David Cameron is preparing to travel to Buckingham Palace this lunchtime to meet the Queen after returning to Downing Street as Prime Minister in the wake of a shock election victory.
In the biggest scalp of the night, shadow chancellor Ed Balls – who Mr Cameron described as ‘the most annoying person in modern politics’ – lost his seat to the Tories by just 422 votes.
The Conservative leader, who is expected to see the Queen at 12.30pm, declared his intention to ‘govern on the basis of governing for everyone in our United Kingdom’ – a recognition of extraordinary gains by the SNP in Scotland which will pitch nationalists leader Nicola Sturgeon against Mr Cameron.
A deflated Ed Miliband threw in the towel after a series of crushing election losses, as he said he was ‘deeply sorry’ for Labour’s ‘difficult and disappointing’ election night.
After weeks of opinion polls suggesting the result was too close to call, ‘shy Tories’ came out in force at the last moment to keep Mr Cameron in Downing Street.
The SNP tide has swept aside Labour and Lib Dem big beasts including Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander in a tide of nationalism which has already sparked calls for a second independence referendum.
There are doubts that Mr Miliband will survive as leader until Friday lunchtime, as he faces being left with fewer seats than Gordon Brown, slumping to 233.
The Lib Dems are fighting for their survival as a political party, with ministers including Vince Cable, Danny Alexander, David Laws, Ed Davey, Simon Hughes, Lynne Featherstone and Jo Swinson all voted out. They could be left with just eight seats.
Nick Clegg clung on to his seat in Sheffield Hallam but revealed he will make an announcement about his leadership later this morning after a ‘cruel and punishing night’ for the Lib Dems.
Ukip has secured as many votes as the SNP and Lib Dems combined, but could be left with just two MPs with Nigel Farage forced to quit if he fails to win in South Thanet.
Some 50million people were eligible to vote in the most closely fought campaign in a generation. Opinion polls in recent weeks had Labour and the Tories neck and neck, suggesting Britain faced political deadlock.
But an exit poll released at 10pm on Thursday suggested voters switched to the Conservatives at the last moment, suggesting Mr Cameron would win 316 seats.
Mr Cameron all but declared victory in a speech in his Witney constituency, in which he made clear he plans to lead a Tory government, offering an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union and to build on the economic foundations laid by the coalition since 2010.
‘My aim remains simple – to govern on the basis of governing for everyone in our United Kingdom,’ he said.
He made clear he was determined not to allow the rising tide of nationalism to lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom, saying: ‘I want to bring our country together, our United Kingdom together, not least by implementing as fast as we can the devolution that we rightly promised and came together with other parties to agree both for Wales and for Scotland.
‘In short, I want my party, and I hope a Government I would like to lead, to reclaim a mantle that we should never have lost – the mantle of One Nation, One United Kingdom. That is how I will govern if I am fortunate enough to form a government in the coming days.’
In an extraordinary night of political drama:
The Conservatives made gains from both Labour and the Lib Dems while holding back the Ukip threat, as Mr Cameron inches closer to a majority than he managed in 2010
Boris Johnson easily won his seat in Uxbridge and South Ruislip to return to the Commons after seven years, but Employment Minister Esther McVey became the first Tory member of the Cabinet to be voted out
Scotland is on course to be a one-party state, with the SNP sweeping the board in Scotland, defeating Labour’s Scottish leader Jim Murphy, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander and Lib Dem minister Jo Swinson
Ed Miliband faces a leadership crisis, as results put Labour on course for the worst election result since Neil Kinnock led them to a crushing defeat against Margaret Thatcher in 1987
The Lib Dems suffered a bloodbath, losing dozens of seats including senior ministers like Vince Cable and Jo Swinson. As Mr Clegg held his seat he said he would be discussing his leadership with Lib Dem colleagues after a ‘cruel and punishing night for his party’
Ukip leader Nigel Farage faces the battle of his life to win his seat in South Thanet. Without it, he has vowed to quit as party leader raising doubts about the future of Ukip as a political force. Douglas Carswell, who defected to Ukip from the Tories last year, held Clacton
Left-wing firebrand George Galloway lost in Bradford West to Labour
Senior Conservatives could not contain their delight as the results rolled in. The Tories’ resurgence was especially impressive in Wales, where they enjoyed their best election showing for 32 years.
London Mayor Boris Johnson, who returns to the Commons as an MP, said voters had rejected Mr Miliband’s bid to return Britain to the 1970s.
He said: ‘It is clear to me that the people of this country want us to go forward with sensible, moderate policies that the Conservative party has produced over the last five years.’
Mr Miliband pinned his hopes of victory on making gains in England to outweigh losses in Scotland. The Labour leader needed to win around 50 seats from the Tories to stand any chance of becoming Prime Minister,
Instead he faces the prospect of having to resign within hours, after his bid to return Labour to power in just five years ended in dismal failure.
Mr Miliband said: ‘This has clearly been a very disappointing and difficult night for the Labour Party.
‘I want to say to all the dedicated and decent colleagues in Scotland who have lost their seats that I am deeply sorry for what has happened.
And I also want to say that the next government has a huge responsibility. It has a huge responsibility in facing the very difficult task of keeping our country together.
‘Whatever party we come from, if we believe in the United Kingdom we should stand up for people in every part of our United Kingdom because I believe that what unites us is much, much more than what divides us.’
Mr Miliband is on course to perform even worse than his predecessor Gordon Brown in 2010 to be left with the lowest number of MPs since the party under Neil Kinnock was hammered by Margaret Thatcher.
The Lib Dems had a truly terrible night, with Mr Clegg preparing to resign after losing four in five of his MPs.
Reacting to the Lib Dems’ national wipe-out, Mr Clegg said it was ‘painfully clear that this has been a cruel and punishing night’ for his party and made it clear his own position as leader was vulnerable.
He added: ‘This election has profound implications for the country, it also has profound implications for the Liberal Democrats.’
Mr Clegg added that he would be making ’further remarks about the implications of this election both for the country and for the party I lead and for my position in the Liberal Democrats’ when he had spoken to colleagues at Westminster.
Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy lost his East Renfrewshire seat and shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander, who masterminded the Labour election campaign, was ousted in Paisley and Renfrewshire South.
Gordon Brown’s once-safe Labour seat of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath also fell to the SNP, as the former Prime Minister retired from the Commons.
Former Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond was said to have won ‘comfortably’ in Gordon, north-east Scotland, said party sources.
Tory chief whip Michael Gove was quick to declare that if the exit poll is right, the Conservatives have ‘clearly won’.
He told the BBC: ‘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.’
The Prime Minister smiled and waved as he entered No 10 with wife Samantha, but made no comment to waiting reporters.