On election night, the British divide into three: the go-to-bedders, the stay-uppers and of course the couldn’t-care-lessers.

This was a triumph for the go-to-bedders. There was one quite extraordinary coup de theatre on the stroke of 10pm: the exit poll that showed a near-overall majority for the Conservatives, something that completely flummoxed pollsters, pundits and punters alike.

The next seven hours were just commentary on that. We members of the stay-up party could have had a night’s kip, although it might have been a restless one for those who favour neither of the two polar opposites in British politics: the Conservative party and the Scottish Nationalists.

The night unfolded with painful slowness. One of the many mysteries of the election was that the 2am rush of results was delayed till gone 4am. The exit poll was rubbished at the time; and the former Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown threatened to eat his hat if it was proved right. For his sake, it better be a pork pie hat. By dawn the main question was whether the poll had slightly underestimated the Tory triumph and missed the possibility of an overall majority.

The greatest losers of the night, surpassing even the politicians consigned to oblivion, appeared to be the market research industry who use pre-election polling as a loss leader to promote their commercial work. They have been knocked sideways by the academics who mastermind the exit poll.

There used to be a fourth group on election night: the stay-outers. British eyes traditionally focus on Trafalgar Square at times of national importance, be they moments of anger or joy: demos against unemployment or the bomb on the one hand; VE day on the other.

Election nights were a speciality, right into recent times, with a big TV screen and members of the happy party leaping into the fountains. Just after midnight in this election, the population of Trafalgar Square totalled four — a pair of lovers whispering to each other under a streetlamp, and two “heritage wardens” chatting less intently but confident of a quiet shift. Even the pigeons have now gone elsewhere.

An hour later Leicester Square was also quiet. But by Covent Garden a small crowd had gathered. A woman rushed up to me: “Can you not walk here, please? We’re filming.” “What are you filming?” “A Bollywood movie,” she replied.

The British had retreated indoors, the everyday reaction of a secretive people. They had just committed their slyest, most secretive trick in memory, coming up with this extraordinary set of results.

Often one single image sums up the night. The face of the 1992 election, when Sir John Major achieved a result almost as stunning as this, belonged to the first big winner, the Essex Tory David Amess. His equivalent in 2015 was Justin Tomlinson, holding a potentially vulnerable seat in Swindon North with an increased Conservative majority. But he did not have a mile-wide grin like Mr Amess; he just gave a little self-satisfied smile, as though he had just made a tricky contract to win a hand of bridge.

Later, as the Liberal Democrats hurtled towards electoral destruction, Vince Cable was standing awaiting what was obviously a close result. The convention is that winners and losers should stay stony-faced and certainly not grin until the numbers are announced. But I caught an involuntary motion, a little fall of the head, and it said dear old Vince had gone from a seat he had apparently made impregnable. His party had spent 60 years stealthily advancing back from oblivion to government. In six hours it was back to oblivion again.

But all through this strange night, the rituals were observed: the windy announcements from the returning officers; the thanks to the police and the tellers and the agents and the supporters; graciousness and courtesy in both defeat and victory — Jim Murphy, the vanquished leader of Scottish Labour, gave a particularly charming example. But all around these old certainties was mayhem.

At 10pm I had popped in to a leftish-leaning party in leftish-leaning Islington. There was a mass gulp when the exit poll came through, and another when it was announced that Michael Gove, the divisive and banished education secretary, was about to comment. Someone switched channels fast.

They should really have switched it off. At dawn, the tumbrils were calling for Nick Clegg and the first indictments were starting to be drawn up on Ed Miliband. Somewhere in rural Oxfordshire, before composing himself for his first post-election public appearance, Mr Cameron was probably doing the odd whoop among the self-satisfied smiles.

But he might have been feeling a touch pensive too about continuing to lead a country more disunited than at any time in memory — with either no majority or a tiny one, without any worthwhile potential allies, with his backbenches full of anti-Europeans, many of them obsessive. As with Sir John, the roses of success might turn to the ashes of disaster very fast.

That’s not much consolation to the losers. In Islington, anyone still awake was pouring another gin and hemlock.

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