Exit poll: Conservatives surprisingly strong in UK election

British Elections: The Expert Guide

LONDON (AP) - Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative Party fared much better than expected in parliamentary elections Thursday, an exit poll projected, suggesting it is within touching distance of forming a new government.

The opposition Labour Party of Ed Miliband took a beating, according to the poll, much of it due to the rise of the separatist Scottish National Party. The poll said the SNP would take all but one of the 59 seats in Scotland, most of them from Labour.

Cameron's coalition partner, the Liberal Democrat Party, was expected to lose most of its seats.

The exit poll, based on interviews with 22,000 voters, differed strongly from opinion polls conducted during the month-long election campaign, which had put the Conservatives and Labour neck-and-neck with about a third of the vote share each.

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Exit poll: Conservatives surprisingly strong in UK election
LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 07: Voters arrive at a polling station in the Borough of Islington on May 7, 2015 in London, United Kingdom. The United Kingdom has gone to the polls to vote for a new government in one of the most closely fought General Elections in recent history. (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images)
Nuns leave a polling station after voting in London on May 7, 2015 as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened today in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / JUSTIN TALLIS (Photo credit should read JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
A man leaves a polling station in Rotherwick, southern England after voting on May 7, 2015, as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened today in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / ADRIAN DENNIS (Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)
DONCASTER, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 07: Labour Party leader Ed Miliband leaves the polling station at Sutton Village Hall in Sutton after casting his vote in the 2015 general election on May 7, 2015 in Doncaster, England. The United Kingdom has gone to the polls to vote for a new government in one of the most closely fought General Elections in recent history. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
A presiding officer arranges papers at a polling station set up in a launderette in Headington outside Oxford on May 7, 2015 as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened today in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / LEON NEAL AFP PHOTO / LEON NEAL (Photo credit should read LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)
RAMSGATE, ENGLAND - MAY 07: Ukip leader Nigel Farage arrives to cast his vote for the South Thanet constituency on May 7, 2015 in Ramsgate, England. The United Kingdom has gone to the polls to vote for a new government in one of the most closely fought General Elections in recent history. With the result too close to call it is anticipated that there will be no overall clear majority winner and a coalition government will have to be formed once again. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
A voter leaves after casting his vote at the Hove Museum and Art Gallery in Brighton, southern England on May 7, 2015, as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened Thursday in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / GLYN KIRK (Photo credit should read GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images)
GUISBOROUGH, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 07: A man walks from a polling station at Sunnyfield House Community Centre on May 7, 2015 in Guisborough, England. The nation goes to the polls today to vote on what is said to be one of the closest General Elections in decades. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
ESTON, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 07: Voting booths are ready inside a scout hut used as a polling station on May 7, 2015 in Eston, England. The nation goes to the polls today to vote on what is said to be one of the closest General Elections in decades. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
Scotland's First Minister and Leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) Nicola Sturgeon (L) waves as she and her husband Peter Murrell cast their votes at the Broomhoouse Community Hall in Glasgow, Scotland, on May 7, 2015, as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened Thursday in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / ANDY BUCHANAN (Photo credit should read Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images)
ESTON, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 07: A woman walks into a polling station situated in a scout hut on May 7, 2015 in Eston, England. The nation goes to the polls today to vote on what is said to be one of the closest General Elections in decades. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
British Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party David Cameron arrives with his wife Samantha to vote at a polling station in Spelsbury on May 7, 2015 as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened today in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / LEON NEAL (Photo credit should read LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman carrying a dog leaves a polling station in Islington, north London after voting on May 7, 2015 as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened today in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / JUSTIN TALLIS (Photo credit should read JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
ELLON, SCOTLAND MAY 07 : A voter makes his way to the Polling Station in the tiny fishing village of Collieston on May 07, 2015 near Ellon, Scotland. The United Kingdom has gone to the polls to vote for a new government in one of the most closely fought General Elections in recent history. With the result too close to call it is anticipated that there will be no overall clear majority winner and a coalition government will have to be formed once again. (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)
A sign for the Crown pub in South Moreton which doubles as a polling station on May 7, 2015 as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened today in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / LEON NEAL (Photo credit should read LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the public vote in the Fox and Hounds pub which doubles as a polling station on May 7, 2015 in Christmas Common as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened today in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / LEON NEAL (Photo credit should read LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)
SALTBURN, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 07: A woman walks from a polling station situated in Saltburn Methodist Church on May 7, 2015 in Saltburn, England. The United Kingdom has gone to the polls to vote for a new government in one of the most closely fought General Elections in recent history. With the result too close to call it is anticipated that there will be no overall clear majority winner and a coalition government will have to be formed once again. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
BROTTON, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 07: St Margaret's Church in Brotton was used as a polling station on May 7, 2015 in Brotton, England. The United Kingdom has gone to the polls to vote for a new government in one of the most closely fought General Elections in recent history. With the result too close to call it is anticipated that there will be no overall clear majority winner and a coalition government will have to be formed once again. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
SALTBURN, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 07: A woman walks from a polling station situated in the local cricket club on May 7, 2015 in Saltburn, England. The United Kingdom has gone to the polls to vote for a new government in one of the most closely fought General Elections in recent history. With the result too close to call it is anticipated that there will be no overall clear majority winner and a coalition government will have to be formed once again. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
