A few seconds after Big Ben chimed 10pm, the natural assumption was that Diane Abbott had ousted John Curtice in a backstage coup and crunched the exit poll numbers herself.
However many times you experience seismic electoral upsets, nothing really inures you to the shock. But for those of us on the wrong end of the 2015 general election, Brexit and Trump, fourth time was a charm.
Writing in the middle of the night, the familiar cocktail of disbelief and whisky is sweetened by a spoonful of unfamiliar ecstasy (the emotion, for clarity, not the recreational drug). God alone knows quite how this miracle happened, but almost every preconception which guided the expectations of idiots like me – and some clever people as well – has been exploded.
Britain is not the immovably centre-right country which long and painful electoral experience had implied. Neither is Jeremy Corbyn the bumbling amateur of popular conception (mine too; this is a morning for abject humility on that score), whose progression from veteran backbench refusenik to party leader put you in mind of a straight to video Disney movie. And the brutalist Tory press, which savaged Corbyn with a relentless cruelty that startled even this grizzled student of their work, can no longer terrify the populace at will.
As I write, the confusion is barely less stupefying than the delight.
It seems that the Tories will just about be able to form a minority government. The bad news for Brenda from Bristol is that we will have to go through it all over again before long – possibly as soon as the autumn.
Obviously this is a pulverising defeat for the Tories despite the numerical advantages in seats and vote share, and a glorious triumph for Labour regardless of the deficits in seats and popular vote. In this Alice-on-mescaline political wonderland of ours, that makes perfect sense.
Beyond that, 10 days before the EU divorce negotiations are scheduled to begin (though surely they will be postponed now), the only things that seem crystal clear are a) that a pea souper fog has descended over a Brexit that was opaque enough as it was, and b) that we will soon have a new prime minister.
For a while, in the night, it seemed that it might be someone with a beard, a bike and an allotment. At 1.19am – if ever an event was surreal enough to demand pedantic precision, this was it – Jeremy Corbyn went favourite to be the next PM on Betfair.
It didn’t last. But even if he must wait for a second crack at kissing the Queen’s begloved hand, what he achieved yesterday trumped Trump himself on the belief-beggaring front.
Within minutes of Corbyn’s victory speech at the count in Islington, Theresa May gave hers in Maidenhead. Having dredged up the brave smile of Audrey Fforbes-Hamilton after her prize marrow suffered a humiliating defeat at the village fete, this Icarus of the Home Counties hinted at carrying on in the cause of “stability”. Bless her for clambering back aboard that sloganeering life raft as the boat she steered into an iceberg of her own creation glug-glug-glugged to the bottom of the sea. But it’s hard to imagine how she can survive long enough to, ahem, celebrate her first anniversary in Downing Street next month.
Still, at least she has a better answer up her sleeve for the next time she is asked about the naughtiest thing she ever did. That may not console her enormously. If the Daily Mail and The Sun mistook her for the messiah, they know this high priestess of hubris for a very naughty girl now. On a night ridiculously stuffed with unforgettable vignettes, a personal favourite was a report that Rupert Murdoch stormed out of an election party at his London HQ the moment that exit poll flashed on screen. The national defiance of the old monster’s instructions was one among many delicious novelties on a night when much beyond Brexit changed.
Boris Johnson is back in the game, and will already be manoeuvring to fight (presumably with a relieved Amber Rudd) to succeed May. Vince Cable is back in the House, and will scrap it out with Ed Davey, another returner, to replace the risible Tim Farron as leader of the elite corps of Lib Dem MPs. Nick Clegg, a good and civilised man, looked sadder than ever in Sheffield, and will be missed. Nigel Farage, that Liza Minnelli of the snug bar, threatened yet another comeback tour in the cause of safeguarding the granite Brexit of his wettest dreams.
Brexit apart, the most dramatic change will be the sharp leftward repositioning of the political centre ground. The criminally negligent underfunding of social and medical care and education will end, or at least be greatly mitigated. The assumption that the poor, deprived and disenfranchised may be safely ignored by those to whom “austerity” is a sanitary euphemism for “who cares?” is dead.
And one of the oldest riddles in democratic politics has been solved: you can get young people off their arses and down to the polling station if you take the trouble to enthuse them with the realistic hope of a brighter future for themselves and a fairer society for us all.Reuse content