Exit poll bombshell leads to glee at downfall of the loathed

TV view: Osborne’s election night delight underlined the factional nature of British politics

There was an unexpected result at the UK general election. Everybody thought there’d be a landslide for the old order, but a fresh, more flexible option elbowed its way into the action. Ha ha! Yes, we’re making a comic analogy between the state of the parties and the competition between broadcasters. Prepare to split your sides.

Some Dimbleby or other has hosted the telly coverage of every significant British convulsion since Boudica defied the pollsters to rout the Romans in 61 AD. Sure enough, David of that clan was at the desk and – as has been the recent tradition at the BBC – he had a Scottish person to either hand. Laura Kuenssberg did her sincere nodding thing. Andrew Marr fought to avoid upstaging by his own ears.

Within seconds, the ancient calm was disrupted and contributors began panicking like the citizens of Tokyo after first sighting Godzilla. Sir Michael Fallon, secretary of defence and chief Tory droog, was unlucky enough to be in the studio when the exit poll predicting Theresa May's great folly emerged. The first excuses of the night were unconvincing. Formulations of "it's still early days" and "it's only an exit poll" resounded for hours to come.

Throughout this weird campaign, both the Tories and Labour seemed equally convinced that the BBC was biased towards the other fellow. What the broadcasters wanted more than anything else, of course, was some shock to spice up the yawning hours. Any shock would do. The news that everybody (bar YouGov, interestingly) had been madly wrong suited them all very nicely indeed.


Over on Sky, Adam Boulton, known for looming like an unfriendly cloud, perked up considerably at the news. On RTÉ, the admirably sober Bryan Dobson corralled Rachel Johnson, sister of the more famous Boris, outside the Palace of Westminster and waited expectantly for news of a leadership challenge. She seemed more concerned with stray yobbos in the near background.

Station that time forgot

More unexpectedly delightful pleasures were playing out on the station that time forgot. Until relatively recently, ITN (as it then still was) offered the BBC a serious challenge on election night. Quietly hidden away in a back alley just round the corner from the Swedish shopping channel, ITV News (as it now is) was worth seeking out.

Ed Balls, former Labour shadow chancellor, but no friend of Jeremy Corbyn, failed to look happy at his leader's unexpected rally. George Osborne, former Tory chancellor, but no friend to Theresa May, failed to entirely suppress glee at his leader's unexpected stumble. Visiting aliens could learn much about British politics from their equivocation.

They could learn still more from Ken Loach's brief appearance on Sky. Given the opportunity to laud the achievements of Corbyn, the veteran socialist filmmaker chose to begin with an attack on Peter Mandelson. Internal factions – in both left and right – loathe one another far more than they loathe the official enemy.

An hour after polls closed the airwaves had taken on the quality of Les Misérables just before that show’s interval. Confusion ruled. Barriers were being erected across the wider boulevards. Dimbleby had lost control of the microphone and intended asides were creeping into the broadcast. “Is that the mayor?” he muttered as another midlands alderman tottered towards the podium.

Enter Curtice

We needed a wise voice to calm us all down? Enter the urbane, endlessly knowledgeable Professor John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde. Over the last few years, Curtice has become a cult hero to rival earlier election gurus such as Bob McKenzie. Seemingly aware of his status, the BBC had him arrive on a raised balcony to deliver soothing words to pilgrims far below like a secular pope. He expressed mild confidence in the exit poll. He was proved right. His status remained undiminished.

The BBC did fine. Jeremy Vine's graphics were less gimmicky than usual. The experts were solid. Sky continued to confirm its strength with strong turns by Boulton and Sophy Ridge. (Though we had to wait until 6am for the superb Beth Rigby and her Mitfordian dropped gs.) RTÉ knew that they were operating a bit of a sideshow.

The most satisfactory turn was, however, by the supposed "alternative" election coverage on Channel 4. The panel, hosted by a relaxed Jeremy Paxman, did include entertainers such as David Mitchell and Richard Osman, but there was little hint of zaniness or facetiousness to the coverage. The channel's balance of insight and off-centre commentary offered welcome relief.

Meanwhile, on BBC Northern Ireland, attention focused on who would govern Churchill’s “dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone”. None of that seemed to matter much at first. By the time the sun rose, the triumphant DUP were propping up a crumbling government.

Never mind the Quantocks.