Your minute-by-minute guide to how the battle will be fought on the night

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Indy Politics

10pm

That's it. The British general election of 2005 is officially over (bar any legal challenges over fraudulent postal votes). The polling stations have closed. The ballots have been cast. The counting begins. On the stroke of 10 o'clock the BBC and ITV election night specials will reveal their prediction. This year they are sharing the cost of an exit poll. Depending on the the gap between the main parties you ought to be able to rely on this analysis. Still, exit polls and the experts can get things wrong. In 1992 the BBC predicted a hung parliament with Labour as the largest party, implying a government led by Neil Kinnock. The Conservatives under John Major won a majority of 21.

10pm to 10.45pm

Speculation, speculation. Enjoy Peter Snow's cavortings with the BBC swingometer. This device shows how many seats each party would win as a result of any given swing in each and every seat. Swing is rarely the same across the country, but perhaps the simplest way to look at the course of the results is to assume the whole country will swing roughly the same way. The swingometer reflects moves across two parties, and because the Lib Dems now command almost a quarter of the vote, we've constructed three different ones. Remember - it's just a bit of fun!

10.45pm to 11pm

The first result in the past couple of elections has been Sunderland South, which came in at 10.46pm in 1997 and 10.43pm in 2001, a remarkable feat for the returning officer and his team. The Foreign Office minister Chris Mullin should be returned in this safe seat, but watch for a few things. First, turnout. It was 48 per cent last time, down 10 points on the 1997 figure. Broadly speaking, the lower the turnout the worse things will look for Labour. The second thing to spot is the swing, if any, to the Conservatives. A swing of 5 per cent, say, would suggest that things might be going the Tories' way. A swing to Labour would suggest even the tiny progress made in 2001 under William Hague has been reversed.

11pm to 11.30pm

More results from northern Labour strongholds should be coming in: Houghton & Washington East, Sunderland North and Barnsley Central. Torbay, on the other hand, was once a safe Tory seat which became a Lib Dem marginal in 1997. It is fairly safe territory for Charles Kennedy, and the swing to his party in 2001 suggests more gains. As the first Lib Dem/Con battle of the night it's worth watching for the swing.

11.30pm to midnight

Ed Balls, the former advisor to Gordon Brown, should be returned at Normanton about now. By now any evidence in old Labour heartlands of a swing from Labour to the Liberal Democrats should be apparent. Birmingham Edgbaston is the first proper Lab/Con marginal of the night. It, and the swing voters it represents, is a great electoral prize. The former foreign office minister Gisela Stuart is defending a Labour majority of 4,698. Last time there was a swing of 1.2 per cent from the Tories to Labour. If Mr Howard is to make progress he needs to see a swing to his party here; 6.2 per cent would see the seat back in Tory hands, although even that would indicate a hung parliament with Labour short of a majority. It will be interesting to see how the Lib Dem vote holds up in the light of Mr Blair's dread warning that Labour defections to them would let in the Tories in key marginals such as this.

Birmingham Ladywood has a Muslim population of 29 per cent, and may offer the first indication of an anti-Iraq war effect, although there is no Respect candidate standing there.

An early result should be Na h-Eileanan an Iar - formerly the Western Isles. Watch out for the Scottish National Party closing on Labour here (it needs a 4 per cent swing to take it from Calum MacDonald, the incumbent since 1987). By this point the broad question of who has won the election - which party gets to govern - will probably be fairly settled.

Midnight to 12.30am

Hazel Grove, a north-western seat safely held by the Liberal Democrats, is also due in now. Hillary Benn in Leeds Central and Alan Milburn in Darlington will probably be the first cabinet ministers to be returned. Mr Howard will be well behind in actual national votes at this stage, but the Tory constituencies are yet to come.

12.30am to 1.00am

A run of safe Labour strongholds coming in now, so questions about the defection of Labour voters can begin to be answered. Attention should also be turning to London, with the Labour seats of Battersea and Putney ready to declare. If the Tories snatch Putney, (once held by David Mellor) on a swing of 4 per cent, that will give them some encouragement, but would still imply a Labour majority of 90. It will be intriguing to see if the Liberal Democrats' improved showing in the national polls robs Labour of seats such as this. The potential sensation for Mr Kennedy's party lies in Birmingham Yardley. This has been the best hope for the Lib Dems in the city for many years. The retirement of the popular Estelle Morris and, possibly, the loss of jobs at Longbridge, opens up an opportunity. A 4.3 per cent swing would see Mr Kennedy's first gain of the evening and ecstasy at Lib Dem HQ.

