Ten minutes before last night’s opening bong from Big Ben sent a shockwave of exit poll astonishment crashing around the ITV election studio, George Osborne was backstage casually peeling a satsuma and contemplating his sleeping arrangements.
“I should be finishing here around 3am, but I’m editing the paper tomorrow so I’m not sure whether I try to sleep or not. Perhaps I’ll grab a couple of hours on a couch in the office before people start arriving at six.”
At least that was the plan at 9:50pm. The drama that unfolded later meant the former Chancellor saw quite a bit more of his fellow results pundit Ed Balls and programme host Tom Bradby than anticipated – and it certainly deprived any early arrivers at the west London offices of the Standard newspaper of a sight of George in his jammies.
Ed Balls, meanwhile, opted for a black coffee starter with the promise of Diet Coke to help sustain him through the eight-hour results marathon. Balls emerged from his make-up room with a foundation sheen that could have been applied for a performance on Strictly. “Nervous?”, we asked. “No, not nervous, just a bit uncertain of what to expect,” he replied cheerfully. How that glow deepened as the evening unravelled.
A few steps away in the so-called media hub, dozens of journalists, pundits-for-hire and politicos peered at TV screens as the exit poll countdown ticked towards 10pm. Owen Jones, the cherubic cheerleader-in-chief for Corbyn, broke the stunned silence that accompanied that first prediction with a loud round of applause. He looked like a kid at Christmas. Two tables away Ruth Lea, the Conservative-supporting former head of policy at the Institute of Directors, buried her head in her hands. “Absolute disaster,” she muttered, and continued to mutter for the next three hours. Here was a woman in desperate need of a TV microphone to share her dismay with. It wasn’t forthcoming, only the prospect of a “live Facebook” appearance. And so at 1am she left the building, fury still pent up. It was turning into that sort of night.
As the results rolled in clusters of like-minded folk started to form, phones gripped like life sources providing a running feed of speculation, the reaction of the markets and even the latest odds from the bookies. Bewilderment summed up the mood.
The corner of the room colonised by the Owen Jones camp grew in size and animation, providing the only audible reaction to the now frequent declarations: cheers at 1:15am when Labour captured their first seat in Scotland from the SNP, gasps of disbelief when former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg lost his at 2:45am.
The comings and goings of party veterans offering their insight and analysis continued throughout the night and morning. At 4:25am it was the turn of 69-year-old stalwart Anne Widdecombe to declare to host Bradby that the electorate was becoming weary of elections. There was a murmur of agreement from the journalists still present – including editor of the Spectator Fraser Nelson and the Mail’s Quentin Letts.
But what of George Osborne? Contrary to own expectations he was still in the studio continuing to parry Bradby’s repeated attempts to get him to anoint a new Tory party leader. A declaration of his admiration for Amber Rudd as a person was as close as he got.
By 6.05am he was in a taxi being delivered not to his home for some much needed sleep, but to his office desk in High Street Kensington, no doubt pondering what the newspaper’s splash headline might have been were he not its editor. “George for PM” perhaps…