Election `97: `The sea wall is collapsing all around us tonight'

Peter Popham followed the minute-by-minute disintegration of the Tory party with the audience at Central Office. As the vote collapsed remorselessly through the night, it was a grim occasion indeed

With hindsight, it was all over before it started. The huge, brutally functional media room in Tory headquarters at Smith Square had been stripped for action, all the seating torn out, the lights and cameras of half a dozen mini television studios in place. Journalists milled about from sausages to wine to mineral water, and from television screen to television screen, in thrall to the Dimblebys like the rest of the country.

Then soon after 11, with only two results in, Hezza was among us, face drawn, virile eyebrows sagging tragically; full as ever of advertisements for his own unwavering loyalty, and initially tiptoeing round the dreadful reality beginning to happen. "I am possibly disappointed with the early indications". But then, on his third television interview, he decided to confront it head on. "We have to regroup, and regrouping is simply what you do when you find yourself on the wrong end of an election defeat..."

Parenthetically, he added: "if that's what it is." But the cat was out of the bag, the D-word was on the loose.

But there is still a difference between the awful apprehension of imminent disaster, and the experience of that disaster occurring minute by minute, result by result. It's a difference measured in psychic pain. As journalists posted in party headquarters, we found ourselves in a rather horrible position. For anyone remotely sympathetic to political change, exhilaration mounted giddily through the small hours. And meanwhile we became onlookers to a wake, witnesses to a kill. Thirty-six Smith Square became a hospital; at 1.30 someone burst in and blurted "the word from upstairs is that Portillo's in serious trouble", and it sounded like the life blood was draining away. Then it changed from a hospital to a morgue, and from a morgue to a monument.

It became the monument to an age swept away with the sort of remorseless vigour - remember the fall of the Berlin Wall - that seems to be the special feature of great political events at the end of the 20th century.

In parallel, the Tories themselves were transformed overnight. At 11pm, Hezza knew what was happening, but for us and the world beyond he was still a big beast of the jungle, a towering figure in the "natural party of government"; the party which, under Thatcher, had apparently transcended its class limitations. As the hours ticked by and the losses poured in, all that was blown away. At 1.10, Jeremy Paxman said to Cecil Parkinson, "This is about as bad as it can get, isn't it?" and Parkinson gamely replied: "I'm glad we've won a seat!" The party shrivelled before our eyes like a balloon.

The "naturalness" of the Tories' hegemony was exposed as a fairy tale. And the distinctive fact about the Tories, which, for those of us who tramped around in Major's wake during the campaign became impossible to ignore, the fact that it is, at bottom, a peculiar and distinctive caste in British society, became more and more stark.

We saw them for what they are: the chinless wonders, the very nice pinstripe suits, the year-round tans; their hereditary assumption of privilege, their camp obsession with gentility - manifested as much in the painful pedantries of John Major's speaking style as in the party volunteers picking their way daintily across Smith Square last night as a handful of hecklers roared at them, "Win one did yer? Goodbyee! "

The incredible night took its shocking course. Gordon Brown was interviewed and cracked the most extraordinary smile - an expression no-one, except perhaps his mother, had ever imagined him capable of. Peter Mandelson pulled the same trick, straight out of some previously unsuspected locker known as his heart, and looked practically human. Only Tony Blair himself, Mr toothpaste smile, contrived to look as beamingly plastic as ever.

At 12.21 the Edgbaston result was declared, described as "the Basildon of the `97 election"; Labour took it for the first time in history with a 10 per cent swing, and the adrenaline began to pound. After Edgbaston, at 12.48, came the real Basildon. Silence fell. Basildon had registered a 15 per cent swing to Labour. The vastness of what we were in the thick of began to sink in. "Christ!" said someone. Peter Snow's seat-indicating boards clattered over, row after row, changing from blue to red. "It's like being in the middle of a stock market crash," someone said. The only consolation for the top Tories trapped in our midst was a little grim humour. "Are you going to stay on as Welsh secretary?" some airhead radio interviewer demanded of William Hague. "I don't think I'll be able to stay on as Welsh secretary if there is a change of government," he replied with the most spectral of smiles.

As the main story surged on, Labour gain after Labour gain flashing up, this election's irresistible sideshows played themselves out. At 1.18 at Wandsworth Town Hall, David Mellor conceded Putney, and was rewarded for the good grace with which he accepted it by a shocking display of bad manners from James Goldsmith, who heckled and slow-handclapped from the sidelines.

"Putney said `Up your hacienda, Jimmy," Mellor commented shortly afterwards. The preposterousness of the idea that we might have vested our patriotic emotion in a figure such as Goldsmith was violently borne home.

Mellor himself summoned the most vivid imagery of the night to describe what was happening when he said, "A tidal wave has burst over the Conservative Party tonight, and it's not a matter of putting your finger in the dike. The sea wall is collapsing all around us."

The other result which punctuated the night with special emotion came at 2.45 from Tatton, when Martin Bell's staggering 11,000 majority was announced. It was greeted by Bell with his trademark stoicism, but also with a new-found assurance. "We are the people of England, and we have not spoken yet," he said, quoting Chesterton, but pointing out that this was no longer true. The people of England had spoken.

For Tories, the cruellest hours of the night were between 12.30 and 3, as amazing Home Counties losses to both Labour and the Liberal Democrats ("Gillingham!" exclaimed the Daily Express reporter unbelievingly) thudded home one after another, and as one giant of the age after another toppled into the dust.

At 2.59 it was announced that Mrs Thatcher's old constituency of Finchley had gone to Labour with a 15 per cent swing, and in some of the Tories present, something snapped.

A prominent year-round-tan pinstriped functionary said suddenly: "It's time for a change, you know. It's time for a change." At 3am little Stephen Twigg bounced Michael Portillo out, and it was all getting beyond a joke. The news, a moment or two later, that the Conservatives had held on to Bognor Regis and Littlehampton was a timely reassurance that the world would not be entirely unrecognisable in the morning.

So it went on, and the natural party of government shrivelled away, the giant shrank before our eyes, the comfortable, self-serving caste stood exposed in all its shame and pain and embarrassment. Tories were, however, bred for occasions like this, and at 3.40 Viscount Cranborne, small muscles in his cheek twitching from time to time, and looking as if he had been through a mincer, gave a textbook demonstration of stiff upper lip.

Yes, he confirmed, "It has been the worst night in my extremely short and undistinguished career in politics ... the party is in a state of fairly severe catatonic shock." [Note and relish that "fairly".] "It would only be polite to let John Major decide what to do in his own time."

Five am; outside in the square it was first light, and as a small but vociferous band of hecklers across the road - actually one heckler with a chorus of supportive laughers - gave tongue, fairly catatonic and devastated men in suits huddled and rubbed their hands and blew out their cheeks at the entrance of party headquarters.

The night was done and it was all over. At 5.27, without warning and at some speed, the Prime Minister's Jaguar swept into the forecourt and Norma and John got out and smiled their Tory smiles, and disappeared into the building. The end was nigh.

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