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Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives looked on course Friday for a surprise victory in Britain’s general election which would redefine the country’s future in Europe and herald more austerity cuts.
Exit polls upended pre-election forecasts of a knife-edge contest with Labour and pointed to a landslide for Scottish nationalists that could reopen the question of independence for Scotland.
The pound rallied on currency markets as the poll commissioned by Britain’s national broadcasters put the centre-right Conservatives on 316 seats, compared to 239 for Ed Miliband’s centre-left Labour party.
As well as the Conservatives, the other big winners were the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), which has so far won 50 of the 59 seats north of the border and is forecast to sweep all bar one.
Its winners included 20-year-old Mhairi Black, Britain’s youngest MP since 1667, who defeated Labour’s campaign chief Douglas Alexander.
But it was a terrible night for the Liberal Democrats, junior partners in Cameron’s coalition since 2010, who lost at least two senior ministers.
Their leader, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, said the centrist party had suffered a “cruel and punishing” night and hinted he could step down.
The Conservatives do not look to have the clear majority of 326 seats in the House of Commons but the results, if confirmed, would put Cameron in a strong position to remain in power, potentially as leader of a minority government working with smaller parties.
“The people of Britain after a long and exhausting campaign have finally spoken,” London Mayor Boris Johnson, tipped as a future Conservative Party leader, said after being elected as a lawmaker.
Consequences for EU
If the results are borne out they could put Britain on a collision course with the European Union as Cameron has promised an in-out referendum on membership.
The success of the SNP could also increase pressure for a fresh referendum on Scottish independence, even though that was rejected just last September.
Professor Patrick Dunleavy of the London School of Economics said the exit polls indicated that Cameron “looks like he’s there for five years” — the full length of a parliamentary term in Britain.
“The paradox is David Cameron survives as prime minister but prime minister of a minority government which doesn’t have the votes to do anything radical,” he added.
If the Conservatives do fall short of a clear majority, they would have to team up with a smaller party or parties such as the Liberal Democrats or Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists to take power.
Labour could in theory still attempt to put together an alternative alliance with the SNP and other left-leaning parties but, if the exit polls are borne out, the Conservatives could claim significant moral authority as the biggest party by far.
Election night parties were being held across Britain as voters watched eagerly to see which way the election would turn.
“I voted for the Conservatives because Labour is not competent on financial matters,” said Ben Woodthorpe, 39, as he sipped a beer in a pub in the City of London financial district.
The mood in the Labour camp was, by contrast, glum.
“I am very disappointed because it looks like the majority is going towards the Conservative side,” said Nick Mabey, a Labour supporter in London.
“Labour has been screwed by what happened in Scotland,” he said.
The pound rose to $1.5479 in Asian trading, its highest level since late February.
Cameron would extend an austerity drive borne out of the 2008 global financial crisis, with the Conservatives vowing to bring the budget of the world’s fifth-biggest economy back to balance.
All about the numbers
As the SNP turned the electoral map of Scotland yellow, its former leader Alex Salmond, who was replaced by Nicola Sturgeon last year, was among the lawmakers returned to the House of Commons.
He summed up the sense of euphoria in the pro-independence party in which he is still seen as a figurehead, saying the “Scottish lion has roared”.
“There is a roch (rough) wind blowing through the great glen of Scotland this morning,” he said after winning his seat in northeast Scotland.
“There is a swing underway in Scotland the like of which has not been seen in recorded politics.”
Under Britain’s electoral system, a party needs to be able to command a majority in the 650-seat House of Commons in order to form a government.
While Cameron may fall just short of that figure — in practice around 323 — British newspaper front pages reflected expectations that he will return to 10 Downing Street.
“Swinging the blues” was the front page of Conservative-supporting Sun, referring to the Conservative party colours.
But the front page of the left-leaning Daily Mirror was black except for the words “General Election 2015. Condemned Again Five more damned years?”
© 1994-2015 Agence France-Presse
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