Tories win but Britain faces hung parliament: exit poll
Britain's opposition Conservatives came top in a knife-edge general election Thursday but fell short of the clear-cut majority needed to return to power after 13 years in opposition, exit polls suggested.
If confirmed, the forecast would leave Britain with a so-called "hung parliament" for the first time since 1974.
Britain's currency, the pound, fell in trading in New York after the exit polls.
The Conservatives were in line to win 305 seats -- 21 short of an overall majority of 326 -- against 255 for Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labour Party and 61 for the Liberal Democrats.
The Lib Dems, Britain's centrist third party led by Nick Clegg, look poised to emerge as kingmakers in a possible power-sharing deal with one of the bigger parties.
Conservative finance spokesman George Osborne stopped short of claiming victory, but told the BBC: "It's pretty clear that Labour cannot continue in government.
"They need to get real. They've been rejected by the British people and Britain needs a change of government."
But Home Secretary Alan Johnson left the door open to a possible Labour deal with the Lib Dems, saying: "I think we've got a lot in common and we could come together on this."
"It looks like it's heading for something of a cliffhanger of a result," added Business Secretary Peter Mandelson, saying he had "no problem in principle" with a deal with the Lib Dems.
In the case of a hung parliament, the incumbent prime minister has first shot at trying to form a stable government.
But if the exit poll forecast is correct, Labour and the Lib Dems together, with 316, would fall short of the magic 326 majority figure.
The exit polls were released as polling stations closed at 10:00 pm (2100 GMT).
Labour won the first three seats announced, which were all in their northeast England heartland, but the bulk of results are expected to be declared from around 3:00 am.
Markets had anticipated the risk of a hung parliament, but shortly after the exit polls sterling fell in New York, to 85.77 pence to the euro against 84,82 pence Wednesday evening.
The Conservatives' Kenneth Clarke, a former finance minister, warned that markets were watching Britain closely.
"The key thing is to produce a strong and stable government which we particularly we need," he said, adding that bond markets were due to open within hours.
"Quite a lot of rather sharp traders will be placing their bets on whether or not Britain is capable of producing a strong and sensible government," he added.
The exit poll forecasts were in line with several eve-of-election polls which had suggested the Conservatives had a clear lead over Labour and the Lib Dems.
More than 44 million voters were eligible to cast ballots, with observers predicting turnout could be as high as 70 percent after an unusual campaign transformed by the first televised leaders' debates in a British election.
As the first results came in, there were reports of people being prevented from voting in London, Leeds and Sheffield because they were still queuing at 10:00 pm when polling stations closed, fuelling talk of possible legal challenges.
The Electoral Commission watchdog said it would carry out a "thorough review" of what had happened in constituencies where people were unable to vote.
Exit polls have a mixed track record of accurately predicting the outcome of British general elections in recent years.
Forecasts in 1992, the last really close-fought race, were a long way out but in the last general election in 2005, they proved correct.
Election day itself had been marked by a plane crash which injured a high-profile anti-Europe candidate and a protest outside the polling station where Cameron voted.
Nigel Farage, a high-profile candidate for the eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP), suffered minor head injuries and needed heart tests after the light aircraft he was travelling in crashed at an airfield in Northamptonshire.
© 2010 AFP