1.00am to 1.30am

How safe is Labour in Wales? Very, and relatively few seats change hands here, but Ynys Mon, formerly Anglesey, would fall to Plaid Cymru on a swing of 1.2 per cent. Mr Howard, a native of Swansea, might well be more distracted by events in Calder Valley, West Yorkshire. A Tory gain here could signal that Mr Blair's majority has been cut to less than 100. At Oldham East and Saddleworth, a 3 pent cent swing would see it fall to the Lib Dems. The British National Party managed to get 11 per cent of the vote there last time, so the question may be whether the Tories' campaign on immigration and asylum tempts BNP voters away. Keighley needing a 4.6 per cent swing is a tough nut to crack, but the Tories managed a swing of 2.3 per cent last time However the candidacy of Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, here may throw out conventional calculations. Charles Kennedy will be worrying about the fate of Patsy Calton, whose majority of 33 in Cheadle over the Conservatives is one of the smallest in electoral history. He will also be disappointed if he loses Guildford to the Tories. Tony Blair, on the other hand, can be reasonably confident of taking Sedgefield again, but the vote for Reg Keys, an independent candidate whose son, a military policeman, was killed in Iraq may put a dampener on his victory.

1.30am to 2am

The Liberal Democrats "decapitation" strategy sees its first test. David Davis, the shadow Deputy Prime Minister, has a majority of 1,903 in Haltemprice and Howden, Yorkshire. A 2.5 per cent swing sees Mr Davis's head on a plate delivered to Mr Kennedy. As one leadership contender, Mr Davis, finds himself out of the Commons, another potential, Sir Malcom Rifkind, should be back in, replacing Michael Portillo in Kensington and Chelsea.

2.00am to 2.30am

Robert Kilroy-Silk will know whether he is back in Parliament, where he once served as a Labour MP. The leader of Veritas is running against the Labour incumbent, Liz Blackman, in Erewash, a Derbyshire seat, and part of the European constituency represented by Mr Kilroy-Silk in Brussels. Mr Kilroy-Silk will be mightily displeased if RU Seerius Brewer of the Monster Raving Loony Party overtakes him. Another high profile performer, George Galloway, will see if his Respect party has managed to unseat Oona King in Bethnal Green and Bow, east London. With a 39 per cent Muslim vote and controversy over postal votes it has been a particularly difficult one to call, and may yet end up in court. Unless something strange happens Windsor should elect Adam Afriyie as the first black Tory MP. Another first is at Hove, Sussex, where three openly gay candidates are standing for election for the first time in general election history, for the Conservatives, Greens and Liberal Democrats. Near by the Greens have their best prospect in Brighton Pavilion, but to go from 9. 4 per cent to take the seat may be a little beyond them.

2.30am to 3am

Leicester South was the scene of a famous Lib Dem by-election win last year when they came from third place to take this formerly safe Labour seat. The Lib Dems' Parmjit Singh will be hoping to extend his parliamentary career. Yvonne Ridley of Respect, the former Express journalist, is standing here. Michael Gove, spelling expert and Times journalist should find himself spokesman for the modernising Portillistas when he is elected as Tory member for Surrey Heath about now.

3am to 3.30am

In Taunton, the Lib Dems' top target, Jackie Ballard gained the seat in 1997 but came unstuck courtesy of fox hunters in 2001. The Tory MP Adrian Flook's majority is a modest 235, so Jeremy Browne, the new Lib Dem candidate, will be hoping that he doesn't get bitten as badly as his predecessor. Symbolic for the Tories will be what happens to their sole MP in Scotland, Peter Duncan, at Dumfries and Galloway. A real Tory resurgence would see them gain neighbouring Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale on a 6 per cent swing. More realistic is Redditch and the removal of junior minister Jacqui Smith on a swing of 3.5 per cent. She won't have been helped by the fallout from the collapse of MG Rover. The Lib Dems have long relished demolishing the 3 per cent majority of the shadow Chancellor, Oliver Letwin, in Dorset West.

