Faced with a choice of Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn, quite a few unhappy British voters are driven to ask: “Can’t they both lose, please?”
According to Ipsos Mori, Corbyn sets records for public disdain: 62% disapprove of his record and his net score is miserable -39. But Johnson is hardly the people’s darling: 44% give him an unfavourable rating and his net rating is also underwater, at -8.
Could it happen? Could they both lose — personally? By that I mean: could they both lose their Commons seats, sacked by their own former constituents? It is, of course, wildly unlikely, but this is 2019, and you know what that means about political probabilities.
It was shortly after 2am on 13 December that British politics opened the door to a new circle of hellish turmoil. After inspecting the piles of votes on the tables in Islington Town Hall, and accepting that the grinning Lib Dems weren’t bluffing, Jeremy Corbyn’s agent quietly confirmed to his candidate what they’d suspected for a few hours: “You’ve lost.”
To describe that loss — confirmed by the returning officer at 2.30am — as seismic was not hyperbole. When the Lib Dems announced they were pulling their campaigners out of Islington South to allow Emily Thornberry (“our fellow Remainer”) a clear run and focusing their fire on the Labour leader (“Since he won’t get off the fence on Brexit we’re going to knock him off,” said Jo Swinson), no one took them seriously. Yes, they’d won Islington in the (worthless) European elections, but Corbyn had held Islington North for 36 years, claiming almost 75% of the vote with a majority of more than 30,000.
At best, the Lib Dem push against Corbyn was supposed to help Swinson rebut Tory claims that “a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for Jeremy Corbyn in No 10”, allowing the Lib Dem press office to counter: “If we’re so cosy with Corbyn, why are we trying to decapitate him?” (The use of the word “decapitate” was of course deliberate bad taste to get the strategy more publicity. Successfully, as it turned out.)
And somehow, it worked. On a night when Kensington also turned yellow and Twitter blazed with the hashtag #RemainersRevenge, the Lib Dems leapt from barely 5% of the total to beat Corbyn by 195 votes.
At Conservative Campaign Headquarters, there was disbelief at the Corbyn result, but not outright jubilation. For one thing, the Lib Dem surge was much bigger than the campaign planners had expected, which was sending all the models haywire. CCHQ had, of course, been quietly resigned to a few Lib Dem seat gains (sorry, Zac) but the central forecast had suggested that a solid night for Swinson was actually a net positive for the Tories.
By drawing a good chunk of the Labour Remain vote away — but not enough to get near winning — the Lib Dems would help some Conservatives retain their seats in Remain-leaning southern parts. But the sort of earthquake that might topple Corbyn could change things in ways the Tory scenarios barely anticipated.
Anyway, even as Tory officials tried to work out what the earthquake meant for them, an asteroid struck. The Prime Minister was in his car on his way to the seat for the Uxbridge and South Ruislip count when the call from the Tory agent came. It was short and bleak: “It’s going to happen.”
By the time Boris Johnson arrived at his own count, his team had told him to prepare for the worst. Despite all the CCHQ bombardment of the seat with online ads, despite all the pavement pounding by London Tories dragged in from across the capital, his majority of not much more than 5,000 had gone.
For that, Johnson could thank Donald Trump and that moment at the Nato summit when he put his arm around Johnson’s shoulders and declared: “Hey London, this is my guy, such a great guy. When he wins again, and he’s gonna win, win so big, we’re gonna do great things, maybe the best it’s ever been. He’s my guy and he’s gonna make Britain great again, just like we’ve done. Vote Boris, London, vote Boris.”
Those presidential words turbocharged the Uxbridge campaign of Labour’s Ali Milani. An army of students, youth campaigners, minor celebrities and one elegantly-dressed lady in dark glasses who said she was from “just outside Reading” all flocked to Uxbridge to urge residents to “stop Boris selling us out to Trump”.
On her regular visits, the lady from Reading proved especially good at persuading traditional Tories to switch sides, seeming to know just what made them tick. No one could quite put their finger on it, but she seemed quite familiar too, although as she wasn’t much for small talk or personal chitchat, no one ever found out her name.
