David Cameron looked set to sweep back into Downing Street last night as Labour was obliterated in Scotland by an SNP electoral tsunami, while failing to make gains in England.
Exit polls suggested that the Conservatives would pick up 11 seats, taking them tantalisingly close to an overall majority.
An Ipsos/ICM exit poll conducted in 140 constituencies projected that the Conservatives would get 316 seats – up from 302 and far more than had been predicted in the 650-seat House of Commons.
It said the Labour Party will get 239 seats – down from 256.
That result would make another Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government likely, although the Tories might be able to get back into Downing Street without their partners for the past five years depending on the performance of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland.
The story of the night, however, was the seismic shift north of the Border, where a yellow tide swept across the electoral map, leaving dozens of ousted Scottish Labour MPs in its wake.
Jim Murphy, the Scottish Labour leader was ousted by the SNP and now faces an inquest into his leadership just six months after being elected.
Labour was set to crash to its worst performance since Neil Kinnock’s defeat in the 1992 general election, with Ed Miliband’s leadership already being called into question.
The Labour Party’s UK campaign coordinator, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, provided one of the images of the night as he was defeated by 20 year-old Glasgow University student Mhairi Black, of the SNP.
Shadow Scottish Secretary Margaret Curran was also defeated by the SNP’s Natalie McGarry.
The only glimmer of hope for Labour in Scotland was in Edinburgh South, where Ian Murray ensured his party continued to have Scottish representation at Westminster.
Labour insiders were already warning of the challenge facing David Cameron in holding the United Kingdom together with a Tory-led government facing a strong group of Nationalist MPs demanding increased fiscal powers.
A Labour Party spokesman told journalists: “Results in Scotland clearly very difficult – if the exit poll is right, the seats the SNP are taking off Labour will turn out to be crucial if David Cameron ends up back in Number 10. Next government will have huge task uniting country.”
Shadow chancellor Ed Balls said: “Even if the exit poll is right, that means the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition majority has gone from 72 to zero – David Cameron’s ability to hang on in Downing Street is on a knife-edge and he will have to reach out to get support from the Ulster Unionists.
“If the exit poll is wrong just by ten seats – and all the information is that there are very close fights between Labour and Conservatives in seats right across the country – then suddenly David Cameron won’t be able to get a majority in the House of Commons and it will fall to Ed Miliband as leader of the opposition to then put a Queen’s Speech before Parliament.”
Mr Balls added: “I hope our result is going to be a lot better than that. It’s really in question whether David Cameron will be able to hang on as Prime Minister when he has been set back in this way.
“He said success for him was a majority. Even on the exit poll, he’s not going to get that.”
The chief exit pollster for Britain’s election, Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, said a Conservative majority couldn’t be ruled out.
Despite some pundits questioning the exit poll’s predictions, Curtice said early Friday that the methodology for the exit poll was the same as in 2010, when the poll turned out to be very accurate.
He said it looked as if Conservative and Labour gains had cancelled each other out across England and Wales, and that Labour had lost much of its support in Scotland to the Scottish National Party.
Prof Curtice said early results were “in line with the exit poll,” which questioned 22,000 people.
The English town of Nuneaton took on the role of election bellweather, and was identified as a major Labour target. However, in the early hours it was won by the Conservatives – a sign that exit-poll predictions of a big lead for the Conservatives were correct.
Prof Curtice said he may even have underestimated support for the Conservatives. He said he had expected a small swing to Labour in Nuneaton, but the Tories had made gains.
He said “we now have to take seriously the possibility the Tories could get an overall majority” in parliament.
In South Thanet, Nigel Farage was locked in a fight for his political future with the vote count neck and neck with the Tories. The Ukip leader had promised to resign if he failed to win a seat at Westminster.
London Mayor Boris Johnson, who is running for a seat in Uxbridge, said if the 10pm exit poll was right, “then obviously, it’s a very, very clear victory for the Conservatives and a very bad night for Labour.”
Former education minister Michael Gove said the exit poll amounts to “an unprecedented vote of confidence in David Cameron’s leadership”. He said it also showed support for the Conservatives’ message that it is the only party that can provide economic security.
He said if the exit poll is accurate, Mr Cameron will act Friday to outline the framework of forming a secure government.
