Sat. Jun 15th, 2024
alert-–-craig-brown:-thrill-of-rewatching-election-night-97…-paxo-passes-the-hemlock-as-jaws-circles-portilloAlert – CRAIG BROWN: Thrill of rewatching election night 97… Paxo passes the hemlock as Jaws circles Portillo

We had been planning to watch the 2024 leaders’ debate but our TV was playing up, and was refusing to let us watch anything current.

But all was not lost. The 1997 Election Night coverage was on BBC iPlayer, so I clicked on that.

A mild-mannered Prime Minister, unable to hold his party together; the Conservative government, riven by in-fighting over Europe, facing a landslide defeat; Labour, in opposition for well over a decade, ready to return to power under bouncy new leadership. The characters may have been different, but the story was the same.

The wonderfully unflappable David Dimbleby was announcing that the exit polls were predicting a landslide. 

Standing outside the gates of John Major’s house in his Huntingdon constituency, Kate Adie predicted that he was ‘likely to be dignified, whatever has happened’.

A studio expert, Professor Tony King, was predicting ‘the total collapse of the Conservative Party — their worst night since the Great Reform Act of 1832’. 

In the studio, young Jeremy Paxman was goading a succession of forlorn Tory ministers with a series of provocative questions. 

‘Are you going to miss the ministerial limo?… So what would you say was your biggest mistake?’

Some were still in denial. Outside Conservative Central Office, the young Jon Sopel reported that, throughout the day: ‘They’ve been saying, ‘Listen, the polls are wrong, it’s not what we’re hearing on the doorstep.’ ‘

Within a few minutes of switching on the BBC’s 1997 coverage, I realised that it was going to be far more fun than anything on offer in 2024.

There is particular enjoyment to be had from knowing what’s going to happen next: the winners and the losers, those who shot to fame, and those who were about to be catapulted into oblivion.

It was fun, too, seeing all those forgotten figures from yesteryear — the Brummie firebrand Clare Short, the chirpy Conservative eurosceptic Teresa Gorman, the very New Labour Barbara Follett kissing her millionaire thriller-writer husband Ken, and, ready for the count in Hartlepool, Blair’s Little Mr Fixit Peter Mandelson (‘known as the Prince of Darkness by his enemies’, according to Dimbleby).

In the studio, Paxman interviewed Michael Portillo, widely tipped as John Major’s successor. ‘It’s likely that you’re one of the few Cabinet ministers who’ll be keeping his seat,’ predicted Paxman, unwisely.

Back then, Putney was the unlikely centre of conflict over Europe, just as Clacton is today. It was also the setting for a bitter battle between three millionaires: the crazy tycoon Sir James Goldsmith, who had spent £20 million of his own money financing the new Referendum Party, the sitting Tory MP David Mellor, survivor of a sex scandal some years before, and the Labour candidate Tony Colman, who was — of all things — one of the founders of TopShop.

The first constituency to finish counting was Sunderland, with an 11 per cent swing to Labour. 

‘Tonight marks the beginning of a new era!’ declared victorious MP, Chris Mullin. In the studio, the gleeful former Labour leader Neil Kinnock described the result as ‘sensational’. 

Paxman turned to his studio guest. ‘Michael Portillo — are you ready to drink hemlock yet?… You are the man who said the poll tax was an election winner?’

Interviewed in Derbyshire South by the now infamous Martin Bashir, the brassy Edwina Currie, within minutes of defeat, said that John Major was ‘an honourable and decent man’. At this stage, she was still keeping quiet about the affair they had enjoyed ten years before.

I n Manchester, the up-and-coming young comedian Frank Skinner interviewed a John Major lookalike called Terry (‘I’ve had six tremendous years’) and a Tony Blair lookalike called Dean — ‘It’s going to become very, very hectic’. Are today’s Keir Starmer lookalikes busy signing up their agents?

After a while Michael Portillo left the studio, en route to his constituency, Enfield Southgate, where things had begun to look less certain. ‘It could be a very tight result for Michael Portillo here,’ said the BBC’s man on the ground, Lance Price. It was like watching Jaws, for the umpteenth time and hearing the first ominous bars of that theme tune strike up as the bathers launch themselves into the sea.

More of my Election Night viewing in Thursday’s column…

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