CRAIG BROWN'S ELECTION NIGHT 1997... PART TWO

For those bored by the current General Election, I recommend watching the full 1997 Election Night coverage on BBC iPlayer. It mixes drama, schadenfreude and nostalgia with an uncanny waft of deja vu.

Then, as now, Tory MPs were busily attacking each other. 'I blame the broken promises of this government — they couldn't get their act together on Europe,' says the blunt-talking Eurosceptic David Evans. It could be someone talking today, but it was 27 years ago.

In other respects, the world has moved on, and for the better. Earlier in the campaign Evans had described his unmarried opponent, the 42-year-old Melanie Johnson, as 'a single girl' with 'three bastard children'. Johnson beat Evans with a 6,000 majority, and Evans was never heard of again.

In the BBC studio, the young Jeremy Paxman is positioned in a crow's nest, above David Dimbleby, ready to roast a steady procession of political grandees. At 2am, the safe Tory constituency of Hove swings to Labour. 'If you can't even hold Hove, something seismic is happening, isn't it?' Paxman tells a bewildered-looking Cecil Parkinson. 'It clearly is,' reflects Parkinson.

Paxman asks if their election failure will lead to squabbles on the Conservative benches. 'There don't seem to be enough people left to have a good squabble,' says Parkinson, with a wry smile.

'Cabinet ministers are falling fast,' says normally understated psephologist Tony King. 'They're going down like ninepins.' Will it be like this on July 4?

Before long, every departing Conservative MP is calling for 'a period of reflection' in which 'lessons can be learnt'.

In Enfield, Michael Portillo juts out his chin as he listens to the returning officer announcing that he has just lost his seat. 'A devastating blow for Mr Portillo,' notes Dimbleby, 'because this was his one chance of taking over the leadership and he's blown it.'

By chance, the day before, I had been covering Portillo on the campaign trail. For want of anything better, I asked him what he would do if he lost his seat. At that time, it had seemed an outlandish idea, but he told me he had considered it. 'If I lose I plan to put all my energy into looking dignified.'

On the night, he is as good as his word, congratulating the Labour victor. 'I think he'll be a very good Member of Parliament and I wish him well.' It might be a good idea for this year's Tory grandees to study Portillo's performance, and do their best to emulate it.

A few minutes later, Portillo must endure a further cross-questioning from Paxman.

'You didn't look like a man who was going to lose, did you?… How can the Tory party ever unite around the present policy on the single currency?'

'I'm now outside the House of Commons and don't have to bother with questions like that.'

'But I thought you just said you'd do whatever you could to help the party!'

'Jeremy, I'm taking an evening off.' 'But is the present policy the right policy?' Portillo manages a weary smile. 'Oh, Jeremy, do stop this nonsense!'

'You seem very good-humoured for a fellow who's just lost his seat,' says Paxman.

Hours later, John Major resigns, with an almost happy-go-lucky air. 'When the curtain falls, one gets off the stage… I hope that Norma and I will be able to get to the Oval in time for lunch and some cricket.' Will Rishi Sunak manage to be so cheerful?

And then, just before Election Night 1997 ends, two former PMs pop up. 'Sunny' Jim Callaghan talks about how much he enjoyed the job. 'I thought, good God, they're paying me to do this.'

And Lady Thatcher blows her own trumpet, barely mentioning Major: 'We transformed Britain from the year 1979 onwards!'

We return to the studio. 'A tart reminder from Mrs Thatcher that she was never defeated in an election,' concludes Dimbleby, with a knowing smile.

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2024-06-13T00:00:45Z dg43tfdfdgfd