Election ’92

Monday, April 9, 2007 by

Fame may deal an inconsistently fleeting hand to practitioners of TV and politics, but when both worlds collide you see stardom at its most ephemeral. Who remembers the likes of Ian Lang, Linda Chalker and Rosie Barnes today? Who could identify a picture of Bryan Gould, a man once touted as Britain’s next prime minister? And whatever happened to John Selwyn Gummer?

IThe General Election of 1992 might not rate as one of the most seismic of the 20th century, but it was certainly one of the most transitional. Whole generations of faces, forces and ideas were in flux at that time, and to watch again the 14 hours of results coverage hailing from those (depending on your view) grim or glorious days was to see the fabric of political history unravel and reform before your eyes.

Such forces were in evidence inside the BBC studio as well. For the first time since rationing there was no Robin Day ready to perform his “usual humble function”; instead, Peter Sissons manned the guest pod, visibly and audibly determined to make a strong impression. David Dimbleby and Peter Snow were present, naturally, as were (reprising their roles from 1987) Tony King and John Cole. But tacked on the end of the row was Peter Kellner, another wonk, whose role seemed to consist solely of robbing airtime from Tony and John to pass their kind of analysis off as his own.

In the event, all three were strangely underused – a case of too many cooks, especially when quite enough pot-stirring was going on out in the field. For an exit poll had predicted a hung parliament, which meant we were in for “one of the most dramatic and exciting election nights since the war.” But if this would turn out to be somewhat far from the BBC’s estimation, then the ensuing coverage would begin somewhat far from David’s expectation.

“I can’t believe nothing’s happening … we’re having to wait an awful long time for results … almost midnight and just four declarations …” His complaints pulsed on. The high turnout (77%) had delayed any sort of tide of results until the early hours. It meant that the levels of tension surrounding the outcome were prolonged beyond anyone’s anticipation – as was the need for David and his team to pad out proceedings.

Neither made for particularly absorbing television. Pointless shots from the BBC helicopter above John Major’s Huntingdon constituency showing complete blackness were followed by pointless shots of a brass band playing in a city square somewhere in Manchester. “While the nation has been deciding between parties, we’ve been having a party of our own,” explained Jill Dando half-heartedly, which turned out to mean Rory Bremner. “Unlike Jason Donovan, it still could go both ways,” he mugged as “Peter Snow” before adding, predictably, “it’s just a bit of fun.”

Meanwhile Michael Buerk waited by Paddy Ashdown’s house in Yeovil, wondering if the Lib Dem leader “had a pocket calculator to hand” and noting “there’s a public telephone box conveniently just outside.” Jeremy Paxman did the same thing in Neil Kinnock’s constituency of Islwyn, wearing a hideous lemon raincoat.

Relief came in the form of “an old friend”, as David dubbed it: the much-vaunted re-appearance of the swingometer, heralded with a clip from its last outing in 1979. “Thanks Harry!” cried Peter Snow to an unseen stagehand as the giant pendulum swung down from the heavens. Here was the biggest turn of the night, the star of that week’s Radio Times front cover and without a doubt the finest example of what David patronisingly dubbed “election wizardry” for many a year. Clear, comprehensive and entertaining, the swingometer and associate spin-offs were all a joy to watch, even if their messages were, for a time, muddled.

The forecasts were already being revised by the point the first result finally arrived – not, as was planned for, from Kate Adie and her “furious fingers” in Torbay, but Sunderland South. The good people of Torbay had nonetheless erected a large sign atop their stage proclaiming “ENGLISH SPOKEN HERE”. David tried repeatedly to get Kate to explain this, but to no avail. Over at Basildon there was “no sign of Anna Ford at all,” but there was the sight of David Amess defying the odds, the polls and the pundits to hold his seat and therefore portend Tory victory. “I’m reminded very strongly of 1987″ conceded Tony, just as Mrs Thatcher made her first appearance of the night, emerging out of the gloom to warn Charles Wheeler, “Careful you don’t slip – have a nice sleep!”

By now Vivian White could detect “a most delicious sense of tension at Conservative Central Office.” Results began to trickle in. The constituency of Hyndburn appeared, labelling itself “AT THE HEART OF LANCASHIRE’S HILL COUNTRY”. “Putney is never going to go back to the Labour Party,” forecast David Mellor. Frank Dobson, gossiping with Sue Cook at Labour’s official “victory” party, still cautioned, well, caution. As did every single Labour MP interviewed, despite John Cole astutely observing how “people of a Conservative turn of mind” were making their presence felt despite having previously masked it from the pollsters.

At 1am finally – thankfully – everything picked up. Norman Lamont used his victory speech to apologise to his rival Monster Raving Loony Party candidate for “not giving him a lift when his car broke down in front of me.” Tony concluded the Tories had won. “All your predictions are turning out wrong,” snapped Malcolm Rifkind. David spotted “Chris Patten’s wife, Lavender.”

John Smith reckoned we were “still in a cliffhanger situation,” despite Peter Snow now forecasting, for the first time, a proper Conservative majority. “Come along, please!” ordered the returning officer before announcing Party Chairman Chris Patten’s defeat. The camera cut to other Tory politicians listening in. “It’s written on their faces – Lavender Patten there,” noted David again.

