Tories win but Britain faces hung parliament: polls
Britain's opposition Conservatives came top in knife-edge elections Thursday but fell short of a clear-cut majority 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.
The Conservatives were set to win 307 seats -- short of the 326 seats for an absolute majority in the 650-seat House of Commons -- against 255 for Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labour Party and 59 for the Liberal Democrats
The Lib Dems, Britain's traditional third party, could emerge as kingmakers in a power-sharing deal after their spectacular surge during a grueling month-long campaign.
Leaving the door open to a possible Labour deal with the Lib Dems, Business Secretary and key Brown aide Peter Mandelson said he saw no absolute bar to such a power-sharing deal.
"I have no problem in principle in trying to supply this country with a strong and stable government," he told the BBC, adding: "It looks like it's heading for something of a cliffhanger of a result."
Under Britain's election rules, in the case of a hung parliament the incumbent prime minister has the initiative to try first to form a stable government.
But Michael Gove, the Conservative education spokesman and one of Cameron's closest allies, told the BBC: "I certainly think that on the basis of what we have seen so far, there's been a rejection of Gordon Brown."
In addition, under the exit poll forecast, Labour and the Lib Dems together -- 255 and 59 -- would fall short of the magic 326 majority figure.
Labour's deputy leader Harriet Harman said that the polls had only just closed, adding: "I think it will be clear that there's a genuine feeling that we need to change the voting system."
The exit polls were released as polling stations closed at 10:00 pm (2100 GMT). Early results could start coming in as soon as an hour later, but the bulk is expected to be declared from around 3:00 am.
The final result may not be known until much later if it hangs on a handful of seats, as some two dozen constituencies are not expected to be declared before noon on Friday.
The exit poll forecasts were in line with several eve-of-election polls which had suggested the Conservatives had a clear lead over Brown's ruling Labour Party and Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats.
The result could spark a scramble for power, with Cameron seeking a partner to govern or doing so through a minority government, possibly with the support of a handful of lawmakers from Northern Ireland.
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.
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.
Clegg, who catapulted his party into second place for a time during the campaign with his TV performance, had pleaded with voters to the last to back him and seize a "once in a generation opportunity to do things differently".
Brown, who took over from Tony Blair in 2007, had ended his campaign in his native Scotland, issuing a last-ditch plea to wavering voters to back Labour as the best party to safeguard the country's fragile recovery from deep recession.
"At this moment of risk to our economy, at this moment of decision for our country, I ask you to come home to Labour," he said.
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