Election 2010: Gordon Brown returns to No 10 amid talk of Lab-Lib coalition

Defiant prime minister makes symbolic gesture of returning to seat of power as Conservatives say he has lost trust of people

Gordon Brown returned to Downing Street this morning in a symbolic gesture that he is still prime minister, as all three of the main party leaders awaited the final results that will determine where the power lies in what is certain to be a hung parliament.

Brown and David Cameron are locked in a constitutional standoff, as the Tory leader claimed Labour had lost the right to govern – but the prime minister, confident that the Tories had not secured an overall majority, said he would look to see if he could form an alliance with the Liberal Democrats.

All three leaders are regrouping to plan their next move. Brown has the constitution on his side and will have the first chance to form a government. But the Tories are claiming he does not retain the "moral authority" to govern, given the scale of the defeat, and the Lib Dems are wary of a coalition that does not have popular support, given their disappointing performance at the polls.

With just a few seats left to declare, Cameron asserted that his party was on course to gain more seats than at any time in 80 years. He said it was clear that the country wants change that requires new leadership. The Tories currently hold 289 seats, Labour 244 and the Lib Dems 51. Cameron needs 326 to win an overall majority, something Tory insiders privately accept is out of their reach. Sources in the party said early today that they expected to reach 314, which would be enough to operate with the support of the Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland.

Lord Mandelson told Sky News this morning : "The prime minister's duty is to stay at his post, to continue doing his job and not resign until it is clear who the Queen should call as an alternative to form a new government, should Mr Brown not be able to do so. The prime minister can't just resign and leave a vacuum for the Queen to deal with."

In the case of a hung parliament, Mandelson said: "Either there has to be a minority government which tries its chances or a combination of other parties – in this case most likely the Labour party and Liberal Democrats – would have to see if they can form some arrangement instead."

Asked if Brown could stand down as prime minister today, he said: "I think that would be rather a surprising thing to happen.

"He is the Prime Minister. I don't think it would help matters if he were suddenly to stand aside."

Amid vastly different regional swings, the results showed strong Labour resilience outside the south, and the Lib Dems had badly underperformed against euphoric expectations of only a week ago. It looked as if they might end up with 62 seats, down one.

Nick Clegg was said to be depressed by the result, and wary of forming a "coalition of the defeated" that might be seen as ignoring the public mood. Brown flew to London from his Scottish constituency to offer the Lib Dems the chance to form a stable government, culminating in a referendum on electoral reform for the Commons.

The initial exit poll, released at 10pm last night, showed the Conservatives on a predicted 307, Labour on 255, and the Lib Dems on 59.

Clegg will wait to see the final result and meet his new group of MPs tomorrow. Some in his party will claim he can form a stable coalition for two years to deliver recovery and political reform, but others will be nervous of appearing to shun the electorate's will.

With the first results showing wildly differing swings against Labour in different parts of the country, sometimes reflecting expenses issues, and last night's exit poll pointing to the Tories being 19 seats short of an overall majority, the Conservative leadership tried to put concerted early pressure on Brown to concede defeat.

Shadow ministers warned that the bond markets would not tolerate the lack of stable government. The shadow chancellor, George Osborne, told Labour to "get real" about trying to cling to power.

But Cameron took a more measured tone, saying: "I believe it's already clear that the Labour government has lost its mandate to govern our country. The Conservative party is on target to win more seats at this election than we have done at any election in perhaps as long as 80 years.

"What's clear from these results is that the country, our country, wants change. That change is going to require new leadership and we will stand ready to do all we can to help bring that leadership."

The Tory leader, reflecting on the coming battle for power with Brown, promised to put the national interest first in "the hours ahead, or perhaps longer than the hours ahead".

Speaking after he had been returned in Kirkcaldy with an increased majority, Brown openly held out the prospect of trying to secure a coalition with the Lib Dems built around electoral reform.

He said: "My duty to the country coming out of this election is to play my part in Britain having a strong, stable and principled government able to lead Britain into sustained economic recovery and able to implement our commitments to far-reaching reform upon which there is a growing consensus in our country."

Brown's aides said they would try to form a progressive alliance if the Tories did not score as high as 320 seats. Private talks between intermediaries started almost as soon as the polls closed, but few were willing to predict the outcome.

The former home secretary Jacqui Smith was the most high-profile victim of the expenses scandal, losing her ultra-marginal Redditch seat by 6,000 votes to the Tories. Other Labour casualties included another ex-home secretary, Charles Clarke, and ministers Vera Baird, Mike O'Brien, Bill Rammell and former minister Tony McNulty.

But the schools secretary, Ed Balls, narrowly held off a strong Tory challenge. He declared in a fighting speech: "People say New Labour is finished. New Labour is renewed tonight – we will fight on."

Ed Miliband, the energy secretary, said the people had spoken, but "we don't know quite what they have said".


Patrick Wintour and Polly Curtis

The GuardianTramp

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