Cole Moreton: The sun has set, has it not?

Our writer returns to the place where Labour partied after Tony Blair' historic landslide victory in 1997 and takes stock of the nation's changing mood

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Sunrise on the south bank of the Thames, the morning after the election. This is where it all began for New Labour, all those years ago, with Tony Blair grinning like a preacher on fire. He saw the sky grow bright behind the Royal Festival Hall and told a gathering of true believers, ecstatic at their landslide victory: "A new dawn has broken, has it not?"

That was May 1997, but this is the morning after the 2010 election and there is nothing spectacular about the dawn. The sun is hiding away behind a grey haze, as if locked in secret negotiations. The South Bank is deserted.

There was a big stage here on Mr Blair's great day, and that insistent campaign song by D:Ream bouncing out across the Thames: "Things can only get better." Now there is only me, the pigeons and a lone female jogger, sealed off from the world by the music on her headphones. She stops when she sees me checking results on my phone. "What's happening? Who's winning?"

It's hard to say. A hung parliament looks inevitable. "How will that work?" Who knows? The jogger shakes her head and plugs her ears again, heading off along the riverside in the opposite direction to Parliament, volume back up. The political historian Peter Hennessy is calling this "the Mick Jagger election. No satisfaction, for anyone".

The South Bank is a symbolic place in British politics. When the election was first called, what feels like months ago now, David Cameron rushed here to give his first speech of the campaign. It's a neutral space just across the river from the Houses of Parliament but close enough for them to be seen in the background, on camera. But right now Dave is still on his way back from his constituency in Oxfordshire, uncharacteristically unsure of himself. "Whatever happens tonight," he has just said at his own count, with a man from the Monster Raving Loony Party standing beside him. "Whatever the future brings ..."

He must have thought he'd know by now. Usually the victory parties are going strong at dawn but this time there is nothing for anyone to celebrate. The atmosphere by the low, silent river could not be less like 1997, when there was euphoria here.

"Everyone believed that anything was possible," remembered one of the revellers recently. Richard Branson was there among the 1,800, grinning and clapping alongside Lord Rogers the architect and the comedian Eddie Izzard. So many of Mr Blair's most influential supporters were in media and the arts. Gerry Robinson, then head of Granada, was seen to reach through the crowd and grab the arm of Lord Hollick, his opposite number at United News and Media, and say, "Now it begins".

And now it ends. That much is becoming clear in the murky morning light. Dawn has just broken, but the sun is setting on New Labour. Even if a deal can be done, the price of power will be substantial change in the party, its ambitions and almost certainly its leader. The helicopter hovering above Downing Street suggests Gordon Brown is back at No 10, but he is surely only the caretaker now. He must know it. I've just heard the BBC's veteran correspondent John Simpson, travelling with Mr Brown's people, say: "They can feel it slipping away from them."

Big names are falling, as they did at the death of Major's government, another administration begun by a visionary leader but brought to a sorry, exhausted end by the successor, amid allegations of sleaze. Shahid Malik, a serving minister, has lost in Dewsbury. Jacqui Smith, the former home secretary unravelled by her husband's fondness for adult movies, has lost Redditch. Charles Clarke, another former holder of that great office and a member of the original Blair cabinet, has been defeated in Norwich. Perhaps that's a secret relief, given that the old curmudgeon said last year: "I'm ashamed to be a Labour MP."

Nearly 100 of his colleagues have lost their jobs, but there will be no great scalp, no Portillo moment. Ed Balls, Schools Secretary and close ally of Gordon Brown, has not quite been defeated. "I must admit," he says, "it was close."

Back in 1997 the defeat of Michael Portillo was the key moment for Blairites. But even those who did not truly believe found it hard to resist the waves of optimism that swept the country following the election. The sun came out. The cricket team started winning. There was at least a sense of relief that some kind of change had come at last. But that was a different world, before universal access to the internet and mobile phones, before Google and YouTube and even before Harry Potter. It was also before the Millennium Dome debacle, the so- called "war on terror", the invasion of Iraq, the collapse of the banks and the MPs' expenses scandal.

