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9 May 2005

Weird – but not in a good way

Election: the night It started with the exit-poll shock, and it just got stranger and bleaker as t

By Nick Cohen

10.02pm Nothing illustrates the willingness of the media to fill space rather than report news better than exit polls. It’s just gone 10pm. The first results are 45 minutes away. But as I write, assorted Dimblebys on various channels are announcing the findings of their joint exit poll, and Ann Widdecombe, Lord Falconer, Baroness Williams and Ian Hislop are babbling on about them. Why? What is the point of wasting thousands of pounds on pseudo-science? Why not put on a good film with Julia Roberts, say, or Bruce Willis, and wait for real results from real constituencies? Because that would mean breaking the aura of omniscience and the media admitting they must wait on events outside their control. I’d give you the results of the exit poll, but as you will have the results of the real poll by the time you read this, I can’t see why you would want them.

12.40am Bob Marshall-Andrews says he’s lost Medway, which I guess means the Tories are about to bag the Home County marginals. When he gets back to London, he should call on Tessa Jowell and John Reid and the other ministers who told Tony Blair to stay on last summer.

He will need to watch his temper as he explains how they betrayed Blairism. The first rule of new Labour was that it must do whatever was necessary to defeat the Tories. Any principle could be abandoned, any policy or anybody dropped. By last summer it was clear that the logic of Blairism was that Blair had to go. The cabinet could have dressed it up prettily. Ministers might have said that the most common emotion in the media age is nausea. No politician can be on every rolling news bulletin and in every paper every day for ten years without the public becoming sick of him. Leave gracefully and look after your family; close the wound of Iraq and let the party move on.

Jowell, Reid and the rest are meant to be professional politicians, but they got caught in the cult of Blair. I don’t know them, but I know the Blairite wing of the press and they have the dead eyes and rote chants of the victims of brainwashing. Trying to persuade them that Blair was a liability was like trying to persuade Scientologists they should forget about L Ron Hubbard.

01.24am Gordon Brown appears at Kirkcaldy looking every inch the leader of this country. There’s a big smile on his face, like the cat that got the cream. It remains to be seen how much cream he will have by the end of the night.

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01.54am The Liberal Democrats’ “decapitation strategy” fails to claim the head of Theresa May. Bloody liberals. They’ve no idea how to run a Jacobin terror. Give them a guillotine and they’re all fingers and thumbs.

The failure is a sign of how Britain is changing. The old patterns of anti-Tory politics are breaking down. From 1992 to 2001, the Liberals would take Tory seats in the shires while Labour would take them in the cities. Now they’re more anti-Labour than anti-Tory. They’re taking city seats from Labour and letting the Tories in by the back door in a few constituencies. But in rural seats they’re not doing well. Their ability to be all things to all men is falling apart. They are seen as a left-wing party, and indeed, virtually everyone I know in the metropolitan middle class has voted Lib Dem because they believe they are a left-wing party. I wonder if they will stay that way after the election. All the pressure from the Lib Dems’ young thrusters is to move to the right on economics and make it a true Liberal party.

As Michael Portillo knew, a party that was economically and socially liberal might be able to beat new Labour. You would be free to make shedloads of money in the City, and free to have trial by jury; free to be gay and free to drive gas-guzzlers. On the one hand, it could work for the Lib Dems, if the Tories don’t get there first. On the other hand, they may lose their gains from Labour if they take the plunge.

Expect to see them torn apart by their own contradictions, as we Marxist dialecticians used to say.

02.15am Tony Blair appears at Sedgefield. He’s pensive and Cherie seems close to tears. They know that Labour won despite, not because of, him.

“It’s not yet clear what the majority is,” he says, and indeed the difference between him being forced out and leaving in his own time may depend on whether it’s in the sixties or the eighties.

But then, his fate may be sealed, whatever the majority. I can’t imagine the Parliamentary Labour Party treating him with great tenderness. Labour MPs aren’t used to handling losses like tonight’s, and in any case he hardly smothered them with tender, loving care when he was all-powerful.

If the Prime Minister had any sense, he’d go soon. But prime ministers rarely have any sense. They cling on, determined to secure their reputation in the history books, and don’t realise that the longer they stay, the lower it will be.

02.40am Stephen Twigg loses to a Conservative in Enfield Southgate. The Conservatives are doing very well in supposedly liberal London despite running a racist campaign. The Tories aren’t back, but they’re out of their grave, the stake is out of their heart, and I can hear the flapping of wings in the night air.

03.08am Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper, the Posh ‘n’ Becks of Brownite Labour, appear together on the television screen. A Dimbleby, I forget which one, crows that this is a bad night for Blair but a great one for them, as Brown is heading for No 10.

Ed’s eyes momentarily fill with panic and flick over to Yvette. She takes charge and talks complete gobbledegook as she swats Dimbleby aside as if he were a gnat.

Britain’s next woman prime minister?

03.45am Robert Kilroy-Silk has lost his deposit. Oh, dear. How sad. Never mind.

04.30am The worst result of the night – from Beth- nal Green and Bow, as Respect, an alliance between the intellectually bankrupt Marxist-Leninists of the Socialist Workers Party and Islamic fundamentalists, propels its leader, a man who “saluted” Iraqi fascism, to victory. Let’s not mince words. George Galloway’s defeat of Oona King is a disaster for the democratic left. As the campaign was fought on communalist lines, it is a disaster for multiracial London as well. But there’s great news from Kent: Bob Marshall-Andrews declares, “I am Lazarus!” and rises from the dead.

05.30am A bad night for British democracy. We have a Labour government, which is usually a good thing to have, but a Labour government with feeble legitimacy. This is far worse than the Gore/Bush election of 2000 that so outraged all the Michael Moore fans. Gore may have been robbed, but Bush still won almost half the vote.

Blair is back on a little more than one-third. It is outrageous that he has a mandate which can see him through a full parliament from just 36 per cent of what was another lousy turnout.

The Tories’ share of the vote was only a few points behind, and they ought to join the Liberal Democrats in demanding proportional representation. They won’t. “One last heave and perhaps we’ll get there,” they’ll mutter to themselves.

It’s all very well pundits dismissing their hopes and saying they got as few seats as Michael Foot did in 1983. The real story of the night is that Labour’s support is falling and splintering, and the Lib Dems’ ability to harm the Tories is declining. So perhaps one last heave will do it for them.

The urgent work for Gordon Brown is to reverse this trend, reunite the British centre left and give it a sense of purpose. Because Britain feels a grim country tonight. There is no feeling that the electorate has given new Labour the authority to undertake any task, great or small.