And so it was that as the sun, eventually, rose on Friday the 13th, Britain found itself in a new and — for once the word was justified — extraordinary new form of political chaos. With almost all the results in, the BBC exit poll said that the Tories would still be the biggest party, with 316 seats. (Just one less than Theresa May got in 2017, though no one could find her for comment.)
Despite that outlier in Uxbridge, Labour slumped and were projected to end up with just 230 seats, while the Lib Dems — who came close to beating Labour’s overall vote share — were forecast to have 39, behind the SNP on 44.
Though pundits, civil servants, voters and most MPs went into a turmoil of confusion and sometimes panic, the Labour team were relatively calm in those first hours — almost as if they’d been preparing for something like this. Just in time for the 7am bulletins, Labour’s John McDonnell spoke to TV reporters to set out what would happen next:
“Jeremy remains our leader. He was elected by our members and they want him to remain as our leader. He may have been cheated out of his seat by the Conservative media working hand-in-glove with the bankers in the City and MI5, but he remains the spiritual leader of the Labour movement, our moral guide. He has told me that he feels liberated from the confines of Parliament and will be spending his time among the people of Islington and this country, so that he can lead them from the places where they live and work.
“No, he won’t be speaking directly to the media today, or for the foreseeable future. What he’s doing now is much more important than that.
“The party in parliament will be led by deputy leader, Rebecca Long-Bailey, who has asked me to serve as her chief of staff and representative in the talks that must start immediately about forming a progressive alliance government to lead a country that has decisively rejected Boris Johnson and Donald Trump’s Tories and which must now have a chance to have its say about the Tory Brexit plan too. When we form that government, Rebecca will be the Prime Minister, but she will govern in Jeremy Corbyn’s name and true to his ideals.”
On the Conservative side, there was no comparable statement or clarity. By 7.45am, no fewer than five people had suggested that they would now lead the Conservative government that would ask the Queen for a chance to demonstrate that it had the confidence of the Commons. Dominic Raab was first out of the blocks, quickly followed by Sajid Javid; neither even mentioned Johnson in their statements. Priti Patel did so, but mostly she talked about Margaret Thatcher.
David Davis surprised many people by convening a press conference where he talked about the SAS and being good in a crisis, concluding: “I am ready to serve again.” His moment was rather spoiled when TV gallery directors cut away from him, however, because at that exact moment Nigel Farage spoke to the cameras outside the Red Lion and revealed that he’d thought long and hard about it and was in fact willing to accept a peerage and the premiership for long enough to see Britain out of the EU without a deal at the end of January.
Financial markets were having none of it, however, and after initial panicked falls, the pound was rising sharply again as traders decided the turmoil meant no Brexit in January and quite possibly ever. They were encouraged in this by tweets from Guy Verhofstadt in Brussels suggesting that the EU27 should unilaterally suspend the Article 50 process.
Of Johnson himself, there was no sign. He was still, technically at least, Prime Minister, and so remained shut up in Downing Street. The No 10 press office issued a brief statement saying that the PM was consulting officials and no further comment would be made. Off the record, Tory officials briefed journalists that the only conversation going on in No 10 was about how a minority Conservative government would reconvene Parliament and bring about an immediate dissolution with a new general election in January; Johnson would be a candidate, though they declined to say where. There was no question of changing the Brexit timetable, they insisted.
Yet equally, off-record, “sources” at Buckingham Palace insisted that the Queen was constitutionally bound to consider all the possibilities; officials were seeking an urgent conversation with Sir Graham Brady of the 1922 Committee to ask just who, if anyone, was actually Conservative Party leader at that moment.
In the Palace view, the possibilities to consider included Long-Bailey, Swinson and Nicola Sturgeon somehow assembling a government that could govern at least long enough to reset the Brexit process, most likely by way of a referendum but possibly by simply asking the EU to stop the clock. The only sad certainty was that the Monarch would not be making her annual New Year trip to Sandringham.
That was the state of play just after 8am when another snap dropped on the Press Association election wire, bringing one of the results that had been delayed due to ballot boxes being delayed when a van crashed on a slushy Scottish road. A split second later the news flashed up on phone screens across Westminster: “East Dunbartonshire: SNP GAIN…”