Published: Friday 8th May 2015 by The News Editor
Conservatives were predicted to be the single biggest party in the House of Commons after an exit poll appeared to put David Cameron on track to remain in 10 Downing Street.
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 achieving almost 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 – just enough to form a viable coalition with Tories – while Ukip were forecast to win two constituencies, securing their first ever General Election victories.
The exit poll of around 22,000 voters at 141 locations was 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.
A YouGov ballot-day poll of 6,000 people who had voted painted a much brighter picture for Mr Miliband, putting Labour and Tories tied on 34% each, Ukip on 12%, Lib Dems on 10%, the SNP and Plaid Cymru on 5% and Greens on 4%.
Tory chief whip Michael Gove said that, if the exit poll was proved correct, Mr Cameron would have won “a very handsome victory” while Labour would have “clearly lost it”.
But Labour sources voiced scepticism about the result of the survey, saying: “It looks wrong to us.”
Shadow chancellor Ed Balls said that, even if it was accurate, the Conservative/LIberal Democrat coalition’s majority in the Commons would have been slashed from 72 to zero, leaving Mr Cameron’s position in question.
“If the exit poll is wrong just by 10 seats … 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,” said Mr Balls.
“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.”
Asked about the polls, Conservative candidate Michael Fallon said: “I’m not surprised or unsurprised.
“I’m cautious about these exit polls until we see some results,” he told the BBC.
“We worked flat out for a majority, I’m hoping for a majority, but the night is young.”
A Tory source said it was still too tight to call in South Thanet, while Labour’s candidate Will Scobie was also reluctant to make predictions.
He said: “I haven’t seen enough of the boxes. They are all over the place. The thing is it’s so geographically-split that you could look at two boxes and they could tell you absolutely nothing.”
Heading to the count in South Thanet, Nigel Farage said: “My congratulations to the Daily Mail and the Sun, they’re geniuses, they understand politics completely.
“They think the Ukip vote splits the Tory vote – God help us.”
Mr Gove described the exit poll figures as “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.
London mayor Boris Johnson, arriving for his count in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, said that if the exit poll was right, “then obviously, it’s a very, very clear victory for the Conservatives and a very bad night for Labour”.
The pound rose by around two cents against the dollar in the wake of the release of the exit poll, with IG senior market analyst Chris Beauchamp commenting: “A strong Conservative element to the next government sends the message that the economic policies of the past five years will continue, removing concerns about an early end to austerity.”
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, and Mr Clegg’s position as head of the Liberal Democrats – even assuming that he retains his seat in Sheffield Hallam.
A 10-seat tally would represent a calamitous loss of 46 seats in Westminster for the Liberal Democrats, who lost their deposit in the first three seats to be declared – all safe Labour constituencies in Sunderland which were won by Mr Miliband’s party.
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.”
Former Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown told the BBC’s Andrew Neil: “If this exit poll is right, Andrew, I will publicly eat my hat on your programme.”
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!”
Ukip deputy leader Paul Nuttall expressed severe doubts over the accuracy of the exit poll, and said the party was “buoyant and confident” that it would win more than two seats.
“The feeling that we are getting on the ground is that it’s pretty tight between the Conservatives and Labour,” he told the BBC.
Mr Nuttall insisted that Nigel Farage was on course to win in South Thanet, and by a larger margin than expected, despite Labour sources claiming the Ukip leader was on course for third place.
Green Party leader Natalie Bennett said the exit poll should be treated with “extreme caution” but it would represent success for the party if it did get the two MPs projected.
“If we have doubled our parliamentary representation and we are sending perhaps Darren Hall in Bristol West to join the brilliant Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion as a strong group of Green MPs in Parliament, then that will be a good result for the Green Party,” said Ms Bennett.
“Building on the fact that our membership has more than quadrupled over the course of the last year and we have really got a new place in the centre of British politics.”
Published: Friday 8th May 2015 by The News Editor