This was clearly, from the BBC’s point of view, the biggest sellable story of the night – the man who had mastermind a national victory but lost his own seat in the process. Reams of Conservative ministers queued up to share their condolences. People speculated on how quickly he could be got back into the Commons. Michael Heseltine wouldn’t say. John Cole wouldn’t guess. David Dimbleby merely spied, “Chris Patten’s wife, Lavender.”

Elsewhere, Labour had as good as conceded defeat. David thought Neil Kinnock was “tired looking”. Peter Sissons wondered if “Labour will ever win an election under the current system”. Jeffery Archer turned up with an explanation for the Tories’ fortunes: “People have been coming up and saying, we’re very angry with you Jeffrey.” “Not you personally?” qualified Peter. The BBC helicopter, still gamely hovering in a cloud of darkness, attempted to show John Major leaving for London. “I dunno whether you can see him,” mused David. “I certainly can’t.”

Famous names flashed past. Colin Moynihan, once the subject of a thousand alternative comedy jokes, lost his seat. A “quiz show host in the cardigan,” won Chester. This turned out to be Gyles Brandreth, or as David pronounced it, Gyles Brand Reth. Then Mrs Thatcher reappeared, looming out of the mire, muttering still of how “Winston carried on … I enjoy a party … everything will be conserved … 13 years …”

Vivian White remained alert down at Conservative Central Office. Party workers held up placards that spelled out “JM IS PM”. “JM will be PM,” Vivian corrected. John Wakeham revealed he’d written the final result on a piece of paper “last Friday.” “Have you got it with you, in your pocket?” Vivian pressed. David Mellor waved to the crowd. There was no applause. Inside Patten addressed the faithful. “In four or five year time we can make it five in a row,” he vowed. “Five more years! Five more years!” came the cry.

This was all too much for James Cox up in the BBC Scotland studio. “You just had a Tory majority printed across your head,” japed David mid-handover. “How terrible,” hissed James. Dawn broke. Having made the decision to stay on the air through to 6am, the BBC now had to find things to fill it. We learned John Prescott had snapped his two front teeth on some toffee his wife had left for him in the fridge. “We send our commiserations,” mugged David. Tony King complained about the campaign having too much razzamatazz. Ben Elton looked in from the depleted Labour Party bash. “I’ve been glued to the coverage watching David do his impartial thing, as he always does,” he whined.

As John Major began to speak at Conservative Central Office, the picture quality started flickering between full colour and grey. “A slight element of Spitting Image entering our screens,” David quipped. Three people, John Major, his wife and Chris Patten, then appeared at a window. “Three of them, at the window,” said David. It was time for breakfast. The familiar long list of credits crawled by to the sounds of Bruce Dickinson and Mr Bean’s I Wanna Be Elected. Footage from the song’s video was spliced together with images from the night including someone falling over and someone kissing their wife. It wasn’t the most dignified of exits.

9.30am found Michael Foot in a big woolly jumper, Jennie Bond outside the Kinnocks’ house in Ealing (“He must be bewildered”) and a Palace of Westminster shrouded in morning mist. The air was ripe with outrageous forecast and shameless score-settling. Shirley Williams expected “proportional representation within two years”; Rhodes Boyson informed Tony Banks, “You’ll have grown a beard” by the time Labour ever win power; Dennis Skinner complained about “having come up to Leeds, through heavy traffic” only to get interrupted by David.

Time dragged. The fact no party had yet secured an outright majority proved to be no guarantor of the kind of fevered plotting that enveloped the closing hours of both 1974 elections. Here it was obvious the Tories had won and nothing would change that.

And so, for want of much else to do, everyone quibbled and argued and blamed the media for anything they could think of. Hugely earnest debates about electoral reform and political re-alignment rumbled back and forth, the like of which would have sent even Robert MacKensie running for cover behind a cup of tea and a bun in the BBC canteen. There was no ceremonial trip to Buckingham Palace for, as David obtusely explained, the PM “already has the Queen’s commission”. There wasn’t even the usual cluster of declarations from Northern Ireland to wait for, some jobsworth having decided to stubbornly fall in line and count votes the same time as the rest of the UK.

Peter Sissons entertained a panel of “Tory grandees”, including a visibly eroding Nicholas Ridley, followed by one of “Tory youngsters”, a frankly fraudulent way of introducing the likes of John Redwood and Virginia Bottomley. Of Angela Rumbold he ventured the question, “Should there be a ministry for women?” to which the reply came: “Certainly not.”

There wasn’t really need to carry on broadcasting until 4pm. All the business of the day was over just after lunch, when John Major took a turn around Downing Street. “He’s left his soapbox behind for now,” noted Martyn Lewis stupidly. “I wonder when we’ll see it again?” So a distracted David resorted to first asking John Cole, “Have you anything at all to say about anything?” then taking idle potshots at the opposition, accusing ITN of calling results based on “assumptions, not facts”. Later still, everyone started counting numbers in their head before “all of us round the table” spotted the Tories had actually bagged the largest number of votes cast (13.9m) for any one single party ever. Up in Manchester Rory Bremner did a gag about Gordon Brown’s mouth.

Finally, after quite possibly two dozen more shots of the “girls at the phone banks”, the end was at hand. “Sadly I’ve no figures for the Natural Life Party,” David fluffed during his sign-off. Peter, Tony and John remained mute, as they had for most of the previous 14 hours. The closing credits evaporated as soon as they could. It was a strangely unspectacular finale to a confoundingly spectacular occasion.


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