Donald Clarke: away with horse-trading, in with bets on next Labour leader

The most unpredictable election in a generation, they said. TV coverage proved that, for sure

David Mitchell and a “woefully miscast” Jeremy Paxman, presenters of Channel 4’s “Alternative Election Night”. Photograph: Channel 4/PA Wire

For the last three weeks, the TV boffins have been telling us nothing was certain. This was the most unpredictable election in a generation.

When the exit poll emerged, however, it became clear that the psephologists and politicians had, to that point, a very clear notion of what was about to happen.

Labour and the Tories would win a similar number of seats. Horse-trading would continue for weeks. Nigel Dodd would be appointed Poobah of the Bahamas in return for his support.

The reliable Peter Kellner, president of the YouGov polling organisation, seemed impressively unflustered for a man whose entire profession looked to have been rendered as vital as that of lamp trimmer.


Elsewhere, Paddy Ashdown, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, offered to eat the hat he and his colleagues – then facing predictions of relatively mild decline – failed to consume after the last election.

Facing annihilation

As it became clear that the Lib Dems really were facing annihilation, a Twitter account named “Paddy Ashdown’s Hat” appeared and rapidly accumulated 12,000 followers.

Across the airwaves, broadcasters stood down the horse-trading experts and began taking bets on the next Labour leader.

Channel 4 made a gallant attempt to deliver an "Alternative Election Night" featuring the inescapable David Mitchell, the urbane Richard Osman and a woefully miscast Jeremy Paxman.

While Paxo was proving that he is to comedy as Ed Miliband is to sandwich consumption, the heavy lifting was left to the ordinary citizens in Gogglebox. "You go to a food bank, you fat-faced Tory," Leon growled at David Cameron.

The folk at RTÉ - who were, after all, covering an election in a foreign country - could be forgiven for taking a low-key approach.

In the event, the warm, soothing Brian Dobson just stopped short of wearing a cardigan while occupying a horseshoe-shaped cushion that seemed more suited to breakfast television.

The comforting atmosphere (one half-expected Labour veteran Peter Hain to ponder dating options for Pisceans) was repeatedly shattered by cuts to the mirthless pit of despair that is the count centre in Belfast's Kings Hall.

Staying perky

Not making her first journey to Westeros, Miriam O'Callaghan somehow managed to remain perky while discussing perennial sectarian divides with buzz-killer Gerry Kelly. (I said buzz killer, m'lud!)

We can't tell you what was happening at ITV because, winning more friends with every passing day, UTV Ireland failed to broadcast a second of Tom Bradby and Julie Etchingham's efforts.

Sky News was, however, in impressively experimental mood. A behind the scenes stream on Sky Arts really did reveal secrets about the process, but, surely, only a certifiable anorak intent on catching the estimable Adam Boulton dining on a stray Lib Dem when off air would watch for longer than a minute.

Up front, Sophy Ridge and Anna Botting were excellent and bafflingly visible Kay Burley - who must have embarrassing photos of Sky management stored somewhere safely - managed to bark at David Lammy MP for not answering a question he had, in fact, addressed with remarkable frankness.

Forget all that. British general elections, like the boat race, royal funerals and, no doubt, coverage of the coming biblical apocalypse, belong to the BBC.

Chewing fat

Early figures suggest that 6.35 million viewers – more than four times that of their nearest rival — tuned in to watch this century’s Dimbleby chew over Fat Face’s unexpected triumph. By golly, they were throwing everything at it.

Jeremy Vine, successor to Peter Snow, had, at his disposal, more terrifying psychedelic visions than the average Taiwanese anime director.

Virtual MPs blinked eerily in the virtual House of Commons. A virtual “path to Number 10” snaked up a virtual Downing Street.

If that metaphor wasn’t sufficiently pounding, Jeremy had an animated house of cards to demonstrate the Liberal Democrats’ decline. Well, the BBC is committed to serving minorities, and bleeding idiots are, thankfully, still in a minority.

The corporation’s analysis was of a high standard, but elitism was conspicuously at play.

By the early hours, the broadcast was in the hands of David Dimbleby, Andrew Marr, Andrew Neil and Laura Kuenssberg. Oh, never mind the posh thing.

After all, the pugnacious Neil comes from a relatively humble background.

Ponder this instead. Marr (Glasgow), Neil (Paisley) and Kuenssberg (Glasgow, again) all emerge from the same corner of an increasingly unstable nation.

The prognosticators were correct in one regard. It was all about the Scots.