For a brief moment last night, ‘caveat’ and ‘caution’ became two of the most overused words in the English language. The exit poll was in and no-one knew quite what to do.
According to the forecast it seemed likely that Theresa May had been hung by her own strong and stable petard. This wasn’t a script anyone had rehearsed and underneath the calm professionalism which warned it was far too early to be certain of anything, the yelps of delight were almost audible. Off camera, the Beeb’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg was doing her best Meg Ryan impression in that scene from When Harry Met Sally.
She wasn’t alone. Even Jeremy Paxman, set free from the formal bonds of Newsnight and no longer required to go after MPs like a rabid dog on Channel 4, knew he was sitting on election gold.
Before Adam Boulton on Sky had made it to the first advert break, there were rumours Home Secretary Amber Rudd might be in trouble in Hastings, that the SNP vote had collapsed and that the Corbyn effect, much ridiculed during the campaign trail, had in fact mobilised an army of young voters.
Faced with those tales of the unexpected, David Dimbleby was, as ever, the assured elder statesman of broadcasting. He might not have understood the finer points of the algorithms which had been used to calculate the exit poll, but it didn’t matter. That’s what John Curtice, the University of Strathclyde’s polling guru is wheeled out for, and once again he was the straight man to Jeremy Vine’s election-night Alan Partridge.
There’s no swingometer these days. Instead Vine had a map of Britain, which he liked to talk to. It didn’t talk back. He also had a virtual Downing Street which occasionally refused to play ball. Early on the Tories popped up on the opposition benches. Vine thought it was a glitch, but maybe it knew something he didn’t.
Over on ITV they appeared to have embraced the austerity agenda. They couldn’t even afford ties. However, while Tom Bradby and co might have lacked sartorial elegance, his expert panel of George Osborne and Ed Balls made an entertaining double act. The former Chancellor and the man who gave the 2015 election its Portillo moment when he was ousted from Morley and Outwood by political novice Andrea Jenkyns may even have a future together. As last night proved, stranger things have happened.
Aside from Newcastle and Sunderland, the counts, as ever, rolled in painfully slowly – an hour in and just 15 results were called. When serious analysis waned – as it often did – Paxman and the Alternative Election did at least offer some light relief. With Richard Osman, David Mitchell and the cast of Gogglebox offering political insight, it was a coalition of chaos in action.
And chaos reigned in the rest of the country too. There was talk Nick Clegg had lost his seat in Sheffield Hallam, Philip Davies had lost his 9,000-odd Tory majority in Shipley to Labour and perhaps most worrying of all, even by 2am there were murmurings that come the weekend Boris Johnson might be moving into Number 10. “Hard Brexit dead; May on life support, democracy alive and kicking – a great thing,” said the historian Simon Schama, reflecting the views of many.
As the coverage rolled into the early hours, Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry, who regularly popped up on the BBC, looked increasingly villainous. It was just a few minutes past 10pm when she had first called for Theresa May to resign. That might have been premature, but the beauty of election night is that whatever the result, it’s always compulsive viewing.