Cameron and Miliband fight each other to a standstill
POLITICAL leaders entered the home strait of what promises to be the tightest election in a generation yesterday with a raft of new pledges they hope will give them some leverage as the UK votes today.
Party leaders and candidates laid out their last-ditch pitch for votes as the campaign closed and the polls open.
Prime minister David Cameron said the country was "stronger than it was five years ago" but there was "more to do".
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, urged people to vote "to reward hard work in our country again" while LibDems chief Nick Clegg said his party would offer "stability and decency".
No party looks likely to win enough seats for an outright majority. A late burst of opinion polls suggested Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband had fought each other to a standstill.
Despite five weeks of campaigning, neither party has opened up a clear lead, teeing up a potentially messy and uncertain outcome.
The stakes are high because of a rare confluence of factors which mean Britain's future in the European Union, as well as its national cohesion, could hinge on the result. Mr Cameron has promised to hold a referendum on whether to stay in or quit the EU if he returns to power.
And polls suggest Scottish nationalists could emerge as the third largest party.
"We can achieve an overall majority that gives Britain the strong, stable government that continues, with a long-term economic plan that is working," Mr Cameron said.
Mr Miliband said his message to undecided voters was: "You can have another five years of a prime minister who will put the rich and powerful first in our country. Or if I'm prime minister, I'll put working people first."
Surveys by Opinium and TNS, published yesterday, both put the Conservatives 1 percentage point ahead of Labour. An ICM/Guardian poll put the big parties level on 35pc, with Labour up 3 points in the past nine days.
Politicians, pollsters and the media were struggling to read the election, leading many to focus on what might happen if there is an uncertain result.
"As such, Thursday might not be the end of the process. It might just be the calling of the half-time whistle," said James Landale of the BBC.
As the curtain came down on the hustings, Mr Cameron was adamant that the Conservatives could still clinch today's election outright.
Mr Miliband was equally optimistic about Labour prospects, insisting that he trusts the public to make the "right judgement".
In the event of stalemate, the former senior civil servant Lord O'Donnell believed that Mr Cameron could remain as PM even without a majority - it would be up to his political judgement whether there was a "clear alternative" government.
Nick Clegg says he's confident the Lib Dems will hold enough seats to be key players in any negotiations.
UKIP will "significantly and perhaps dramatically outperform" expectations, a party spokesman claimed.
For the Greens, their party leader Natalie Bennett said that her MPs would do all they could to keep the Tories out.
In Scotland, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said that her party is "within touching distance" of making Westminster history, while in Cardiff, Leanne Wood said her Plaid Cymru party is part of a "change that's coming".
However, behind the scenes there was intense activity in what has become a febrile atmosphere. Labour was desperately putting together plans to oust Mr Cameron from 10 Downing Street within 24 hours of the polls closing, aides to Mr Miliband have revealed.
Senior Labour aides are poring over copies of the Cabinet Manual, the Whitehall rule book which sets out how governments can be formed in the event of a hung parliament.
Mr Miliband's team believe that it will be clear by the end of tomorrow, less than 24 hours after the close of polls, whether Mr Cameron will be able to get enough support to pass a 'queen's speech', which sets out planned legislation.
Mr Cameron's options for forming a minority Government - with Ukip, the DUP and possibly the Liberal Democrats - are expected to be more limited than those open to Mr Miliband, who can also speak to the Lib Dems, Greens and even the Scottish Nationalists. There has been speculation that the wrangling over whether Mr Cameron or Mr Miliband should be prime minister would go on for days and even weeks.
But Labour believes matters will become clear much more quickly than that, chiefly because the spread of MPs between the parties will make only a certain number of combinations for a minority administration possible.
Labour is planning to ensure that it has senior figures close to Mr Miliband on the airwaves after polls close tonight, with Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, already booked in for the crucial 10pm to midnight spot.
The Conservatives are planning to put forward experienced hands like Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, to ensure that their supporters do not waver and panic as the negotiations get under way. Yesterday 'The Times' newspaper endorsed a continuation of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, while the 'Express' becomes the first paper to recommend UKIP.
The 'Daily Mail' backed the Conservatives.
The main party leaders have been criss-crossing the UK in their battle buses as they attempt to drum up support.
The first solid indications as to which way the night is going are likely to come from a couple of key Tory marginals in the Midlands - Nuneaton and Northampton North - seen as must-wins for Labour if Mr Miliband is to stand a chance of making it to No 10.
A Labour gain in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire could be a sign that the party is on for a good night - at least in England and Wales.
In Scotland, the full scale of the SNP's surge may become apparent with the declaration in Gordon Brown's old seat of Kirkcaldy. (© Daily Telegraph, London and agencies)