The exit poll suggesting the Tories had won 305 seats but not enough to gain a majority came as a disappointment to David Cameron, as he waited for his own seat to be declared.
All day he had been hearing from canvass returns by his party that the Conservatives were gaining more votes in the key marginal constituencies than the opinion polls suggested, raising his hopes of gaining a majority. Jeremy Hunt, a member of the shadow cabinet, was downbeat about the poll, saying: “If the exit poll is accurate, it would indicate a very decisive rejection of Gordon Brown and Labour by the electorate. Obviously we are hoping we can get an overall majority.”
There were no cheers for the exit poll in the party headquarters where Mr Cameron's Conservative workers were preparing to let their hair down with a party in the Millbank Tower where Labour celebrated its victory 13 years ago. “They haven't had a drink for five weeks,” said one Tory insider at the party, hosted by the bluff but affable party chairman, Eric Pickles. “They wanted to let their hair down and get rid of some of the tension. It's a cliffhanger.”
Tory sources said Mr Cameron had spent most of polling day in his Oxfordshire constituency with key advisers working on the plans for the first hours of Government, in the hope of winning power. His aim — like Tony Blair in 1997 — was to take over smoothly to avoid destabilising the markets. But this time it was very different, because Mr Cameron had to factor in the option of running a Government in a hung Parliament with the support of the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg.
Mr Cameron headed to the festivities in the early hours after his result in Witney was declared.
For him, it was a culmination of the journey he began five years ago when he was elected leader of the Conservatives, beating his rivals for the post, Ken Clarke and David Davis.
Mr Cameron admitted that the final lap of the four-week campaign had been nerve-racking.
The Conservatives' private polling did nothing to ease Mr Cameron's anxiety about the outcome. It had shown he was heading for victory — but in a hung Parliament, leaving him nervously standing on the verge of power, but not sure of the result until the last seats came in. Senior Tory officials and young staffers mingled with drinks in hand as the results came through, knowing there was nothing more they could do to influence the result.
They were keen to be awake for the declaration of the result in West Yorkshire where Ed Balls, Gordon Brown's ally and a potential Labour leadership candidate, was threatened with defeat by the Conservatives in a “decapitation” strategy aimed at claiming his scalp, as Labour had done with Michael Portillo in 1997.
As the polling got under way yesterday morning, nervous party workers had left their headquarters to go campaigning. Even the war room was empty. That was where the Conservative strategists Steve Hilton and Andy Coulson had planned their assault on “Mount Everest” — the climb back to power for the Tories after 13 years of frustrated attempts.
“Even the number-crunchers have gone out,” said one party worker. “The Conservative Central Office is pretty deserted. They just wanted to focus on getting the vote out.”
Mr Cameron and his wife Samantha were among the first voters to turn out in his constituency. Their arrival was delayed on security advice after two men, one wearing a blazer and boater, unfurled a large banner above the doorway of the hall in the village of Spelsbury to make fun of the Tory leader's reputation as a “toff”. It featured a picture of Mr Cameron with the slogan: “Britons: know your place. Vote Eton — vote Tory.”
But, after specialist police officers arrived wearing mountaineering-style helmets, they descended peacefully via a ladder and were escorted away without saying anything.