Ed Miliband was quick to take the personal blame for the party’s wipeout in Scotland and failure to dislodge the Tories in England as he resigned as leader.
Only hours previously, Mr Miliband and his team had expected the party to finish close to the Tories in seat tallies, and push their way into Downing Street with the backing of other centre-left blocks.
But Labour ended up losing a swathe of seats as it did worse than under Gordon Brown in the aftermath of the financial crash in 2010, though its share of votes improved slightly to 30%.
After months of apparent poll deadlock, the scale of the Tory victory caught everyone by surprise as David Cameron returned to power with a majority of 12 seats and no need to rely on smaller parties like the Lib Dems for support.
Mr Cameron tried to strike a conciliatory tone as he returned to Downing Street, insisting he wanted to lead a government that supported hard-working families, as he pledged to give the Scottish Parliament more powers than any other devolved assembly in the world.
The Tory leader moved swiftly to stamp his authority on the government with a cabinet line-up that left contenders to succeed him when he steps down during this parliament, George Osborne and Theresa May in their former posts as chancellor of the exchequer and home secretary respectively.
Other likely leadership contender Boris Johnson was also elected to parliament as he serves out his last year as London mayor.
Front-runners for the Labour leadership included shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, whose husband Ed Balls became the most high-profile casualty of the Labour defeat when he was dumped by voters in Yorkshire.
Other potential contenders include shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, who is believed to be Tony Blair’s favourite for the leadership, and former health minister Andy Burnham, who has moved from the Blairite wing of the party, to its left wing while in opposition.
David Miliband, who was defeated by his brother Ed for the Labour leadership in 2010, urged “deep and honest thinking” about the future of the Labour party’s direction after Blairites said the party had lurched too far to the left since Gordon Brown stepped down as leader.
The former foreign secretary said his “heart goes out” to his brother Ed after Labour’s worst defeat since 1987.
Outgoing deputy prime minister Nick Clegg quit as Lib Dem leader after the party saw its MP tally crash from 56 to eight, with just 8% of the popular vote — just over a third of what it received in 2010.
Mr Clegg said the party had paid the price for “putting the county first” by joining a coalition with the Tories in 2010, when it was not in the party’s best interest.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon insisted the party would not tolerate being ignored at Westminster while it is now the third-largest block after sweeping 56 of Scotland’s 59 constituencies.
Ukip’s Nigel Farage quit as party leader after failing to secure a Westminster seat, but said he might stand for the post again in September.
by Katrine Bussey
Nicola Sturgeon has vowed her record-breaking team of SNP MPs will “genuinely make Scotland’s voice heard” at Westminster in a bid to end austerity economics.
The SNP gained an extraordinary 50 seats, taking the party’s tally of MPs to 56.
Ms Sturgeon hailed that as “an overwhelming vote for change in Scotland”, and vowed to push for more powers to be handed to Holyrood.
But while that is five times more than its previous best result of 11 MPs in 1974, with the Conservatives heading back to government the Scottish First Minister said the result across the UK was “not the scenario I wanted”.
Labour lost 40 seats in Scotland, ending with just one MP north of the border.
The SNP leader told the BBC: “Given that we are, unfortunately, facing another Conservative government, it’s all the more important that we’ve got a strong team of SNP MPs standing up for Scotland.
“People have voted overwhelmingly for Scotland’s voice to be heard and for an end to austerity.”
She added: “This election wasn’t about independence. I don’t take any of the votes that were cast for the SNP yesterday as votes for independence. They were votes to make Scotland’s voice be heard more loudly.”
Ed Miliband quit as Labour leader after a dramatic election night where his party was virtually wiped out in Scotland and David Cameron secured a Commons majority.
Reflecting on the devastating results after 30 seconds of applause, Mr Miliband said he took “absolute and total responsibility” for the result, offering apologies to big Labour beasts including Ed Balls and Jim Murphy who were defeated overnight.
He added: “Britain needs a strong Labour Party, Britain needs a Labour Party that can rebuild after this debate so we can have a government that stands up for working people again.
