David Cameron looks set to remain Prime Minister with Conservatives the largest single party in the new Parliament, according to an exit poll released as ballots closed in the General Election.
In what would be a disaster for both Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg if borne out by results, the joint BBC/ITN/Sky poll put Conservatives on 316 – just 10 short of the magic number of 326 needed to command an absolute majority in the House of Commons.
Labour were forecast to secure just 239 – 17 fewer than their tally at the start of the election campaign – with the Scottish National Party almost achieving a clean sweep of 58 of the 59 seats north of the border.
Liberal Democrats were predicted to be reduced to a rump of just 10 seats – enough to form a viable coalition with Tories.
Ukip were predicted to secure two seats, their first ever in a General Election.
The exit poll of around 20,000 voters is dramatically at odds with polling during the election campaign, which suggested right up to the last day that Conservatives and Labour were heading for a dead heat.
Tory chief whip Michael Gove told the BBC said: “I think it could be right, yes. If it is right it means the Tories have clearly won this election and Labour have clearly lost it.”
Tory environment secretary Liz Truss told Sky News the Conservatives would not get ahead of themselves based on the exit poll.
She said: “It is certainly encouraging to see those results.
“It’s far too early to speculate (on a government) because we don’t know how that is going to translate precisely into a number of seats.
“What we are seeing across the country is different things happening in different parts of the country.”
The Liberal Democrats dismissed the exit poll forecast, insisting it did not tally with the information they had received from their activists.
A party spokesman said: “This exit poll does not reflect any of our intelligence from today or in the run-up to polling day.
“We will wait for the final results.”
The spokesman added: “No opinion poll to date has shown the numbers in this ext poll.”
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon was also cautious about the exit poll.
She tweeted: “I’d treat the exit poll with HUGE caution. I’m hoping for a good night but I think 58 seats is unlikely!”
If the exit poll proves correct, it would be the first time that a ruling party has increased its tally of seats since 1983, with Conservatives increasing their strength at Westminster by 14.
It would give Mr Cameron the option of attempting to form a Conservative-only minority government without having to offer ministerial posts and a role in framing legislation to coalition parties.
Although a tally of 316 is lower than the 326 threshold for an absolute majority, it is very close to the lower figure of 321-322 needed for all practical purposes, assuming Sinn Fein MPs do not take up their seats.
A minority Tory government may hope to get its legislation through with the support of Northern Irish unionists, who are likely to win around eight or nine seats.
The arithmetic could even hand the balance of power in key votes to a pair of Ukip MPs, who could be expected to use any leverage this gives them to put pressure on the Prime Minister to bring forward his planned in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, currently scheduled for 2017.
If borne out by results, the polling figures would raise large questions over Mr Miliband’s future as Labour leader.
Mr Gove said: “We haven’t had an incumbent government increase its majority like this since 1983 and it would be an unprecedented vote of confidence in David Cameron’s leadership and in particular in the message that we have reinforced throughout this campaign, which is that if people wanted to secure our economic security, they’ve got to make sure that David is in Downing Street.”
He said it was too early to talk about potential post-election deals but if the exit poll proved right, “tomorrow the Prime Minister will outline the basis on which we can go forward with a secure and stable government in the national interest”.
Mr Cameron would enjoy “considerable authority”, he said, and it would be “by any measure a success” for him, despite the PM previously suggesting anything short of an overall majority would be a failure.
Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman urged caution over the poll and declined to be drawn on the implications of such a result for Mr Miliband’s position as leader.
“I have been on television where I have been commenting on exit polls in the past where the exit polls were wrong, because it is difficult to read these situations from exit polls,” she told the BBC.
“I think that we have had a really excellent campaign,” she said, that was “very much in touch” with voters’ concerns.
Asked if Mr Miliband could continue as leader if the poll proved correct, she said: “Well, at this stage we are just waiting for the counts and seeing whether or not David Cameron has got a House of Commons voted in which is prepared to give him a majority.
“You will forgive me for actually waiting until we have the answer to that big question before we go on to any other hypotheticals.”