A funeral home converted into a temporary polling station in Sheffield on May 7, 2015 as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened today in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / PAUL ELLIS (Photo credit should read PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
FARLEIGH HUNGERFORD, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 07: A voter leaves a polling station located in the converted coach house in the village of Farleigh Hungerford on May 7, 2015 in Somerset, England. The United Kingdom has gone to the polls to vote for a new government in one of the most closely fought General Elections in recent history. With the result too close to call it is anticipated that there will be no overall clear majority winner and a coalition government will have to be formed once again. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
MELLS, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 07: A voter leaves a polling station located in the Tithe Barn in the village of Mells on May 7, 2015 in Somerset, England. The United Kingdom has gone to the polls to vote for a new government in one of the most closely fought General Elections in recent history. With the result too close to call it is anticipated that there will be no overall clear majority winner and a coalition government will have to be formed once again. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
A woman pushes a trolley at a garden centre in Chessington, used as a polling station on May 7, 2015, as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened today in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / ADRIAN DENNIS (Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - MAY 7: DUP Westminster leader Nigel Dodds (R) arrives at Seaview Presbyterian church polling station to cast his vote on May 7, 2015 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom has gone to the polls to vote for a new government in one of the most closely fought General Elections in recent history. With the result too close to call it is anticipated that there will be no overall clear majority winner and a coalition government will have to be formed once again. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - MAY 7: A woman casts her vote as polling gets under way at the Glen Road polling station on May 7, 2015 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom has gone to the polls to vote for a new government in one of the most closely fought General Elections in recent history. With the result too close to call it is anticipated that there will be no overall clear majority winner and a coalition government will have to be formed once again. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
A member (R) boxes as the public vote at East Hull Amateur Boxing Club which is being used as a polling station in Hull, Northern England on May 7, 2015 as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened today in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / OLI SCARFF (Photo credit should read OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images)
A sign directs voters to the Ush Hair hairdressing salon which is being used as a polling station in Hull, Northern England on May 7, 2015 as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened today in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / OLI SCARFF (Photo credit should read OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images)
Deputy Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and candidate for north Belfast, Nigel Dodds gestures as he waits to greet voters outside Seaview polling station in Belfast on May 7, 2015, as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened Thursday in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / PAUL FAITH (Photo credit should read PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images)
Leader of the Liberal Democrat party Nick Clegg (R) and his wife Miriam Gonzalez Durantez arrive to vote at Hall Park centre polling station in Sheffield, England on May 7, 2015 as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened today in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / PAUL ELLIS (Photo credit should read PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the public arrive to cast their votes at a polling station in Chipping Norton town hall on May 7, 2015 as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened today in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / LEON NEAL (Photo credit should read LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)
ELLON, SCOTLAND - MAY 07: SNP candidate for the Gordon constituency and Former First Minister Alex Salmond gives the thumbs up with first time voter Nicki Falconer, and her family, (L-R) Mackenzie, Nicki, Skye, Alex Salmond and Keiran at their local polling station in the Gordon constituency on May 07, 2015 in Ellon, Scotland. The United Kingdom has gone to the polls to vote for a new government in one of the most closely fought General Elections in recent history. With the result too close to call it is anticipated that there will be no overall clear majority winner and a coalition government will have to be formed once again. (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)
GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - MAY 07: Leader of the Scottish Labour Party Jim Murphy gestures at a polling station to cast his vote on May 7, 2015 in Glasgow, Scotland. People across Scotland have begun casting their votes in the UK general election, with fifty nine Scottish seats up for grabs. The United Kingdom has gone to the polls to vote for a new government in one of the most closely fought General Elections in recent history. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Members of the public arrive to cast their votes at a polling station at a lifeboat station in Dungeness, southern England on May 7, 2015, as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened today in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / BEN STANSALL (Photo credit should read BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images)
REDCAR, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 07: A polling station is situated in a hairdressers salon on May 7, 2015 in Redcar, England. The nation goes to the polls today to vote on what is said to be one of the closest General Elections in decades. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
Nuns leave a polling station after voting in London on May 7, 2015 as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened today in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / JUSTIN TALLIS (Photo credit should read JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
ESTON, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 07: A woman walks into a polling station situated in a scout hut on May 7, 2015 in Eston, England. The nation goes to the polls today to vote on what is said to be one of the closest General Elections in decades. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
GUISBOROUGH, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 07: A sign is attached to a wall at a polling station situated in Guisborough Town Football Club on May 7, 2015 in Guisborough, England. The nation goes to the polls today to vote on what is said to be one of the closest General Elections in decades. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
Debbie Carpenter, an equestrian groom, rides back to Three Oaks, a residential house where a polling station is set up in Bramshill in southern England, on May 7, 2015, as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened today in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / ADRIAN DENNIS (Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Returning Officer Ahmed Jamee, prepares to open a polling station at the West Blatchington Windmill near Brighton in southern England on May 7, 2015, as Britain holds a general election. Polls opened Thursday in Britain's closest general election for decades with voters set to decide between the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron, Ed Miliband's Labour and a host of smaller parties. AFP PHOTO / GLYN KIRK (Photo credit should read GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images)
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London Mayor Boris Johnson, who is running for a seat in Parliament as a Conservative, said that if the poll was accurate "then obviously, it's a very, very clear victory for the Conservatives and a very bad night for Labour."