3.30am to 5am

"Did you stay up for Howard?" could just be the question this year. That means making it to about 3.50am. The Conservative leader is 13 per cent ahead of his Liberal Democrat opponent but determined tactical voting by Labour supporters could deliver an upset and the biggest scalp of the night - Mr Howard would be the first party leader since 1945 to lose his seat. In any event, with wee Donald safely tucked up, Mr Kennedy will no doubt be happy to accept another mandate to serve the people of Ross, Skye and Lochaber. At the other end of Mr Howard's potential outcomes are the keys to No 10. These are his if around now he were to gain Cornwall North on a swing of 9.1 per cent in a surprise result. Some emergency cabinet planning might then be required. Boris Johnson at Henley will be at his service.

5am to 8am

The broadcasters will be spending time analysing the results and moving the story on to whichever parties are about to suffer nervous breakdowns and leadership challenges.

8am to noon

Breakfast. Speculation about the new Cabinet. The new, or old, prime minister will be preparing his statements. The defeated leader(s) may be composing their resignation speeches.

Noon to 6pm

The results from Northern Ireland are usually the last to come in. The key question is whether the drift to extremes continues. Will Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists continue to make ground against David Trimble's Ulster Unionists? Can the moderate nationalist SDLP hold its own against Sinn Fein? The intervention for the first time of the DUP in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, for example, complicates matters where a split Unionist vote may let Michelle Gildernew retain the seat for Sinn Fein, despite her 53 majority last time. Sinn Fein's Mitchel McLaughlin is snapping at the heels of the SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, in Foyle, where John Hume once reigned. We will discover the impact of the McCartney affair and the Northern Bank raid in Belfast. The outcome will be the cue for a renewal of political progress in the province. If you've made it this far, you can go to bed now.

Six figures to look out for

Midnight

RUTH KELLY (Bolton West)

The Education Secretary is the most vulnerable cabinet minister with a 6.7 per cent swing needed to knock the 35-year-old supermum off her perch.

1.30am

DAVID DAVIS (Haltemprice & Howden)

Tipped as the next Tory leader, the former weekend soldier and aficionado of extreme sports will be hoping for as little drama as possible as he defends his majority of 1,903.

2.30am

ED BALLS (Normanton)

Once dubbed Britain's most powerful unelected person, Gordon Brown's former right-hand man has turned his attention to this West Yorkshire constituency.

1am

ESTHER MCVEY (Wirral West)

The former breakfast television presenter is hoping to bring some sparkle to the Tory benches. Only time will tell if her winning ways can land her a seat in her native Merseyside.

2am

GEORGE GALLOWAY (Bethnal Green)

The anti-war campaigner, former Labour MP and founder of the Respect Party has proudly made a number of enemies in high places. He takes on Labour's Oona King.

3am

OLIVER LETWIN (Dorset West)

The shadow Chancellor is defending a slim majority against the Liberal Democrats. One of the main players in Michael Howard's team, his re-election will be pivotal forthe party's fortunes.

The broadcasters who will go head-to-head

THE ANCHORMEN

David Dimbleby (BBC) v Jonathan Dimbleby (ITV)

The brothers go head to head for a third general election. David, fronting his seventh poll night on BBC1, has warned of thinking the event so boring "you have to sex it up". His comment could be seen as a swipe at ITV, whose coverage includes a party on the Thames. Sky and Five, joining forces, havethe first female election anchor, Julie Etchingham.

THE CO-PRESENTERS

Fiona Bruce (BBC) v Katie Derham (ITV)

The pregnant Derham, who has joked that her baby's first words will be to ask why she stayed up so late talking about the election, is hosting what is billed as a "glittering" party from a boat moored opposite the Houses of Parliament. Fiona Bruce, who was the first woman to join the BBC's election team in 2001, is back for a second stint.

THE POLITICAL EDITORS

Andrew Marr (BBC) v Nick Robinson (ITV)

In 2001 Marr was reporting on his first general election as BBC political editor and Robinson was still working for the BBC. This time round, the two face off. Unlike their Sky counterpart Adam Boulton, who says he hasn't voted since 1979 because he finds it easier to talk to party leaders without feeling he is involved, both men have promised to vote.

THE SULTANS OF SWING

Peter Snow (BBC) v Alastair Stewart (ITV)

There can be little competition for Snow, who is armed with a virtual House of Commons and three swingometers, including a new "battleground" graphic in which seats fly from the floor on to a screen. Taking on the role held by Dermot Murnaghan before he defected to the BBC, Stewart will give analysis backed by "state-of-the-art" graphics.

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