter Robinson, was ousted by voters against the run of success for his Democratic Unionist Party. Few were in doubt that it was linked at disapproval by Presbyterian voters of the financial and sexual scandals surrounding him and his wife.

01:03 Not long after came the next big surprise. The Conservatives took Kingswood – their first gain – with a massive swing of 9.4 per cent. This was only 135rd on their list of target seats. It seemed to presage an outright Tory victory. The result, said Labour's Ed Miliband, was "obviously very disappointing for us".

Others went further. The former Labour home secretary David Blunkett within minutes confessed publicly that he expected a Tory majority. He was the first senior Labour figure to say Gordon Brown had lost the election. "The big swings bode extremely ill," he said, adding that it was not for him, but the Prime Minister, to concede defeat. Labour needed to regroup and rethink.

And yet contrary signals continued. The Liberal Democrats held Torbay, in the first indication of a possible setback for the Tories. Then Labour held the Tory target seat of Rutherglen in Scotland, with the Liberal Democrats going from second to third and the SNP showing a small improvement. "My big worry is that the Tories are going to win very few seats in Scotland," twittered Tim Montgomerie. "If we form a government in London that's going to be tricky".

01:09 North of the border the Prime Minister did not seem to share that view. Gordon Brown stood in public for the first time as he waited for his own result. His face was drawn and his smile was thin. By his side his wife Sarah looked stunned and nervous. Her smile did not shift the sadness in her eyes.

The Labour leader spoke about the house nearby where he grew up, the church where his father preached and he learned about social justice and the town where he learned what true friendship is. He delivered an apologia pro vita sua listing the achievements of which he was most proud: "The minimum wage, the child tax credit, the NHS renewed, more police officers, half a million children out of poverty, two million more jobs than in 1997". It was elegiac and valedictory in its tone. The outcome of the vote was not yet known but he would, he said, do his duty. It was a speech shot through with ambiguity, but his eyes spoke of defeat and disappointment.

01:07 The top Liberal Democrat target seat of Guildford had stayed Conservative. Yet Labour held Tooting, which the Tories had felt an easy win. "The people have spoken but we don't quite know what they have said," quipped Labour's Ed Miliband. The former editor of The Sun, Kelvin McKenzie, was sure of one thing the voters had done. "They have punctured the Liberal Democrat balloon," he said. The public, which so recently had enthused that it agreed with Nick, clearly did so no longer.

But the seats were still falling unpredictably. Labour held the key seat of Gedling with almost no swing to the Tories who could also not take Telford. Yet in Guildford analysis showed the Liberal Democrats had gone backwards not forwards and they had failed to take Torbay. The Battersea and Tooting results were declared from the same town hall in Wandsworth but pointed in opposite directions. The SNP held Angus, a top Tory target seat.

02:15 Things were looking good for the Tories, but not consistently good enough for an overall majority. Then came the first recount of the evening, in Broxtowe. (Eventually it went Tory.) But what was predictable was the unpredictable performance of the Liberal Democrats. A massive shock came for them when Lembit Opik's seat went to the Tories with a whopping 13.2 per cent swing. The dour electorate of Montgomeryshire, where folk are "very chapel", did not seem to approve of his Cheeky Girls antics. It seemed to be evidence, as with Peter Robinson, and a series of Labour defeats which shortly followed, that voters were determined to punish sitting MPs for personal conduct of which they disapproved.

02:41 Super-posh Tory Annunziata Rees-Mogg, who refused spin doctors' advice to tone down her name to Nancy Mogg, was given the thumbs-down in Somerton and Frome. A devastated-looking former home secretary Jacqui Smith, who claimed for two porn films bought by her husband on expenses, was ousted in Redditch. And the curmudgeonly sniper Charles Clarke lost his seat in Norwich South.

03:05 But the seat of David Cameron was never in doubt. He knocked up 33,973 votes, the biggest so far, at Witney. In a subdued speech he did not claim victory for his party, though he pronounced a resounding defeat for Gordon Brown. "It's already clear that the Labour government has lost its mandate to govern this country," he said. "It's clear the country wants change and that change is going to require new leadership." There were still too many seats to declare. There was a curious lack of drama about the proceedings. It was a night of waiting in which feelings on all sides oscillated between hope and apprehension.

03:40 Gordon Brown, so down at his count, perked up on the flight back to London. His spinners briefed the press that his "do my duty" speech was not the prelude to farewell but an indication of his readiness to do deals in the event of a hung parliament. There was, he was convinced, still everything to play for. Labour and the Liberal Democrats might yet have enough seats combined to be able to outvote the Tories and their Unionist allies. And there were yet developments in Labour's favour. As the plane sat on the runway in Edinburgh news came that, despite his "bigoted woman" gaffe, Labour had secured victory in Rochdale. There was more bad news for the Liberal Democrats; their combative MP Dr Evan Harris lost Oxford West. Not long after, Mr Brown's closet ally, the schools secretary Ed Balls, avoided a much-predicted "Portillo moment" by fighting off the BNP in Morley and Outwood.

04:32 The main bookmakers were now offering odds of 11-2 on no overall majority. Half an hour later the Conservatives had 310 seats – the same number as Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined. Nothing was settled. Half an hour more and the editor of the ConservativeHome blog, was saying he "no longer believes a Tory majority is possible".

05:52 Though the Green Party's Caroline Lucas won Brighton Pavilion, becoming the party's first Westminster MP, elsewhere the Greens were only averaging about 1.5 per cent of the vote. But the green Tory Zac Goldsmith took Richmond Park from the Liberal Democrats on a huge 77 per cent turnout. And though both the BNP and UKIP were doing better than the Greens, Labour's Margaret Hodge held Barking with 24,628 votes – a hugely increased majority – smashing Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, into third with 6,620.

06:06 A different kind of nationalism was troubling the Conservatives. The BBC now predicted the final vote in England would have the Conservatives on 299, Labour on 194, Liberal Democrats on 39 and others on 1. That would give David Cameron a clear overall majority in England, but he would be denied that elusive UK-wide majority because of his party's terrible showing in Wales and Scotland. The Tory party chairman Eric Pickles went on television looking very glum to insist that Labour had got a worse vote even than in the time of Michael Foot. He was clearly immensely irritated by Harriet Harman's serenely pronouncing that it was Gordon Brown's "constitutional duty" to try to form a government despite the sweeping Conservative gains.

07:48 It all seemed to be going Labour's way. On Sky News the Liberal Democrat energy spokesman Simon Hughes was saying the "ball is in Gordon Brown's court". Not long after, Lord Mandelson was lubriciously insinuating that a Lib-Lab deal could have many permutations, one of which might not involve Mr Brown at all.

08:25 Mr Brown was back in Downing Street, having ignored questions about whether he might be resigning. He was asleep by the time it was announced that Labour's Glenda Jackson had held Hampstead and Kilburn with a majority of just 42 votes.

10:44 He was perhaps still asleep when Nick Clegg got off the train from Sheffield and announced that he intended to stick to his view that the party with most votes and seats – the Conservatives – should seek to form a government. The game had changed decisively yet again.

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