David Dimbleby on election night: "It's theatrical drama, and the great danger is taking anything for granted"
For his tenth election, the journalist reveals what keeps him going for nine hours
Some facts about David Dimbleby. He has 92 ties in his collection. He has only one tattoo. His weekly hosting of Question Time and its attendant cacophony on Twitter has inspired a drinking game at a club in Hackney. He thinks the national printed press has given Jeremy Corbyn a rotten deal.
I have an audience with Dimbleby at the BBC’s election nerve centre in Westminster. I find him crouched behind a desk, unjacketed, in braces, with a giant poster of constituencies hanging above him. Does he find it hard to memorise them all? He gives me a slightly strange look. Are you kidding? This will be the tenth time he has anchored election night on BBC1. There’s nothing about constituencies that he doesn’t know.
We canter briskly up to a quiet fifth-floor room away from the hubbub. Indeed, it’s such a haven that we unearth a producer asleep on the sofa. He’s awoken and hurries away, possibly wondering about his future. Dimbleby raises an eyebrow. There is no way he would countenance such behaviour on election night, during which he broadcasts for nearly nine hours. Does he ever contemplate having a nap? Another withering look. Well, how do you manage it?
“I can’t answer that. Excitement. Sheer enjoyment. I have one cup of coffee at 4am, maybe nibble a bit of banana... You don’t do the programme because you are forced to. You do it because it’s fun, and if it’s fun, you stay awake.”
Where does he think we will be, come the morning of 9 June? He laughs. “It’s a very odd election. If the Conservative story is how Theresa May is the ‘brand leader’, the interesting thing is that a lot of Labour supporters really like and believe in the messages that Jeremy Corbyn is bringing across. It’s not his MPs in the House of Commons necessarily, but there is a lot of support in the country.
“And I don’t think anyone could say that Corbyn has had a fair deal at the hands of the press, in a way that the Labour Party did when it was more to the centre, but then we generally have a right-wing press. My own prediction is that, contrary to the scepticism and lazy pessimism of the newspapers and the British media, it’s going to be a really fascinating night, and it will drive home some messages about our political system and the political appeal of different parties that no amount of polling or reading the papers will tell us.”
Devotees will know that last year the BBC formally announced that its next election night – presumed to be in 2020 – would be chaired by Huw Edwards. What happened? “Well, this election followed so logically from the one in 2015 and the EU referendum in 2016,” says Dimbleby, smiling smoothly. “Plus, you know, we hadn’t got rid of all the computer programmes, the devices for explaining it, which I know backwards.” So was it the BBC asking him, or him insisting? “Oh, don’t talk to me about BBC politics,” he says, airily. “I can’t follow them. I just got asked to do it and I said I would love to.” Has he seen the ousted Edwards since? “No... no. We never meet, actually. Because I am always off in Hull, or Edinburgh, and he is...” He never finishes the sentence, but one might assume that Dimbleby considers reading the news, even the flagship news at 10 o’clock, a slightly less dynamic option than hosting Question Time every week.
Dimbleby is nothing if not dynamic. Here he is, at 78, practically rubbing his hands with joy at the prospect of conducting a night’s drama on the BBC’s main channel with commentary from winners and losers coming in on 16 separate screens from Inverness to Penzance, teamed up with Emily Maitlis and Mishal Husain and Jeremy Vine on some illusory pavement to Downing Street, and the rest of the Westminster bubble.
He thinks 8 June is the last part of a gripping national trilogy. “It’s a three-act play. Two years ago we had David Cameron, elected to his surprise, and who therefore had to do what he wasn’t expecting to do, which was first of all a renegotiation with the EU. Then we have the referendum, which, to his surprise, he lost. So then he goes; and now we have this election. We have gone through an amazing period of political somersaults.” With the twinkly Dimbleby right in the middle of the maelstrom, just where he likes to be.
He believes, with some justification, that his weekly connection with the electorate via Question Time is a vital asset, dismissing the debates with politicians in front of lecterns as sterile and anodyne. Is he worried, though, about election fatigue? Not for one second. Not in himself, and not in us. “There is a really good strong instinct that you see coming through with football, with Formula One, with horses. People like races. And the thing that keeps election night going is the look on people’s faces when they have won or lost. The things they say in defeat or victory. It’s a theatrical drama, and the great danger is taking anything for granted.
“That’s the great excitement of an election. It is the only time you actually know what people think. Polls? You can have them until the cows come home. What matters is what people say. And then once you get that stuff in, you start to look for the stories and how politics reacts to the reality of what has happened. For me, the exit poll is the starting gun. For a political rollercoaster ride, and a night of thrills and spills.”
I’m going to stay up all night with you, David.
David Dimbleby presents the General Election 2017 from 9.55pm on BBC1