The two men battling to be Britain’s next prime minister traded insults in the last hours of the too-close-to-call campaign by branding each other a conman and a squatter.
Tory leader David Cameron said his Labour counterpart intended to try and pull off an anti-democratic “con job” by trying to form an administration with tacit SNP support even if the Conservatives came out top in the number of Commons seats won.
Labour hit back by saying that if it was clear there was no chance of the Tories scrambling together a parliamentary majority, Cameron should quit Downing St tomorrow night, rather than “squat” in the official residence until his proposed legislative programme, known as the Queen’s Speech, is inevitably voted down in early June.
With last-minute polls putting the two main parties in deadlock at around 35% each, and the SNP set to sweep the board in Scotland, it looked as if Britain was heading for one of its most unpredictable post-election political outcomes of the past century.
Bouyed by a better-than- expected campaign performance, but unable to breakthrough to within striking distance of a majority due to Labour’s collapse in its former Scottish stronghold, Ed Miliband said the momentum was with his party.
While Conservative strategists ruled out a re-run of the knife-edge 1992 election when a surge of ‘Shy Tories’ returned to the fold at the last minute to give John Major an unexpected majority after weeks of poll stalemate, they said the party could get close to the 300 seats needed to form an administration with the support of the Lib Dems and DUP.
The final polls pointed to the Tories emerging just ahead in seat terms with around 280 MPs, narrowly ahead of the expected Labour tally and well short of the 326 needed for a Commons majority.
Senior Labour figures said if that was the case there would be a clear anti-Conservative majority in the new parliament and Cameron should accept that fact and leave office quickly.
Backing their claims, they pointed to the rules governing a hung parliament which state: “An incumbent ... is expected to resign if it becomes clear that it is unlikely to be able to command that confidence and there is a clear alternative.”
Labour wants its revenge for personalised Tory attacks on then prime minister Gordon Brown who was called a “squatter” for remaining in Downing St for the five days after the 2010 election while the Tories and Lib Dems put their unexpected coalition together.
However, signalling he would not go without a fight, Mr Cameron said it would be wrong for Labour to try and form a government if it came second in the seat tally.
“I think it is a con trick because Ed Miliband is saying I’m not going to do a deal with the SNP, I won’t have an agreement with the SNP. But actually he knows the only way he can become prime minister is with the backing of SNP MPs,” Cameron said.
In a bid to try and stem the SNP surge Mr Miliband appealed to Scottish pride and patriotism.
“On the eve of the tightest general election in a generation, my message to the people of Scotland is this: I understand the patriotism and pride you feel in your nation.
“The Labour Party was born in Scotland and remains Scotland’s party of social justice. If I’m prime minister I will hold Scotland’s interests in my heart and my head,” Miliband said.
However, the SNP was on course to sweep Scotland, though leader Nicola Sturgeon dismissed some poll predictions that it could take all 59 seats as unlikely.
“We are within touching distance of doing something the SNP has never done in our history — winning a Westminster election.
And if we do that, then the voice of Scotland is going to be heard more loudly at Westminster than it has ever been heard before,” she said as analysts predicted it could gain around 50 MPs, dwarfing its previous record tally of 11 in 1974.
Battling to hold his own seat in Sheffield, an upbeat Nick Clegg said his party would be the “surprise success story” of the election.
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