David Cameron looked to be leading his party towards the Tories’ most successful night at the ballot box since 1992, as early results pointed to a far better performance than party members had dared to believe possible.
As results poured in on Friday morning, jubilant Conservative MPs and strategists said it was “possible” Mr Cameron might achieve an overall majority as the party more than held its ground against Labour while making gains against its Liberal Democrat coalition partners.
A slew of seats that had been predicted to fall to Labour on the night stayed in Conservative hands as the Tories held marginals up and down the country such as North Warwickshire, Stockton South, Hastings & Rye, Cannock Chase.
The party also claimed the biggest Labour scalp, ousting Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, and one of the leading Labour politicians of his generation, in Morley and Outwood.
Results suggest the Conservatives were on course to win more than the 323 seats Mr Cameron would need for an effective majority in the Commons.
The prime minister, speaking in his Oxfordshire constituency, said it was “a very strong night for the Conservatives”.
“It is too early to say what sort of result there will be at the end of this campaign, but this campaign was always about difficult decisions we had to take.”
The exit poll on Thursday gave the Conservatives a far bigger lead over Labour than pollsters had predicted. The Tories had been widely expected to win 280-290 seats, while Labour was expected to gain 260-270 seats. The exit poll put Labour on 239.
Mr Cameron, who returned to Downing Street early on Friday morning, is expected to make a speech in the coming hours when he will declare victory — whether he has an overall majority or not.
The Tories’ strong performance in early results pointed to a vindication of Lynton Crosby’s strategy to run a campaign hooked on two themes: economic competence and Mr Cameron’s leadership.
The Australian election chief and his team have faced criticism for running a sterile and negative campaign in recent weeks from some MPs — and even donors — amid growing nervousness after five weeks of deadlocked polls.
Conservative figures said internal party polling had showed a better performance in marginal seats than the national polls had suggested — but acknowledged the swing had been extremely late.
“Shy Tories? A lot of people hadn’t made up their minds, but what was always in our favour was that Cameron massively outperformed Ed Miliband,” said one senior party figure.
Ben Wallace, Conservative MP for Wyre & Preston, told the Financial Times he was not surprised by the exit poll given that Labour supporters he had canvassed in recent weeks had seemed unconvinced by Mr Miliband.
“The north doesn’t take kindly to Hampstead Liberals who don’t know the real world,” he said, referring to where the Labour leader grew up and now lives.
Meanwhile Conservatives claimed that they might win the seat of South Thanet, the constituency being contested by Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence party, after a concerted Tory “decapitation” strategy in the Kent seat. The party also managed to hold off Ukip in Thurrock as the anti-EU party looked like it would win two seats at most.
But there were disappointments too as Esther McVey, the employment minister, lost her Wirral West seat to Labour. The Tories also fell short in London with Mr Miliband taking Ilford North, Enfield North, Brentford and Isleworth, and Ealing Central and Acton from the Tories.
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