Political leaders warned against jumping to conclusions before the actual results are in, and some expressed skepticism about the poll.

"I have to say it just doesn't feel right," said longtime Labour adviser Alistair Campbell.

The survey was conducted by pollsters GfK and Ipsos MORI for Britain's broadcasters and released as polling stations closed at 10 p.m. (2100 GMT).

Results began coming in within an hour of polls closing. The seat of Houghton and Sunderland South in northeast England was the first to complete the traditional election-night ritual: Votes in each of the 650 constituencies are counted by hand and the candidates - each wearing a bright rosette in the color of their party - line up onstage as a returning officer reads out the results. It went to Labour, as expected.

The exit poll projected that the Conservatives would get 316 seats - up from 302 and far more than had been predicted - and Labour 239, down from 256. The Liberal Democrats would shrink from 56 seats to 10, while the Scottish nationalists would grow from six to 58, all but one of Scotland's seats.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon tweeted that supporters should "treat the exit poll with HUGE caution. I'm hoping for a good night but I think 58 seats is unlikely!"

Former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown was equally skeptical of the poll: "I'll bet you my hat, eaten on your program, that it is wrong," he told the BBC.

If the exit poll is accurate, the Conservative Party would be in a commanding position to form the next government by seeking partners from smaller parties.

There could be a re-run of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that has governed since 2010. The poll put the two parties' total at 326 - just over half the 650 seats in the House of Commons.

Cameron could also seek support from the right-of-center Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland, who had eight seats before the election, or the anti-European, anti-immigrant U.K. Independence Party.

The Conservatives and Labour have both watched voters turn elsewhere - chiefly to the Scottish nationalists, who will dominate north of the border, and UKIP.

UKIP ran third in opinion polls, but the exit poll predicted it would win just two seats because its support isn't concentrated in specific areas. The Greens were also forecast to get two seats.

Conservative politicians did not declare victory, and Labour did not concede defeat, as everyone waited to see whether the poll's surprising predictions would be borne out.

The chief exit pollster, John Curtice of Strathclyde University, said the methodology was the same as in 2010, when the poll turned out to be very accurate. He said it looked as if Conservative and Labour gains had canceled each other out across England and Wales, and that Labour had lost much of its support in Scotland to the SNP.

All day across the nation of 64 million people, voters streamed to schools, churches and even pubs for a say in their country's future. About 50 million people were registered to vote, and turnout appeared to be high.

The carefully stage-managed campaign had lacked impromptu drama, but many voters felt that the stakes were high in an election that shattered the dominance of the two major parties.

"This is the most exciting election I can remember," said Lesley Milne, a 48-year-old from Glasgow. "It's time to shake up the politicians in London and the SNP are the people to do it."

Television debate appearances in which the public put questions directly to the politicians made plain that many distrust promises to safeguard the economy, protect the National Health Service from severe cutbacks and control the number of immigrants from eastern Europe.

Britain's economy - recovering after years of turmoil that followed the 2008 financial crisis - was at the core of many voters' concerns.

In Whitechapel, one of London's poorest communities that is home to a large ethnic minority population, voters struggling in the wake of the worst recession since the 1930s wanted a change in leadership.

"The first priority is the economy, the second one is creating more jobs, and the third is living expenses - they're going higher and higher," said Shariq ul-Islam, a 24-year-old student of Bangladeshi descent.

Just a few minutes away is the City of London, the traditional financial district where many bankers earn salaries that their Whitechapel neighbors can only dream of.

Here, Christopher Gardner, a 34-year-old finance industry official, had trust in the Conservatives.

"There are some issues that have been caused by austerity previously," he said. "They're the only people that I'm confident will resolve that."

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