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30 December 2016

“When I awoke, I felt sick“: MPs relive the biggest political shocks of 2016

What it felt like from the inside. 

By Julia Rampen

If you ever worried your time in history wouldn’t be remembered, 2016 put you out of your misery. The year will become a metaphor for political surprises, celebrity deaths and the potency of hate. 

The Staggers has charted the year’s rise and fall, but we decided to ask politicians for their memories of some of the biggest political shocks it held. 

Celebrity deaths

“It set the tone for 2016”

“I couldn’t shave for crying on the morning David Bowie died. It set the tone for what has undoubtedly been the worst year of my life. 2015 was bad enough, but the trajectory we are on does not augur well for 2017.”

Jamie Reed, Labour MP for Copeland

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The Brexit vote

“The mood in Hackney was so positive”

“The night of the EU referendum, I continued doing what I had been doing all day, knocking on doors and getting people out to vote. Then I went to the pub with party members. We were quietly confident because the mood in Hackney was so positive. At midnight I was doing an interview for CNN. I came home to bed, but never slept, just lay listening to Radio 4 election coverage. And hour by hour it became clearer that Brexit had won. It was terrible.”

Diane Abbott, shadow Home secretary and Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington

“When I awoke, I felt sick”

I had a nagging suspicion that we would vote to leave the EU, I told the Ukip MP Douglas Carswell weeks earlier that I thought Leave had won. I watched the results come in alone, more in hope rather than expectation that we would stay in. I knew we were out when the Sunderland result came in, went to sleep and when I awoke to the national result, I felt sick. Two of my young, politically-savvy kids were in tears. I told them not to worry and that we would figure it out. But looking at them my first – and recurring – thought was “I’ll never let you be conscripted…you are never going to war.” The EU came out of the ashes of World War 2, explicitly to ensure that we never repeated that period. The way we collectively ignored this as a country during the Brexit debate is incredible.

Jamie Reed

“Oh f*ck”

I went to sleep but woke up early and thought “Oh f*ck”.

Graham Jones, Labour MP for Hyndburn

The Tory leadership election

“I only found out at Heathrow”

As with many of the big events this year, I was travelling when Michael Gove wielded the family dagger and lodged it firmly between Boris Johnson’s shoulder blades. Some call it a stab in the back, but it was, in truth, more like a broken glass shoved into the face – the sort of thing the young Gove may have had the misfortune to witness in one of the less reputable bars around Aberdeen Harbour. I learned the news shortly after my plane from Orkney landed in Edinburgh Airport. I then had an hour or so to watch the drama unfold. 

Boris’s decision later that morning to leave the Conservative leadership race happened while I was airborne for the second leg of my journey to London, and it was only when I arrived at Heathrow that I learned what had happened, and was able to watch his speech withdrawing from the race.  At this point, I wondered if it was going to be safe to turn off my phone again in 2016.  At the time, I thought his speech was one of the most truly bizarre political acts of the year. Then, a matter of weeks later, Theresa May made him Foreign secretary.

Alistair Carmichael, Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland

“I laughed”

“I was on the train when I heard Boris had been stabbed in the back. I wasn’t surprised. I laughed. I knew they would do that to each other. Wealthy individuals complicit in a campaign of lies, prepared to gamble with the country’s future do not make for loyal, reliable, honest friends. But nobody I know outside of politics gave a damn – it was seen as rich men’s gossip from a game played by rich men. Sadly, that’s how Gove and Boris see it also.”

Jamie Reed

President Donald Trump

“There was a sense of bewilderment”

“I campaigned in America for Hillary Clinton, so I had a very personal interest in the US election. I was even there when she got the nomination at the Democratic National Convention – it was a moment filled with so much hope.

“I spent the evening of the election at the US Consulate in Edinburgh, before going home to bed. My partner Louise stayed up to watch the results and broke the bad news to me.

“In the Scottish Parliament in the morning there was a sense of bewilderment. Because the media knew I had spent time in America, there was a lot of demand for interviews. 

“It wasn’t until much later in the day, when I stopped working, that it really sank in that Donald Trump had won – and that hope I felt earlier in the year was lost. It probably won’t feel real until we have to watch the inauguration in the New Year.”

Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour leader and MSP for the Lothian region

“Like England being beaten”

“I expected a convincing Clinton victory. Getting back to my constituency after midnight, I watched it alone (I’m assuming Twitter doesn’t count…). I went to bed around five knowing Trump had won. It felt like Brexit, plus England being beaten by Germany in the semi-final of Italia 90. My 5-year-old girl woke me around 7am with the words: “Jesus Christ. Donald Trump has won…he’s a sexist racist!” The following days were filled with that hollow feeling of despair.”

Jamie Reed

“We are not very bright on the left”

“I was a bit surprised but Michael Moore’s devastating line rang around my mind [the film-maker predicted the election would be the biggest ‘”f*ck you” in history]. Small ‘L’ liberals still don’t get why we, the left, lost and furthermore Trump voters are thoroughly, thoroughly enjoying the aftermath too – the spectacle of the left’s anguish, pain, denial and chaos. Trump by his voters’ expectations may well be a success. By lowering the bar of expectation we the left are only helping him (or a similar candidate) with the 2020 US election. We are not very bright on the left.”

Graham Jones