David Cameron has won the general election with an outright majority after Labour was virtually wiped out in Scotland and the Liberal Democrat vote collapsed.
Mr Cameron hailed the “sweetest victory” as his party secured the 323 seats needed to form a government without needing to go into coalition.
It came after an electoral earthquake in Scotland, with Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP seeing unprecedented swings and decimating Labour north of the border.
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, is set to resign after saying that he was “deeply sorry” about the result in Scotland. Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor was the biggest scalp of the night, losing his Leeds seat to the Tories.
In the shock result – which had not been predicted by any opinion poll – Mr Cameron returned to Downing Street in scenes reminiscent of the 1992 general election when John Major triumphed over Neil Kinnock.
Speaking to Conservative activists, he hailed a great victory.
Mr Cameron said: “I’m not an old man but I remember casting a vote in ’87 and that was a great victory. I remember working just have you been working in ’92 and that was an amazing victory. I remember 2010 achieving that dream of getting Labour out and the Tories back in and that was amazing. But I think this is the sweetest victory of all.
“There are so many things to be proud of in this result. The fact we held on in Scotland. The fact we extended our representation in Wales.
“The fact that candidates I have seen work so hard week in, week out, some of them year in, year out, have triumphed in so many seats.”
There were remarkable scenes in Scotland, where Jim Murphy, Labour’s Scottish leader, and Douglas Alexander, who was in charge of Ed Miliband’s election campaign, were both unseated.
The SNP surge left Labour predicted to emerge with just 239 seats, a collapse in support from the 258 they received in 2010 under Gordon Brown.
There were immediate questions over Mr Miliband’s leadership, with a series of senior Labour figures declining to offer him their support.
The future of the Union is likely to represent one of Mr Cameron’s biggest challenges after Alex Salmond, the former SNP leader who is now an MP, said the Conservatives will have “no legitimacy whatsoever in Scotland”.
He said: “It is too early to say exactly what sort of result there will be at the end of this night, at the end of this election campaign, but to me this election campaign was always about the difficult decisions we had to take over the last five years, the foundations of a stronger economy we have built for our country, and the chance now to build on that foundation and say to people that if you want that job, if you want that apprenticeship, if you want a home that you can own of your own, if you want security and dignity in retirement, we are on your side and want to deliver for you.
“Also we should never in politics duck the big issues, whether it’s dealing with our deficit, whether it is holding that referendum which we were right to hold on the future of Scotland in our United Kingdom, or indeed in the future that referendum that we must hold to decide Britain’s future in Europe. My aim remains simple, to govern on the basis of governing for everyone in our United Kingdom.”
Labour made few advances across England and Wales as voters offered a dismal verdict of the narrow campaign fought by Mr Miliband.
The Liberal Democrats faced wipeout across the country, with an exit poll predicting the party would be left with just 10 seats – down from 57 in 2010.
Nearly every Liberal Democrat member of the government lost their seat, including Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary, Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and Jo Swinson, a business minister.
The collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote paved the way for Mr Cameron’s return to office.
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, said: “We haven’t made the gains we wanted in England and Wales and in Scotland we have seen a surge of nationalism overtake our party.
“I’m deeply sorry for what has happened in Scotland. The next government has a huge responsibility in facing the difficult task of keeping our country together.”
Ukip won just one seat and Nigel Farage, the party’s leader, failed to win his South Thanet seat.
Mr Farage, who had vowed to quit if he did not win his seat, stormed out of a televised interview amid questions about his leadership of Ukip. His wife said the election had “not gone as well as we hoped.”
It means Douglas Carswell, who defected to Ukip from the Conservatives, is the only remaining Ukip MP and favourite to become the party’s leader. Mark Reckless, who also defected from the Tories to Ukip, also lost his seat.
Mr Cameron’s victory confounded the predictions by Britain’s polling companies, which have for months predicted a dead-heat between the Conservatives and Labour.
Mr Cameron arrived back to Downing Street on Friday morning, facing the prospect that he had led the Tories to an unexpected outright majority.
The Labour inquest into the party’s disastrous performance began within an hour of the polls closing on Thursday.
Jack Straw, the former Home Secretary, said it had been a “grim” night and that it was an “unbelievably bad situation” for his party.
The biggest shocks of the night were seen in Scotland.
Mr Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, was defeated in his Paisley and Renfrewshire South seat by Mhairi Black, a 20-year-old student.
He conceded it had been a “very difficult” night for Labour, saying the Scottish people had chosen not to put their faith in his party.
Mr Murphy, who lost his East Renfrewshire constituency, said that it was an “enormous” moment for the SNP, but vowed that his party’s fightback starts tomorrow.
He insisted: “The fight goes on and our cause continues. I know hundreds of thousands of Scots still believe in the progressive policies the Labour party stands for.
“The Scottish Labour party has been around for more than a century. A hundred years from tonight we will still be around. Scotland needs a strong Labour party and our fight back starts tomorrow morning.”
Voter turnout on Thursday was forecast to have been more than 68 per cent.
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”.
The rise of the SNP in Scotland dominated the final month of the campaign, with Ms 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.
The final “poll of polls” of the election campaign showed Labour and the Conservatives neck-and-neck, on 34 per cent and 33 per cent respectively.