It was before the widespread disenchantment with politicians of all kinds, which has led some daring soul to write in letters a dozen feet high on the northern embankment of the river: "Change the politics." Except that a barge, moved on purpose or by the tides, obscures the word "change". There has been such hope during this election campaign that the politicians might actually understand how people feel and do something about it, changing the system, making it fairer, more honest and less easy for the greedy to exploit. For the moment, though, in the indecision of the post-election morning, that hope is obscured.

All we have for now is aimless chatter, such has been heard throughout the night on board the BBC boat moored beneath the London Eye, the site of perhaps the most bizarre outside broadcast in election history. "I feel like Noddy in Toyland," said the comedian Al Murray at one point, sitting beside former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman. "What on earth is going on?"

Good question. The licence fee was used to put a strange bunch of celebrities on board the cruiser with Andrew Neil. They were only allowed one brief moment of airtime each, so after impenetrable mutterings from David Starkey and Martin Amis, the host breezed: "That's enough of the intellectuals." Off instead to Joan Collins on the next table, who was unable to comment on the results as she had not heard any. "The party is too loud." Beside her the satirist Armando Iannucci kept his counsel and somehow his dignity, before going off to Twitter: "That was a form of living hell."

Now that particular party is over. Twitter is buzzing with something else, at six in the morning. People are posting pictures and accounts of how they were denied the right to vote last night, as polling stations turned people away. "We take this very seriously," says a woman who couldn't get in. "It's very undemocratic. People are very angry." Another says: "The system is broken."

The message appears on my phone as BBC technicians haul heavy equipment up the gantry from the boat. One of them assumes I must be part of the team and raises his eyebrows, saying, "Nearly over now." But it's not. The inquiry into the voting disaster will take ages, and who knows when the election itself will reach a conclusion?

Beyond the dome of St Paul's, in the City, early trading has begun. The pound is falling fast against the dollar and so is the FTSE. Bankers don't like the idea of a hung parliament or a coalition government, apparently. They like strong leadership, which seems a bit rich coming from them. Miles Templeman of the Institute of Directors says: "It's vital that this political vacuum is filled as quickly as possible. The country simply can't afford an extended period of political horse-trading."

Maybe there is so little sense of hope or optimism about this election because there is so much else to worry about, such as the worldwide financial crisis and the massive national debt. James Martin, a City worker walking across the footbridge on his way to the office, puts it bluntly: "There will be massive cuts. Austerity measures. There have to be. I don't think most people get how hard it is going to be." There is nothing to sing about then. Things can only get bitter.

Maybe it's also because we remember being let down before, but we clearly haven't given our hearts to a new love. David Cameron has not won enough seats to govern on his own, and Cleggmania seems to have evaporated. Boris Johnson says on BBC London: "The electorate has managed to come up with an absolutely brilliant system for admonishing a rebuke to all three parties."

The strange thing is, we don't like the alternatives either. Esther Rantzen has been trounced in Luton South, winning fewer than 2,000 votes. Nick Griffin of the BNP has lost hopelessly in Barking and seen his party obliterated from the local council. The only outsider to win is Caroline Lucas, down in Brighton, the first Green MP.

By mid-morning, the Liberal Democrat headquarters in Cowley Street, Westminster, seem like the most important place in Britain. These used to be Church of England offices, where I once heard a bishop take a call from a man claiming to be God. Nick Clegg is apparently on the phone to Mr Cameron in there now, having already publicly told the Tory leader to make him an offer.

That move came as a great shock to some of the people I talked to in Westminster on the way over here. "Clegg's a Tory?" said another Dave, a builder from Hackney, in his forties. "I can't believe that. You sure? That's not why I voted for him." Maria Gonzalez, from south London, wasn't sure how she felt about that. "People won't be happy."

But it's true. In Cowley Street, the former leader Paddy Ashdown is squinting into the cameras and telling it like it is. "Mr Clegg promised you that the British people would be the kingmaker. Today, he has redeemed that promise."

The craggy-faced hard man of liberalism is perhaps the only one who could really get away with a shirt and tie in pink and powder-blue stripes. With the interview over, Paddy turns to the rest of the press pack, who have been up all night waiting for something conclusive to say, and tells them they're not going to get it any time soon. The talks are going to go on for as long as they need to. "Why don't you go home and get some sleep, for God's sake?" For the first time since the polls closed, so long ago, somebody is making sense.

Cole Moreton is the author of 'Is God Still an Englishman?' published by Little, Brown ( www.isgodstillanenglishman.com)

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