Millions of Britons voted on Thursday in the country’s closest-fought general election for decades amid predictions they were set to hand over power to the Conservative party, ringing the curtain down on 13 years of New Labour rule.
Although most opinion polls put pointed to a hung parliament with none of the parties managing to get the 326 seats needed for a clear majority, the Conservatives, led by David Cameron, a 43-year-old former public relations executive, were well ahead of their rivals.
Amid hopes of a high turnout at the 50,000 polling stations serving an electorate of just over 44 million, a Guardian/ ICM poll put the Conservatives on 36 per cent, ruling Labour on 28 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 26 per cent.
Cameron, within touching distance of winning a cliff-hanger, told supporters after 30 hours of nonstop sleepless campaigning on Wednesday night: “In this election don’t let fear triumph over hope.
A Conservative government can get our economy moving again, can tackle social problems, can make politics accountable.”
Cameron was taking nothing for granted. After becoming the first leader to cast his vote on Thursday morning, he declared: “I’m feeling good. I will leave it at that.”
But a late rally this week by Labour, marked by barnstorming speeches by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, means a hung parliament is still a strong possibility.
The first result is expected to be declared an hour after polling closes at 9 pm GMT, but the picture is expected to become clear only early Friday.
The incumbent party believes its vote hardened this week among floating voters, which could yet deliver it the largest number of seats in parliament.
Labour supporters are also banking on a quirk of the British electoral system where anomalies in the size of constituencies mean Labour captures more seats in spite of winning a smaller proportion of votes.
If there is no clear winner and Labour gets the most seats, Brown will have first go at forming a minority government. But if the Conservatives emerge winners and are only slightly short of a clear majority, Brown is expected to offer Cameron that opportunity.