- - Thursday, May 7, 2015

MANCHESTER, England — Defying gloomy pre-election predictions, British Prime Minister David Cameron appeared on the verge of clinching a second term at 10 Downing Street as exit polls put his Conservative Party just short of an outright majority in the House of Commons Thursday.

Officials results were still coming in, but a BBC exit poll of 22,000 British voters projected that the Conservatives would win 316 seats, a gain of eight seats and only 10 below the number needed for control of the 650-seat House, while the main rival Labor Party, which was hoping to improve on its current standing, would actually fall to 239 seats, 19 fewer than it had won in 2010.

While keeping Mr. Cameron in office, the election could still mean a major shakeup for Britain’s domestic and international standing. The Scottish National Party is set to sweep the nearly 60 seats in Scotland, at Labor’s expense, which party leader Nicola Sturgeon was already hinting Thursday evening could revive the party’s quest to leave the United Kingdom.

And Mr. Cameron had promised as part of his agenda a national referendum on whether Britain will remain in the European Union by the end of 2017, reflecting deep “euroskepticism” in his own Conservative Party and in the smaller but surging U.K. Independence Party.

While technically still a “hung Parliament” — Mr. Cameron would still need to find an ally among Britain’s smaller parties to form a government — the result suggested by the exit polls would be a crushing blow to Labor leader Edward Miliband, who had taken his party farther to the left in criticizing the government’s austerity programs and had been thought to be gaining momentum in the poll’s final weeks.

Home Secretary Theresa May, in an election-eve tweet, said the polls were pointing to a “clear win for David Cameron and the Conservatives.”

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“I think what’s absolutely clear is that the Conservatives are going to get the largest number of seats. Labor are going to see nearly all their seats in Scotland go,” she said.

The exit polls suggest another loser will be Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and his centrist Liberal Democrats, who were junior partners in Mr. Cameron’s first government, but were projected to lose 47 of the 57 seats they now hold.

The main party leaders hit the polling stations early on Thursday. Turnout for the tightly contested election was expected to be higher than usual, at as high as 70 percent.

Mr. Miliband, walked hand-in-hand with his wife, Justine, to vote in his north England parliamentary seat, after a final pre-election ICM poll placed his party one point ahead of the Tories.

Mr. Cameron took to YouTube to issue a last-minute plea to Britain’s 50 million registered voters as voting got underway.

“If you want to stop Ed Miliband and the [Scottish National Party] from getting into power and wrecking our economy and if you want me back on work on Friday working through our long-term economic plan as your prime minister, then it is vital that you vote Conservative,” he said.

Hung parliaments

Five years ago, when Mr. Cameron and his right-leaning Conservative Party failed to win a majority, they formed Britain’s first peacetime coalition since the 1930s with the centrist Liberal Democrats.

Analysts had been predicting that the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s former third-largest party, and a host of minor groups like the surging, secessionist Scottish Nationalist Party and the euroskeptic, anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party would hold the balance of power, but the early results put much of that analysis in doubt.

The spectacular rise of the SNP clearly hurt Labor. The party has struggled to regain economic credibility after 13 years of Labor Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who left Britain saddled with debt just as the global financial crisis was taking hold.

The SNP unsuccessfully urged Scottish voters to vote in favor of leaving the United Kingdom in a referendum in September, but Thursday’s results could reset the party’s calculus.

But the dominant story line appeared to be Mr. Cameron’s surprising strength and Mr. Miliband’s in ability to revive his party’s fortunes.

A Labor voter from Manchester, Peter Jacques, said a lack of political engagement among broad swaths of voters has been the Labor leader’s Achilles’ heel.

“There is much greater sway with personality, and Ed Miliband has been roundly criticized and had his leadership qualities questioned in the press, with few chances of him being able to prove otherwise,” Mr. Jacques said. “David Cameron’s dubious qualities as a leader are rarely questioned.”

David R. Sands contributed to this piece from Washington.

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