Britain's election: Conservatives on track to win most seats but short of a majority

Left to right: Opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband and his wife Justine Thornton, leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron and his wife Samantha and leader of the Liberal Democrat party Nick Clegg and his wife Miriam Gonzalez Durantez vo
Left to right: Opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband and his wife Justine Thornton, leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron and his wife Samantha and leader of the Liberal Democrat party Nick Clegg and his wife Miriam Gonzalez Durantez voting on Tuesday as Britain holds a general election. -- PHOTO: AFP 

LONDON (AFP/REUTERS) - British exit poll shows Conservatives are on track to win most seats (316) but with no outright majority, defying a neck-and-neck race with the centre-left Labour party.

Mr Ed Miliband's Labour party is likely to win 239 seats, according to the forecast on Thursday night after the ballot closed, with the Scottish National Party (SNP) winning 58 seats, which would be a massive surge in support from the six seats they held in the last parliament.

The Liberal Democrats, junior partners in Cameron's coalition government, slumped to 10 seats from 56 currently, according to the poll.

However, former leader of Liberal Democrats, Lord Paddy Ashdown, the man who ran its current leader Nick Clegg's campaign, reacted with disbelief to the first news on the BBC.

"If this exit poll is right...I will publicly eat my hat on your programme", he said.

For the moment, the first seat in Houghton and Sunderland South has gone to the Labour party.

While the Conservatives may not have the clear majority of 326 seats in the House of Commons, they look to have increased their support from 302 in the outgoing parliament.

"If they are right, it will mean the Conservatives have clearly won," Michael Gove, a key ally of Cameron and chief whip in his government, told the BBC.

But Labour's deputy leader Harriet Harman said the results indicated that the Conservatives "have lost the majority for their coalition" with the Liberal Democrats.

Negotiations between the Conservatives, Labour and the smaller parties are expected to start Friday as they bid to build enough support to reach a majority.

The outcome of the general election could determine Britain's future in the European Union and whether Scotland remains part of Britain.

Mr Cameron has promised a referendum on EU membership by 2017 if he wins, while the SNP has said it would work with Labour in return for policy concessions.

Scots voted against independence in a referendum last year but the SNP has seen its support surge since and has not ruled out pushing for a fresh referendum.

Party leader Nicola Sturgeon said on Twitter the exit polls should be treated with "HUGE caution". She added: "I'm hoping for a good night but I think 58 seats is unlikely!" More than 45 million Britons were eligible to vote at polling stations located everywhere from shipping containers to churches, funeral parlours to pubs, a school bus, a lido and a football ground.

Ballot boxes were open from 0600 GMT to 2100 GMT. Most results will emerge overnight but the final tally of seats will not become clear until Friday afternoon.

The Conservatives and Labour have been virtually tied in opinion polls throughout the election campaign, leaving the final outcome highly uncertain.

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.

National vote share therefore plays no part in the outcome of the election - it is decided purely on the number of local area seats each party can win.

Strictly speaking, the Conservatives or Labour would need to have 326 seats to have a majority.

In practice, though, this figure is likely to be more like 323 because Irish nationalists Sinn Fein do not take up the seats they win in general elections and the House of Commons speaker does not take part in votes.

If neither the Conservatives nor Labour wins an outright majority, they will have to start negotiations with smaller parties in a bid to attract their support.

It is thought the Conservatives could again team up with the centrist Liberal Democrats, with whom they have been in a coalition government since 2010, and Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionists.

Labour, meanwhile, could attract support from the SNP led by Nicola Sturgeon.

The SNP have said they would be prepared to work with Labour to keep the Conservatives out of power but Mr Miliband has ruled out a formal deal with them.

The Liberal Democrats say they could also be open to working with Labour.

The negotiations are likely to be complex and experts say they are likely to last for days or even weeks.

The new government, whether led by the Conservatives or Labour, would face its first big test when lawmakers vote on its legislative programme after a traditional speech given by Queen Elizabeth II in parliament on May 27.

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