Former defence secretary and Tory leadership contender Liam Fox said: “The results look quite good for us so far. It’s a very good personal result for the Prime Minister and a very bad result for both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats – probably better described as ‘catastrophic’ for them.”
Former Liberal Democrat President Tim Farron said of his party’s results: “I’m not going to claim it’s a good night for the Liberal Democrats . . . This is going to be a tough set of results for us.”
Labour’s former strategy chief Lord Mandelson said: “What seems to have happened is that all the three main parties have lost this election.
“Some have lost it more than others – the Lib Dems in particular – but we seem to be heading to an outcome in which no party has achieved a majority.”
The Liberal Democrats had racked up £29,000 in lost deposits across the UK, after winning more than five per cent in every constituency they contested in 2010.
They looked set to lose most of their MPs, with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam seat at risk of tumbling.
ANOTHER INDEPENDENCE REFERENDUM ON THE HORIZON
SCOTLAND is facing the prospect of another independence referendum in the next five years after the SNP’s dramatic election triumph.
The party’s deputy leader appeared to warn today that grievances over the new powers coming to Scotland could prompt a fresh vote.
Pro-Union leaders warned the country was facing years of instability as the SNP uses its election triumph to agitate for another referendum on the constitution.
Nicola Sturgeon had claimed during the referendum campaign last year that it was a “once in a generation” event but has since said that a change in “material circumstances” could prompt a re-run of the vote.
Deputy SNP leader Stewart Hosie said: “There can only be a referendum when there has been a qualitative change in circumstance.
“Even if we do very well, we need to see how Westminster responds. Will they finally keep the promise, the vow, the pledge they made to the Scottish people last year, for maximum devolution or the closest thing to a federal state within one to two years?
“It will be qualitative change in circumstances which will drive the next referendum if there is to be one, not simply a big SNP win in a general election.”
However, he said the current proposals to devolve more powers to Holyrood as part of the Smith Commission plans didn’t satisfy the party’s demands.
“The Smith Commission proposals were modest to begin with. They were watered down just before the Smith Commission was published. They do not reflect the massive transfer that the Prime Minister proposed,” he said
Meanwhile, former Tory leader Baroness Goldie warned Scotland faced a period of “instability” as a result of the SNP’s sweeping gains.
“The manifesto from the SNP next year will have a carefully finessed commitment to a referendum,” she said.
“It won’t be up-front and will be couched with a caveat, but the caveat will be that we reserve the right to call for a referendum if there’s any material change in circumstances for Scotland.”
ANALYSIS: Momentous result will reverberate for years to come
By Jim Eadie
Today, Scotland has woken up to a new political landscape. One in which the SNP looks set to be the biggest party in both votes and seats.
This is truly a historic moment. For decades, Scotland has returned a majority of Labour MPs but this election has seen something different.
In all previous elections, which have been about who governs Britain, the SNP’s message has been squeezed.
But not this time.
The central focus in this campaign has been about who is best able to speak for Scotland and make our voice heard more loudly than ever before.
The SNP’s central message in this election has been the need to end austerity both in Scotland and across the UK, and this has resonated widely. People in Scotland have agreed with this and clearly believe modest increases in public spending, while still reducing the deficit, is the key to protecting our public services – especially the NHS.
Here in our capital city, we have seen SNP MPs elected for the first time ever in a Westminster election. This is a further demonstration that the SNP is now truly the national party of Scotland representing communities across the country.
So why has this political sea change come about? This is partly the legacy of the referendum, which made Scotland one of the most politically engaged countries in the western world.
This election was clearly not about independence or a second referendum, however much the SNP’s opponents tried to make it so.
What this election represents is a clear rejection from the people of Scotland of the tired and outdated Westminster Boys Club, which is out of touch with the reality of day-to-day life not just in Scotland but across the UK.
They have shown a desire to shake up the Westminster system by sending the largest ever number of SNP MPs to stand up and to speak up for Scotland. This momentous result will reverberate for months and years to come. Scottish politics has changed, and changed utterly.
What we now have is a Scotland confident in its own skin, determined to have its voice heard loudly and clearly at Westminster. Scotland demands that the additional significant powers we were promised in the closing days of the referendum come to Scotland.
For as long as we are part of the Westminster system SNP MPs will work with other progressive forces across the UK to make life better for people across the UK.
• Jim Eadie is SNP MSP for Edinburgh Southern