“And now it is time for someone else to take forward the leadership of this party. So I am tendering my resignation... I want to do so straight away because the party needs to have an open and honest debate about the right way forward, without constraint.”
Rather than breaking through as forecast by opinion polls, Labour saw losses to the Tories in key marginal seats and failed to win the Conservatives most vulnerable constituencies.
Mr Miliband paid a fulsome tribute to Harriet Harman, who will take over as leader during the coming election contest, as the “best deputy leader anyone could hope for”.
Addressing an audience of noisy and passionate activists at a Westminster venue, he said: “We have come back before and this party will come back again.”
Ms Harman said she would step forward as acting leader but a deputy leadership contest will also be required after she added: “It is not my intention to stay on as deputy leader of the Labour Party when the new leader is elected.
“Therefore, I am announcing that I am stepping down as deputy leader — with my resignation taking effect when the new leader and deputy leader are elected.
Prospective candidates for the Labour leadership include Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and newer faces such as Chuka Umunna.
Mr Miliband urged candidates to approach their campaign with the “same decency, civility and comradeship we believe is the way the country should be run”.
by Kate Holton
Britain’s deputy prime minister Nick Clegg resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats after his party was crushed at the national election.
Clegg, who in 2010 led his party to its first ever spell in government as coalition partners to the Conservatives, retained his seat in parliament but saw the vast majority of his colleagues lose theirs.
“Clearly the results have been immeasurably more crushing and unkind than I could ever have feared,” an exhausted looking Clegg told a news conference.
“I must take responsibility, and therefore I announce that I will be resigning as leader of the Liberal Democrats. A leadership election will now take place according to the party’s rules.”
Clegg said he believed history would judge his party’s time in government “kindly” while issuing a stark warning of the potentially “disastrous” legacy of a highly divisive election campaign: “This now brings our country to a very perilous point in our history where grievance and fear combine to drive our different communities apart.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that in the absence of strong and statesman-like leadership, Britain’s place in Europe and the world and the continued existence of our United Kingdom itself is now in grave jeopardy.”
Clegg led his party into government and into the cabinet room but abandoning Liberal Democrat promises on tuition fees was seen as a betrayal voters could not forgive.
Mr Clegg apologised repeatedly for abandoning the promise, including in a famous YouTube video that was immediately spoofed and set to music.
But the National Union of Students targeted Mr Clegg, and other Lib Dems, with a hard-hitting poster campaign branding them liars.
by Tim Sculthorpe
Nigel Farage resigned as Ukip leader after finishing second in Thanet South, telling activists “I’m a man of my word,” after promising defeat would force him to quit.
But Mr Farage raised the prospect he would consider running to return to the job after a summer off when the contest is held in September.
Mr Farage said he would recommend Suzanne Evans, the deputy chairman, be a stand-in leader until the leadership challenge is complete. Mr Farage said in his earlier concession speech that an “enormous weight has been lifted from my shoulders.
Announcing his resignation, he said: “I’m a man of my word, I shall be writing to the Ukip national executive in a few minutes, saying I am standing down as leader of Ukip.
“I shall recommend that ... they put in place as acting leader Suzanne Evans who I think has emerged from this campaign as an absolute tower of strength within Ukip.”
He added: “Personally, there’s a bit of me that is disappointed but there is a bit of me that feels better than I have felt for many, many years. It really has been seven days a week, totally unrelenting, and occasionally let down by people who perhaps haven’t said and done the right things.
“I haven’t had a fortnight holiday since October 1993. I intend to take the summer off, enjoy myself a bit.
“There will be a leadership election for the next leader of Ukip in September and I will consider over the course of this summer whether to put my name forward to do that job again.”
Tory Craig Mackinlay — a former Ukip member — won Thanet South by almost 3,000 votes, racking up 18,838 to Mr Farage’s 16,026. The result leaves Ukip with just one MP — Douglas Carswell, who held Clacton, as Mark Reckless lost Rochester and Strood.