Keir Starmer's Labour wins UK general election

Conservative leader Rishi Sunak has been prime minister since October 2022 (Oli SCARFF)
Conservative leader Rishi Sunak has been prime minister since October 2022 (Oli SCARFF)

Keir Starmer on Friday will become Britain's new prime minister, as his centre-left opposition Labour party swept to a landslide general election victory, ending 14 years of right-wing Conservative rule.

"The Labour Party has won this general election, and I have called Sir Keir Starmer to congratulate him on his victory," a sombre-looking Rishi Sunak said after he was re-elected to his seat.

"Today, power will change hands in a peaceful and orderly manner with goodwill on all sides," the Tory leader added, calling the results "sobering" and saying he took responsibility for the defeat.

At a triumphant party rally in central London, Starmer, 61, told cheering activists that "change begins here" and promised a "decade of national renewal", putting "country first, party second".

But he cautioned that change would not come overnight, even as Labour snatched a swathe of Tory seats around the country, including from at least eight Cabinet members.

Defence Secretary Grant Shapps was the highest-profile scalp of the night so far, with other big names, including senior minister Penny Mordaunt and leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg also defeated.

Finance minister Jeremy Hunt hung on to remain an MP, but only by 891 votes.

- 'Keir we go' -

Labour raced past the 326 seats needed to secure an overall majority in the 650-seat parliament at 0400 GMT, with the final result expected later on Friday morning.

An exit poll for UK broadcasters published after polls closed at 2100 GMT on Thursday put Labour on course for a return to power for the first time since 2010, with 410 seats and a 170-seat majority.

The Tories would only get 131 seats in the House of Commons -- a record low -- with the right-wing vote apparently spliced by Nigel Farage's anti-immigration Reform UK party, which could bag 13 seats.

In another boost for the centrists, the smaller opposition Liberal Democrats would get 61 seats, ousting the Scottish National Party on 10 as the third-biggest party.

The projected overall result bucks a rightward trend among Britain's closest Western allies, with the far right in France eyeing power and Donald Trump looking set for a return in the United States.

British newspapers all focused on Labour's impending return to power for the first time since Gordon Brown was ousted by David Cameron in 2010.

"Keir We Go," headlined the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror. "Britain sees red," said The Sun, the influential Rupert Murdoch tabloid, which swung behind Labour for the first time since 2005.

- Tory future -

Sunak will tender his resignation to head of state King Charles III, with the monarch then asking Starmer, as the leader of the largest party in parliament, to form a government.

The Tories worst previous election result is 156 seats in 1906. Former leader William Hague told Times Radio the projections would be "a catastrophic result in historic terms".

But Tim Bale, politics professor at Queen Mary, University of London, said it was "not as catastrophic as some were predicting" and the Tories would now need to decide how best to fight back.

Right-wing former interior minister Suella Braverman and Mordaunt, who was leader of the House of Commons, both said the Tories failed because they had not listened to the British people.

But Brexit champion Farage, who finally succeeded in becoming an MP at the eighth time of asking, has made no secret of his aim to take over the party.

"There is a massive gap on the centre-right of British politics and my job is to fill it," he said after a comfortable win in Clacton, eastern England.

- To-do list -

Labour's resurgence is a stunning turnaround from five years ago, when hard-left former leader Jeremy Corbyn took the party to its worst defeat since 1935 in an election dominated by Brexit.

Starmer took over in early 2020 and set about moving the party back to the centre, making it a more electable proposition and purging infighting and anti-Semitism that lost it support.

Opinion polls have put Labour consistently 20 points ahead of the Tories for almost the past two years, giving an air of inevitability about a Labour win -- the first since Tony Blair in 2005.

Starmer is facing a daunting to-do list, with economic growth anaemic, public services overstretched and underfunded due to swingeing cuts, and households squeezed financially.

He has also promised a return of political integrity, after a chaotic period of five Tory prime ministers, including three in four months, scandal and sleaze.