David Cameron will fall 21 seats short of a Commons majority, according to a BBC/Sky/ITV general election exit poll.
The Conservatives would have 305 MPs, up 95 on 2005, Labour would have 255, down 94, and the Lib Dems 61, down 1. Nationalists and others would have 29.
That means Labour and the Lib Dems together could not have a majority.
Turnout is expected to be higher than in 2005 with reports of long queues at polling stations and police called after some people were unable to vote.
Labour has held the first three constituencies to declare, all in Sunderland, in its North-East of England heartland, but with an average swing to the Conservatives of 8.2%, slightly higher than the exit poll projection. There has been a modest increase in turnout on 2005.
In other election night news:
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg went to apologise to voters in Sheffield as they were among those facing the prospect of being turned away from polling stations as long queues formed ahead of the 2200 BST voting deadline.
UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage will stay in hospital and miss his election count after being injured in a plane crash.
In some parts of the country there are reports of polling stations staying open for an extra half hour - and people even being turned away before they could cast their ballot.
BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson said there could be legal challenges from candidates who have fallen a few votes short of victory and the Electoral Commission have launched an investigation.
In Sheffield police were called to move people on when voters staged sit-in protests after waiting hours to vote. The city's returning officer apologised but said he had to close the polls at 2200 BST.
NOP and Mori surveyed 17,607 voters at 130 polling stations across the UK for the BBC/ ITV/Sky exit poll.
All exit polls have a small margin of error which could be significant in a tight election such as this one, in which the three main Westminster parties have been so close in the opinion polls. There could also be different voting patterns around the country.
SR: Go Cameron Go !!!
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