DAVID CAMERON was last night on course to remain prime minister of the UK, with the Conservatives as the biggest party in parliament, early exit polls suggested. The first exit polls indicated that the Tories would win 316 seats, an increase of nine from 2010.
The SNP, led by Nicola Sturgeon, was expected to make a dramatic breakthrough in Westminster, winning 58 of 59 seats in Scotland. The Labour Party was expected to win 239 seats, a collapse in support from the 258 it received in 2010.
The Liberal Democrats were forecast to be left with just 10 MPs - down from 57 in 2010. Ukip, led by Nigel Farage, was expected to retain two seats.
As counting began across the country last night, if the exit polls prove accurate it could leave Mr Cameron with enough seats to form a government alongside the Democratic Unionist Party.
As the leader of what is predicted to be by far the largest party in Westminster, Mr Cameron has the constitutional right to make the first attempt to form the next Government.
Michael Gove, the Conservative chief whip, last night said the poll meant that the Conservatives had "clearly won". He said: "If it is right, it would mean the Conservatives have clearly won the majority.
"It would be an unprecedented vote of confidence in David Cameron. If this exit poll is correct, it gives the PM considerable authority."
The poll of around 20,000 voters in 140 constituencies showed the Conservatives winning 316 seats, Labour winning 239 seats and the Liberal Democrats on 10 seats. A similar poll in 2010 accurately predicted the Conservative party's share of the vote and came within three seats of Labour's final total.
However, experts conceded that the accuracy of this year's exit poll could be reduced because of the rise of the SNP in Scotland.
With good weather across much of Britain and the election set to be the closest since the early 1970s, voter turnout was forecast to have been more than 68pc.
The election campaign, which was tightly controlled by both parties, was defined by bitter exchanges over the economy and the NHS.
Mr Cameron repeatedly warned of a "return to economic chaos" under a Labour government propped up by the SNP, while Mr Miliband claimed the Tories would "cut the NHS to the bone".
However, the rise of the SNP in Scotland dominated the final month of the campaign, with Nicola Sturgeon boasting that she would do a deal with Mr Miliband in order to install him in Downing Street and "lock the Tories out" of power.
Lord Strathclyde, the architect of the Conservatives' strategy in Scotland, said yesterday that saving the Union has to be "the number one priority" for whoever wins the election.
The final "poll of polls" of the election campaign yesterday showed Labour and the Conservatives neck-and-neck, on 34pc and 33pc respectively.
However, bookmaker Paddy Power announced before midnight that it would pay out to punters who backed the Conservatives to win the most seats after the exit poll gave David Cameron's party a large lead.
The odds of Mr Cameron staying at No 10 were at 1/10, with 1/100 for the Tories to win the most seats, said the bookie.
UK General Election 2015
Nicola Sturgeon's SNP has made sweeping gains across Scotland, with a dramatic collapse in support for Labour seeing shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander and Scottish leader Jim Murphy both losing their seats.
UK General Election 2015
Political professionals call it "framing", though real people might prefer the term "spin". Whatever you call it, it's the art of making sure a conversation is conducted on your terms and in a way that advances your agenda - and undermines your opponent's. Quite how the Conservatives and Labour frame the UK general election results could well be crucial to who gets to govern in the event of a hung parliament.