THERESA May’s gamble on a snap election looks set to cost her overall control of the House of Commons. according to an exit poll.
The BBC/Sky/ITV poll suggested the UK was heading for a hung parliament, with Conservatives 12 seats short of the 326 they need for an absolute majority in the Commons.
The poll put Tories on 314 seats, with Labour on 266, the Scottish National Party on 34, Liberal Democrats on 14, Plaid Cymru on three and Greens on one.
If borne out by the actual results, the poll figures would represent a humiliation for the Prime Minister, who went into the election with a small but viable majority and expectations that she should be able to secure an advantage of 100 seats or more in the House of Commons by going to the country early.
And it would be a personal triumph for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who was widely regarded as having run a successful campaign after being written off as unelectable by many observers and some in his own party.
It would also represent a significant setback for the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon, whose party won a historic 56 out of 59 seats north of the border just two years ago.
And it could throw the UK’s politics into disarray as the parties scrabble to form a government, just 11 days before the expected start of Brexit negotiations in Brussels.
The poll suggests the Tories will lose 16 of the 330 seats they held at the end of the last Parliament, while Labour gains 37, the SNP loses 20 and the Liberal Democrats gain five.
However, even after 30,000 voters were questioned at 144 polling stations, there is always a possibility that the exit polls may be misleading.
In 2015, they significantly underestimated the Tory tally, putting David Cameron’s party on 316 when it finally emerged with 331.
The exit poll triggered instant speculation over the shape of any coalition if no party has an overall majority in the Commons.
Even with the support of Northern Ireland unionists, Conservatives would struggle to form a viable administration without reaching out to other parties.
Meanwhile, a so-called ‘progressive alliance’ bringing together Labour, Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens would fall short of an absolute majority and produce a total only a few seats larger than the Tories on their own.
The one combination which would creep over the crucial 326 mark would be a repeat of the 2010 Tory-Lib Dem coalition, which has been explicitly ruled out by Lib Dem leader Tim Farron.
Labour, Lib Dems and the SNP have ruled out a formal coalition, speaking instead about the possibility of a minority administration being propped up on a vote-by-vote basis.
A Labour spokesman said: ‘If this poll turns out to be anywhere near accurate, it would be an extraordinary result. Labour would have come from a long way back to dash the hopes of a Tory landslide.
‘There’s never been such a turnaround in a course of a campaign. It looks like the Tories have been punished for taking the British people for granted.’
A Lib Dem source said it was ‘too early’ to comment on the exit poll, but indicated the party did not have significant ambitions for gains: ‘In this election holding our own is a good night.’
Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage was the first senior politician to publicly question Mrs May’s continued leadership of the Conservatives.
‘Whatever the true result, the Conservative party needs a leader that believes in Brexit,’ said Mr Farage.
A senior Labour source noted that Mrs May had said repeatedly during the election campaign that if she lost six seats she would no longer be Prime Minister.
‘If this exit poll is correct, her credibility is completely shot,’ said the source.
Green co-leader Caroline Lucas said she could ‘hardly dare hope’ that the exit poll was right, adding: ‘To be clear, Greens will never support a Tory government.’
A Labour source said if the poll was correct it would represent the largest increase in a party’s popularity during an election campaign ‘by miles’.
But the source said it was ‘too early’ to consider talking to other parties about the prospect of forming a government.
Former chancellor George Osborne said the exit poll indicated a ‘catastrophic’ night for the Conservatives.
Mr Osborne, the former MP for Tatton and now Evening Standard editor, told ITV: ‘It is early days, it’s a poll, if the poll is anything like accurate this is completely catastrophic for the Conservatives and for Theresa May.
‘It’s difficult to see, if these numbers are right, how they would put together the coalition to remain in office.
‘But equally it’s quite difficult to see how Labour could put together a coalition.
‘It’s on a real knife-edge.’
The shock exit poll came at the end of one of the most unusual campaigns of modern times, triggered when Mrs May decided during a walking holiday in Snowdonia to seek a personal mandate from voters three years before she needed to.
Announcing the snap election on April 18, the Prime Minister said she had ‘reluctantly’ taken the decision to go to the country after seeing other parties ‘’playing games’’ with the process of preparing for Brexit negotiations.
The surprise announcement was seen in Westminster as a bid to secure her the comfortable Commons majority which would render her invulnerable to rebellion by hardline Brexiteers or europhiles within her own party during the upcoming talks.
Twenty or more points ahead in the polls as the campaign began, Tories allowed expectations to build up of a three-figure majority against a Labour leader whose personal ratings suggested he had failed to enthuse voters beyond his fervent fans.
But the Conservative lead in the polls melted away as voters reacted badly to Mrs May’s robotic repetition of her ‘strong and stable’ catchphrase and her manifesto’s rapidly-reversed raid on old people’s assets to pay for social care.
As the PM shunned TV debates and spoke mainly to Tory activists, Mr Corbyn was given a rock star reception by cheering crowds at rallies which grew larger as the campaign went on.
Despite fierce attacks over his past support for groups linked to the IRA and his personal opposition to the Trident nuclear deterrent, Mr Corbyn’s ratings rose as Labour ate into the Tory advantage.
And the political battle was overshadowed for much of the period by the fallout from terror attacks in Manchester and London, which saw campaigning suspended and security at the forefront of voters’ concerns.