10pm BBC and ITV exit polls confirm that Labour is headed for a landslide, while the Conservatives, or at least their leader, are more likely to end in a landfill site. Labour is on 44 per cent, the Conservatives are on 32 per cent, and the Liberal Democrats on 17 per cent. Labour will have between 160 and 179 seats. “
Margaret Thatcher eat your heart out; she never achieved anything like that,” declared ITN’s political editor, John Sergeant, while John Prescott managed to argue that the result was a vindication of Labour’s election campaign. The word from the Conservative Party was that Hague was feeling relaxed, optimistic, and confident that his party had performed better than opinion polls suggested. Faced with the exit polls, the Tory chairman Michael Ancram was, in the words of the BBC’s John Simpson, “rather like a surgeon saying ‘it was a highly successful operation, pity the patient died'”.
11pm Sunderland confirmed its odd claim to fame: the first town to count its general election results. It can beat everybody else partly because it has so few votes to count. This time, the result came in at 10.42pm – Labour’s Chris Mullin on a turnout of just 48.3 per cent. The 10 per cent drop in turnout was the harbinger of one of the big stories of the night: voter apathy (see Nick Cohen, page 12). Some constituencies – Barnsley Central, Hull East and Tyne Bridge – managed even lower turnouts than Sunderland. Meanwhile, Michael Portillo, interviewed by Paxman on the BBC, was unable to stop smirking when asked whether there was anyone he could think of who might possibly lead the Conservative Party for its second term in opposition.
Midnight Michael Portillo declared it would have been “folly” for the Conservatives to focus on the issues where Labour had the advantage, namely education and health, so they wisely focused on the little things. With no seats yet declared for the Conservatives, Jeremy Paxman asked Ann Widdecombe: “If this election was a referendum on saving the pound, do you accept that you have now lost that referendum?” However much she huffed, puffed and tutted, tilting her chin backwards for dramatic effect, her attempts to answer this never approached coherence. The BBC declared the low turnout was “really rather terrifying”.
1am Labour had 85 seats, with one gain, the Liberal Democrats had five seats and the Conservatives, so far, one sole seat. John Prescott held his seat, but had his majority reduced, down from 22,000 to 15,000, on a turnout of 46.4 per cent. The Liberal Democrats were jubilant after they held Torbay, the first marginal to declare, with an increased majority. Plaid Cymru suffered a major setback, losing Anglesey to Labour. Gordon Brown secured Dunfermline East with 19,487 votes; turnout was down by 13 per cent. Brown promised to “put more on public services” without, rather ominously, saying more of what.
2am Shaun Woodward, the Tory renegade, has held St Helens South for Labour, despite 11 per cent of the votes going to “socialist” candidates of various sorts. Woodward spoke of his “great humility”, then compared himself to Winston Churchill. Oldham East and Oldham West seats have now declared, with unprecedentedly high shares of the vote (11.2 and 16 per cent respectively) for the extreme right-wing British National Party. Tony Blair has been returned for Sedgefield, with a 10 per cent drop in turnout and a 5 per cent swing to the Conservatives. Peter Mandelson comfortably held Hartlepool, with his main left-wing opponents getting tiny votes. Mandelson delivered the most memorable speech of the night. “I am a fighter and not a quitter,” he proclaimed.
3am The Liberal Democrats took Guildford from the Conservatives. Tony Benn’s old seat of Chesterfield went to the Liberal Democrats; as Benn explained it, this was because it is a Labour rather than new Labour constituency. Charles Kennedy saw his majority in Ross, Skye and Inverness West increased by 13.6 per cent. Wyre Forest went to Dr Richard Taylor of the Independent Kidderminster Hospital Healthcare Party, in a remarkable expression of anger against what he termed “a powerful political system that overrides the will of the people”. Dr Taylor had 28,487 votes, dwarfing Labour’s 10,857 votes on a turnout of 68.8 per cent and winning a higher share of the vote than Martin Bell had in Tatton in 1997. Keith Vaz held on to the safe Labour seat of Leicester East, and in his speech made passing reference to “the democratic process”.
4am Labour’s performance looks like matching the exit polls, with nearly as many seats won as in 1997. The Liberal Democrats have increased their number of seats by five. Meanwhile, the electorate have done to the Tories what the Tories did to the welfare state. There were a few unexpected Tory survivors, notably Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin, while Martin Bell failed to take Brentwood and Ongar. The Conservatives, wiped out in Scotland in 1997, took Galloway from the SNP, but Malcolm Rifkind failed in Edinburgh Pentlands. By now, Labour had passed the winning post. Once more, it had a majority in the House of Commons.