The Liberal Democrats were bracing themselves for one of their most disappointing election results last night after an exit poll suggested they may lose seats, despite the surge in support the party had enjoyed following the televised leadership debates.
Senior figures had suggested the party was set to achieve its record result in the run-up to election day, with hopes high it could build on the 63 seats it held going into the election. But a surprise exit poll released at 10pm last night suggested the size of the Parliamentary party would shrink for the first time in its short history. The poll suggested it could lose two seats.
Mr Clegg spent the day yesterday hoping that the extraordinary boost to his profile that has taken place over the campaign would be converted into solid electoral support in the ballot box.
The Liberal Democrat leader had focused his last-minute election pitch at those who had not made up their minds, and young voters who had been turned on to politics by “Cleggmania”. Senior party figures believed millions would enter polling booths still undecided, having been impress-ed by Mr Clegg during the campaign, but worried that backing Liberal Democrats would be a wasted vote.
They were also hoping that what looked like a high turnout meant they had won over many voters who had given up on politics with their pledge to deliver radical changes in the tax system and campaign for voting reform. But they conceded that the high number of voters was a double-edged sword. “Looking at my own constituency, it really does look like high numbers are coming out,” said one senior Liberal Democrat MP. “If that means all those young voters who Nick has filled with enthusiasm have come to vote, it's great for us. But if it means Labour has managed to mobilise its core support at the last minute, it could work against us.”
An eleventh-hour strategy saw Mr Clegg address voters in marginal constituencies and crowds of students. It was a plea made amid a growing sense of unease that the achievement could be slipping slowly from his grasp.
Immediately after the first leaders' debate catapulted Mr Clegg into the public eye and turned the election into the first genuinely three-horse race for decades, all party figures had been nervous about discussing the number of seats the Liberal Democrats could secure. By contrast, in the last couple of weeks they had begun to admit they were “on the verge of a record result”.
But in the final days before election day, polls arrived showing that the party had slowly slipped back into third place, behind Labour.
On hearing the exit poll last night, Liberal Democrat spinners argued that they had been expecting to have their vote underestimated in the exit polls. “We saw this coming,” said one. However, another admitted they were worried, but defiant.