LONDON (AFP) — Exit polling which indicated a Conservative win in Britain’s general election Thursday surprised analysts who had predicted a closer vote and said the difference could be due to “shy” Conservative support.
The poll left Prime Minister David Cameron’s center-right Conservatives just short of an overall majority but experts said they could now try to form a second coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
The Conservatives may also try to go it alone with a minority government dependent on backing from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
“Even if it moves back from these figures, it will still be a significantly better result for the Conservatives than anyone was predicting,” said Tony Travers, a London School of Economics (LSE) professor.
The exit poll showed the Conservatives winning 316 constituencies in the 650-seat British parliament, compared to 239 for Ed Miliband’s center-left Labour party.
The Liberal Democrats were projected to win just 10 seats — down from 56 at the moment — and the SNP to take 58 of Scotland’s 59 seats, up from their current tally of just six in what was once a Labour heartland.
Asked why Cameron may have fared better than expected, Travers said it could be the phenomenon of “shy” Conservatives who do not admit in opinion polls to supporting a party whose austerity measures have polarized views in Britain.
“Shy” Conservatives were credited with helping John Major win the 1992 general election even though opinion polls had indicated Labour were ahead.
“It will either have been a late surge or long-term ‘shy answering’ and it takes some time to work that out,” Travers said.
Patrick Dunleavy, a London School of Economics professor, said the exit polls indicated that Cameron “looks like he’s there for five years” — the full length of a parliamentary term in Britain.
“The paradox is David Cameron survives as prime minister but prime minister of a minority government which doesn’t have the votes to do anything radical,” he said.
Dunleavy said the big story could be the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, with most of their seats going to the Conservatives and strengthening Cameron.
“It looks as if there has been a late surge to the Conservatives, who have eviscerated the Liberal Democrats who are almost going to cease to exist,” Dunleavy said.
“We don’t have the vote share figures but it certainly looks as if possibly some voters shied away from the thought of change at the last minute.”
John Curtice, a professor at Strathclyde University who helped organize the exit poll, singled out the figures for Scotland as particularly significant.
“North of the border we’re discovering the SNP has indeed done as well as the polls said they were going to,” he said.
Experts said that Cameron could stay on as prime minister with DUP support and not team up with the Liberal Democrats, who have been at loggerheads with the Conservatives in the election despite working together in coalition for the previous five years.
Whatever the arrangement, a Conservative-led government would mean Britain will press ahead with holding the EU membership referendum promised by Cameron by 2017.
Iain Begg, a European Union expert at the LSE, warned there was now “a risk that Britain will come out of the EU sooner than makes sense.”