GORDON Brown was this morning desperately trying to hold on to power as his party faced its biggest loss of seats in a single general election since 1931.
• Gordon Brown arrives with his wife Sarah as the count starts at Adam Smith College, Kirkcaldy for his constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in the General Election. Picture: Dan Phillips
As the first results came in, experts were predicting that Labour would have only 255 MPs – down 94 on the last election, while mixed results into the early hours of the morning seemed to confirm this.
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One crumb of comfort for the Prime Minister was that David Cameron's Conservatives appeared to be 21 seats short of a majority, but it seemed clear that, even with the backing of the Liberal Democrats, Mr Brown would not have enough support to govern.
And senior Labour figures almost immediately set to work trying to form an alliance with the Lib Dems, while Mr Brown hinted at the idea in his speech at the count in his Kirkcaldy seat.
However, even before results were declared, some Labour MPs were already saying that Mr Brown was finished as party leader.
One Scottish Labour MP told The Scotsman: "Gordon is finished. I cannot see how he can possibly form a government, even with the Lib Dems and the SDLP. He certainly could not talk to the SNP, because there would be effigies of him being burned.
"He will try to hold on, but we will wake up to uncertainty and the pound will go down and he will have to go. (Lib Dem leader Nick] Clegg has already said that the Conservatives should have first try."
To underline the point, Kingswood in South Gloucestershire, the first bellwether seat to come in, went to the Tories with a big swing. At 137 on the list of targets, it is well beyond the 116 needed for a Tory majority.
Basildon South, an iconic swing seat after it showed that the Tories had won in 1992, also fell to the Tories.
There were morale-sapping defeats, too, in Carlisle, Aberconwy, Tamworth, Nuneaton, Battersea, Leicestershire North West and Erewash.
However, other Conservatives target seats, including Bolton North East and Tooting, stayed Labour, thus at least appearing to hold off the possibility of a Tory majority.
The sense of chaos within Labour was heightened by rapid moves by senior ministers within minutes of the polls closing at 10pm.
As the exit poll came out, a succession of leading members of Mr Brown's Cabinet were on television apparently attempting to open negotiations with the Lib Dems. It was reported that negotiations between the two parties had started by 3am.
Deputy leader Harriet Harman followed Home Secretary Alan Johnson and Business Secretary Lord Mandelson, seen as the most powerful man in the Labour Party, in calling for electoral reform.
Ms Harman said: "I think we need to show some humility. We've got to wait for the people's result, and it is arrogant for David Cameron thinking that he can bounce the result by declaring victory in advance. This doesn't appear to be a massive endorsement of the Conservatives, but it is too early to say.
"What we do need is strong and stable government. We need to change the voting system to reflect the preferences of the people in this country."
Mr Johnson, seen by many as an alternative leader to Mr Brown, said: "We are in hung parliament territory, not conceding territory."
He spoke of a referendum on proportional representation and a deal with the Liberal Democrats, whom he said he could not see joining the Tories in a coalition.
Asked if he had any problem in doing a deal with the Liberal Democrats, the Home Secretary said: "I have no problem at all. If the will of the people is that no party has an overall majority, that's where grown-up, mature politicians have to be."
But there was silence from Mr Brown's camp in Kirkcaldy, in comparison with the positive messages from Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg. At his count, Mr Brown and his wife Sarah looked defeated and down.
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson and another possible leadership contender, Foreign Secretary David Miliband, gave only lukewarm support for the beleaguered Prime Minister.
The impending defeat for Mr Brown seemed to be underlined as the first seat, Sunderland Houghton, was declared just 49 minutes after the polls closed. It remained a safe Labour seat, but the swing to the Tories was 8.4 per cent greater than the 5.5 per cent predicted in the exit poll, enough to give Mr Cameron an outright majority. The next seat, Washington and Sunderland West, produced an 11 per cent swing to the Tories.
However, even if the Lib Dem vote held up, Mr Brown's options have been narrowed by Mr Clegg's previous statements.
He has made clear that he thinks the party with the most seats and votes should have the right to first try to form a government.
He has also suggested at various points that he would not support a Labour government led by Mr Brown.
Last night, the Conservatives were keen to emphasise that, whatever the exact result, it would be a defeat for Labour.
Conservative Party chairman Eric Pickles said: "It is not clear if anybody has won, but what is clear is that Labour and Gordon Brown have lost."
Later, David Cameron said: "What is clear is that Labour has lost its mandate to govern."
Asked what had caused the collapse in Labour support, former home secretary David Blunkett said: "In a global meltdown, where people are fearful of their jobs, they're fearful of the future, it's not surprising that they turn on the incumbent government."
Last night Mr Brown's spokesman said it was "too early to say" what he would do.
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