General election 2010: 'We have right to govern' says David Cameron

Conservatives interpret early results as 'humiliating rejection' for Labour, but Gordon Brown refuses to concede defeat

David Cameron is claiming the right to govern as the Conservatives respond to the biggest swing against Labour since the 1930s, with initial results suggesting that the Tories could win a narrow overall majority.

But partly based on an exit poll suggesting the new parliament may be hung, Gordon Brown refused to concede defeat, waiting to see if Britain could yet be heading for a hung parliament in which he could strike a deal with the Liberal Democrats.

With the first results showing wildly differing swings against Labour, and an exit poll pointing to the Tories being 19 seats short of an overall majority, the Conservative leadership put concerted pressure on Brown to concede defeat, warning that the bond markets would not tolerate the lack of stable government.

The Tory pressure was partly driven by confidence in Conservative headquarters that the exit poll suggesting only a 5.5% swing to the Tories badly understated the extent of their advance. A swath of early results in north-east and south-west England showed Labour was suffering swings as high as 10%, including a 9.4% swing to the Tories as they captured the Bristol seat of Kingswood – a seat way beyond their target list.

The Tories were getting swings of 9% or so from Labour in seats as diverse as metropolitan Putney, suburban West Country Kingswood and mixed north-eastern Darlington.

The initial exit poll at 10pm showed the Conservatives on a predicted 307, Labour 255, Liberal Democrats 59 – down four on its previous number – and others 29. The Tories need 326 seats to govern alone.

The Lib Dems, aiming to secure as many as 70 seats, were still confident that the Nick Clegg surge would see many more northern Labour citadels fall than the exit poll indicated. The Lib Dems held Torbay, suggesting that they were holding off the Tory advance in the south-west.

The Conservatives said privately that, so long as they secured 300 seats, they would be able to form a viable government probably with the help of the Democratic Unionists.

The sense of drama at the end of the most hotly contested election since the second world war was only intensified when the Electoral Commission announced it would be holding an inquiry into why thousands of people queueing in cities all around the country had been debarred from voting as the polls closed at 10pm.

Labour's deputy leader, Harriet Harman, held out the possibility of legal challenges.

In an index of the pressure being piled on Labour to concede it could no longer govern in the wake of the swing, George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, said: "I think Labour politicians need, to coin a phrase, to get real.

"The election has taken place and on the basis of the exit poll the Labour party has been decisively rejected. The idea that Gordon Brown, David Miliband and the rest of them could cling on to power I think most people would find simply staggering."

Ken Clarke, the shadow business secretary, said: "The one thing that is absolutely clear is that Gordon Brown cannot possibly carry on as prime minister. He's lost all authority to govern, he is going to fall very badly."

Cameron's office said within 30 minutes of the polls closing: "Labour can't possibly expect to continue in government after this humiliating rejection. Having lost 100 seats, they are insulting the voters to suggest otherwise."

But David Miliband, the foreign secretary, reflecting the official Labour line, said: "If no party has an absolute majority in the House of Commons then the party has a moral right to a monopoly of power. Our system is clear. If you have 325 seats then you do have a right form a government. If you do not, then the parties have to talk to each other."

Labour privately said that if Cameron went over 320 seats, or if in the unlikely event Labour came third in the share of the vote, Brown would abandon all attempts to form a minority government.

In an attempt to draw the Lib Dems towards some alliance with Labour, Lord Mandelson, the business secretary, said the first-past-the post-system was "on its last legs". He added: "The constitutional convention gives the sitting prime minister the first chance to try to secure a majority and continue in office, and if he fails in that, it goes to the opposition party."

Lord Ashdown, the former Lib Dem leader, went even further in attacking the Tory stance, predicting: "They are going to try and play the trick of Milosevic of turning an election into a street battle."

Alan Johnson, the home secretary, said Brown would do the right thing and look at the share of the vote, as well as whether Labour had morally lost.

The turnout was heading in some constituencies towards over 80%, the highest figure for more than 20 years.

Labour is likely to warn that Cameron will try to go the country in the autumn to seek a larger majority without setting out what kind of spending cuts he would implement later in the year.

Party sources were saying last night that Brown would try to hold on through the night if the Tories do not have a clear overall majority, to see if Labour can realistically offer secure and stable government alongside the Lib Dems.

But the party acknowledged that if the Tory vote crept as high as 320 in terms of seats, it would be impossible to stay on. Only if the Tories were kept down to 300 might it be possible to form an arrangement with Nick Clegg.

The Lib Dem leader will be extremely reluctant to do any such deal, and may instead focus on trying to replace Labour as the chief party of opposition at the next election.

Brown's team also recognised that the prime minister will come under intense media pressure to stand aside, with the Tories likely to say that Labour has lost the moral right to govern.


Patrick Wintour

The GuardianTramp

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