LONDON (AP) — The Conservative Party swept to power Friday in Britain's parliamentary elections, winning an unexpected majority that returns Prime Minister David Cameron to 10 Downing Street in a stronger position than before.
Cameron went to Buckingham Palace, where he was expected to tell Queen Elizabeth II that he has enough support to form a government.
That brings the election to a much-quicker-than-expected conclusion. Polls ahead of Election Day had shown Conservatives locked in a tight race with the opposition Labour Party, raising the possibility of days or weeks of negotiations to form a government.
Labour took a beating, mostly from energized Scottish nationalists who pulled off a landslide in Scotland. Ed Miliband announced Friday that he will step down as party leader.
"I'm truly sorry I did not succeed," Miliband said. "We've come back before and this party will come back again."
With the Conservatives winning an outright majority in the 650-seat House of Commons, the election result looked to be far better for him than even his own party had foreseen. With 643 constituencies counted, the Conservatives had 326 seats to Labour's 230.
The prime minister beamed early Friday as he was announced the winner of his Witney constituency in southern England.
"This is clearly a very strong night for the Conservative Party," he said.
Cameron, who would be the first Conservative prime minister to win a second term since Margaret Thatcher, vowed to counter the rise of Scottish nationalism with more powers for Scotland and Wales.
"I want my party, and I hope a government that I would like to lead, to reclaim a mantle that we should never have lost — the mantle of one nation, one United Kingdom," he said.
Labour was routed in Scotland by the Scottish National Party, which took almost all of the 59 seats. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon told the BBC that the vote represented "a clear voice for an end to austerity, better public services and more progressive politics at Westminster."
"The Scottish lion has roared this morning across the country," said former SNP leader Alex Salmond, who was elected in the seat of Gordon.
Cameron's coalition partner, the Liberal Democrat party, faced electoral disaster, losing most of its seats as punishment for supporting a Conservative-led agenda since 2010. Leader Nick Clegg held onto his seat but resigned as party leader Friday.
Almost 50 million people were registered to vote in Thursday's election. Votes in each constituency were counted by hand and the results followed a familiar ritual. Candidates, each wearing a bright rosette in the color of their party, line up onstage like boxers as a returning officer reads out the results.
But if the form was familiar, the results were often shocking.
Among the early Scottish National Party winners was 20-year-old student Mhairi Black, who defeated Douglas Alexander, Labour's 47-year-old foreign policy spokesman and one of its most senior figures. Black is the youngest U.K. lawmaker since 13-year-old Christopher Monck entered Parliament in 1667.
One of the big losers of the day was U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, who resigned after losing his race. His party ran third in opinion polls, but by early Friday had won only one seat because its support is spread out geographically.
Britain's economy — recovering after years of turmoil that followed the 2008 financial crisis — was at the core of many voters' concerns. The results suggest that many heeded Cameron's entreaties to back the Conservatives as the party of financial stability.
Public questions at television debates made plain that many voters distrusted politicians' promises to safeguard the economy, protect the National Health Service from severe cutbacks and control the number of immigrants from eastern Europe.
British voters reacted with surprise as they awoke to the news. Polls had shown a virtual dead heat in the race, and many expected weeks of wrangling over who would be in power.
"I thought it would be closer," said account manager Nicky Kelly-Lord, 38.
But some, like project manager Jonathan Heeley, 42, thought it inevitable that a country struggling to rebuild in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis would be anxious to keep the economic recovery going.
"The country's rebuilding itself and people want to stay with that," he said.
The pound surged as much as 2 percent after exit poll results were released, as investors took that as reassurance that the country will not see days or weeks of uncertainty over the formation of a new government. The currency held onto most of those gains on Friday, trading at $1.5440. Stocks also surged, with the main FTSE 100 up 1.6 percent.