David Cameron tonight faced the daunting prospect of selling a coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats to the party faithful
With the dust still settling on chaotic night in British politics, the Tory leader emerged to woo Nick Clegg with a raft of key concessions.
Mr Cameron stressed there would be no capitulation on Europe or immigration.
But crucially, he left the door open for voting reform - a central plank of Liberal Democrat policy.
The move will shake Tory traditionalists who had been assured throughout Mr Cameron's incumbency that it was not up for discussion.
There are already rumblings from backbenchers who fear a quick deal with the Lib Dems could be disastrous.
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Make or break: David Cameron arrives at Tory HQ to give a make-or-break speech aimed at wooing the Liberal Democrats
Speaking at Tory headquarters today, Mr Cameron held out a 'big, open and comprehensive offer' to the Lib Dems to work together in government.
Mr Cameron outlined the areas of policy agreement between the Conservatives and Lib Dems, which he said offered 'a strong basis for a strong government'.
At the same time he stressed that - unlike the Lib Dems - the Tories remained 'completely convinced' the the new government would have to start cutting Britain's record £163 billion deficit this year.
As the Tory leader made his bid for Downing Street, party grandees were analysing the results of an election campaign which had promised so much - but delivered so little.
Mr Cameron has dragged the party through five years of turmoil and reform in a bid to once more make it palatable to the electorate.
But despite throwing enormous amounts of money, resources and effort at the campaign, the final results were disappointing.
The Tories currently have 302 seats. They needed 326 seats to form a majority government.
To many of the party faithful, the results represent both a defeat - and a mystery.
From the start, the Tories appeared to be the party to beat, wielding huge resources and a sense of unstoppable momentum.
Their not-so-secret weapon was non-dom Lord Ashcroft who poured millions into key marginals to oust Labour from Westminster.
While Mr Brown struggled with a voter backlash after 13 years of Labour government and a catastrophic image problem, Mr Cameron appeared unassailable.
His big ticket was the Big Society, a bid to sweep aside the Nasty Party tag which had stuck to the Tories like glue for much of the last two decades.
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Man of the moment Nick Clegg (left) is set to form a coalition government with either Mr Cameron or Gordon Brown (right)
Then it all went wrong. Today, Lord Ashcroft put much of the blame on the television debates which transformed Mr Clegg into a potent political force.
After the first clash, both Mr Brown and Mr Cameron were sidelined and it was not until the final debate, a week before polling day, that the Tory leader recovered ground.
Despite being denied a majority, the Tories did make huge gains - and won around two millions voters more than Labour.
The result is in fact the greatest electoral surge to the Tories since 1931.
Senior backbenchers had set Mr Cameron four goals for the election, demanding he do better than Michael Howard in 2005, win most votes, become the largest party and clear the psychological threshold of 300 seats.
He has succeeded on all three.
Across the country, swings to the Conservatives exceeded those that propelled Margaret Thatcher to power, even if the party was struggling to win an outright majority.
Senior Tories quickly made the comparison, reminding grassroots members of the mountain that he had to climb to grasp a majority.
As the first results came in, Mr Cameron took Battersea and seized Kingswood on a 9 per cent swing from Labour.
Nervous wait: Samantha Cameron arrives home after election night
They also grabbed the Welsh seat of Aberconwy, plus Loughborough, Tamworth, Basildon South, the Vale of Glamorgan and Leicestershire North West.
They gained a major scalp by ousting LibDem Lembit Opik in Montgomeryshire on a 13 per cent swing.
The results showed strong progress in seats targeted by Lord Ashcroft, the controversial deputy chairman of the party, who was being quietly praised within senior circles for putting money early into the key seats.
Mr Cameron’s battle to change the face of the Tories from the party of white middle class men paid off in style in the small hours when Priti Patel won Witham from Labour. She became the first Asian female MP in British political history.
But Mr Cameron’s prospects of an overall majority took a hit when they failed to take Tooting, as well as Gedling from minister Vernon Coaker – key Tory targets.
In a succession of Labour seats, the Tories gained swings of well in excess of 9 per cent, with some surging into double figures. But regional variations left the champagne on ice in Tory central office.
The picture was more complicated in Tory-Lib Dem marginals, with the Liberals hanging on in Torbay, a seat the Tories had hoped to take before the ‘Cleggmania’ surge after the first leaders’ TV debate.
Anunziata Rees-Mogg, daughter of the former Times editor, failed to take Somerton and Frome for the Tories from the LibDems and the Tories also lost Eastbourne to the Lib Dems.
In other seats like Guildford and Newbury, where the Lib Dems had hoped to make gains there was a sizeable swing to Mr Cameron’s team.
Mr Cameron suffered an early blow when Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson, the leader of the Democratic Unionists, lost his seat to the non-sectarian Alliance Party.
If the Tories are short of an overall majority, the Conservative leader had been hoping to patch together a pact with the unionists.
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