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David Cameron, UK prime minister, swept back into Downing Street after his centre-right Conservative party secured a dramatic and unexpected election victory, winning an outright parliamentary majority.
The election transformed Britain’s political landscape, triggering the resignations of both Labour’s Ed Miliband and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and claiming the scalps of a swath of politicians who have dominated Westminster for a decade.
The result also raised serious questions about the future of the union after the leftwing Scottish National party won all but three of Scotland’s 59 seats, becoming the third-biggest party in parliament just eight months after losing an independence referendum.
The election also sets the stage for a bruising fight over Britain’s membership of the EU.
Mr Cameron has promised to hold an in-out referendum and concern is growing in European capitals over the risk of a British exit.
The Conservatives won 331 seats, giving them a majority of 12 — a far better result than senior Tories had imagined possible.
Labour saw its tally sink to 232, even worse than its poor performance in the 2010 election, as its huge losses in Scotland more than wiped out modest gains in London and elsewhere.
The Liberal Democrats, who have served in the Conservative-led coalition over the past five years, saw their support collapse, winning only eight seats — 49 less than in 2010.
The outcome confounded the many polls before the election that had put the Conservatives and Labour on level pegging.
The British Polling Council set up an independent inquiry on Friday into why forecasters had so dramatically understated the level of Tory support.
After meeting the Queen at Buckingham Palace, the prime minister returned to Downing Street where he said the Conservatives would govern as “a party of one nation”, promising Scotland the “strongest devolved government anywhere in the world” with wide powers over taxation.
Mr Miliband told supporters he was stepping down because the Labour party needed an “open and honest debate about the right way forward”.
The former Labour leader said he was “truly sorry” he did not succeed but would “never give up” fighting for the Britain he believed in.
“The course of progress and social justice is never simple and straightforward,” he said.
Mr Clegg, who served as deputy prime minister in the coalition, said the election results were “immeasurably more crushing and unkind than I can ever have feared”.
Nigel Farage, the charismatic leader of the UK Independence party quit after failing to win the South Thanet seat in southeastern England.
Ukip, which advocates for a British withdrawal from the EU, emerged as the country’s third largest party in terms of its share of the national vote with about 13 per cent: but due to the vagaries of Britain’s first past the post voting system it won only one seat in parliament.
The pound surged as markets responded to the Conservative victory. Shares in banking and energy companies also rose on Friday morning as the prospect of tougher financial and electricity sector regulation promised by Labour receded.
Ed Balls, Labour’s finance spokesman, and Vince Cable, the Lib Dem business secretary, were two of the biggest casualties of the night, losing their seats to Conservative rivals.
The prime minister offered a conciliatory message to Scottish voters as the election results came in.
“We must reclaim the mantle we should never have lost: the mandate of one nation, one United Kingdom,” he said.
The Scottish National party swept senior Labour figures from office in the party’s traditional heartland and set the stage for a deeply divided parliament.
“The Scottish lion has roared this morning across the country,” said Alex Salmond, the party’s former leader, who won the seat he was contesting. He said it was “inconceivable” for any Westminster government to ignore the united voice of Scotland.
The SNP surge at this election could lead to further demands for a more federal settlement in the UK and add to pressure for a second referendum.