There was a collective gasp of astonishment across the UK just after 10pm London time on May 7, when the broadcasters revealed the results of their general election exit poll – it showed the Conservative party of David Cameron was on course to be not just the largest party, but to be within a hair’s breadth of winning an outright majority.
Former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown said he would eat his hat on live television if the poll was right, while Tony Blair’s spin doctor Alistair Campbell said the poll “looked wrong”.
There was a chorus of caveats from the commentators as the poll suggested that the Labour party would only win 239 seats and the Liberal Democrats lose more than 40 of their 57 seats.
This was not the story that the opinion polls had been telling throughout the month-long campaign; even the day before they were saying it was neck and neck between David Cameron’s Conservatives (Tories) and Ed Miliband’s opposition Labour party, and that this would produce a hung parliament with both parties facing the prospect of trying to form a coalition or fighting on as a minority government.
The only thing the exit poll seemed to agree with was the massive surge in support for the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the potential decimation of the Tories’ coalition partners the Liberal Democrats, but even the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon brushed off exit poll claims that they would win 56 seats, even though the traditional polls had begun to trend towards an SNP landslide north of the border.
The pundits were shocked, even the pollsters who carried out the exit polls admitted they were surprised, but as the results began to come in, it became apparent that the exit poll was only partially right – it still understated the Conservative performance and overstated Labour’s position.
By mid-afternoon on Friday, 17 hours after the polling stations closed, not only were the Conservatives the largest party, but they had won an overall majority of 12 seats and so could form a Government on their own.
Ed Miliband’s Labour did far worse than the opinion polls suggested, and ended on 232 seats; the party’s worst performance since 1983 when they were destroyed by a Margaret Thatcher landslide in the aftermath of the Falklands War.
In Scotland the SNP won 56 of the 59 seats, removing 40 Labour and 10 Liberal Democrat incumbents, the three Westminster parties were left with one seat each.
The Liberal Democrats were indeed decimated, losing 49 of their 57 seats.
The seismic changes produced many big name casualties: The Conservative employment minister Esther McVey, Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander and Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander were all suddenly unemployed, but the biggest shock came on Friday morning when Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, Ed Miliband’s right-hand man, lost his seat as well, and a short time later UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage failed to win his seat.
While David Cameron traveled to Buckingham Palace for an audience with the Queen, the traditional invitation to form a new Government, the leaders of the opposition parties were left to consider their positions.
By lunchtime, Nigel Farage, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband had all resigned – three leadership elections had been triggered in a devastating 90 minutes of high political drama.
So why did the commentators, myself included, spend so much time trying to get our heads around the near certainty of a hung parliament when in fact, we should have been focusing on the prospect of a Conservative outright victory?
The polls fumble
The inquest over the opinion polling has, not for the first time, begun – there are suggestions that the opinion polls, which clearly showed the two main parties neck-and-neck, failed to pick up on the fact that most undecided voters were more than likely to play safe and vote Conservative.
There is talk of a quiet majority of Tory voters who were shy about revealing their voting intentions ahead of time, and opted to be recorded as undecided until they came out of the polling booth, and responded to the exit poll.
Indeed it would not be the first time that the polls have underestimated support for the Conservatives; previous surprises in 1992 and 2010 are ample evidence that this may be a very real deficiency in the polling methodology.
So instead of weeks of negotiations over who might form the next government in the aftermath of another hung parliament, David Cameron is safely back in Downing Street putting his new cabinet in place and starting to work out how he gets his party’s policies through with a slim majority.
It will take longer to find out what happens with the opposition leaders; Labour deputy leader Harriet Harmon is now in charge until a new leader is elected, and for all the opposition parties it could take weeks for the new names to be selected.
Meanwhile the Scottish National Party are working out their tactics having been denied the chance of holding the balance of power in a hung parliament; they had hoped to be able to influence and support a minority Labour administration, but now have to sit and watch David Cameron rule the roost.
Now the country waits to see which policies will go into the first Queen’s Speech; Cameron has already said he will make good on his promise of an in/out referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, even though the question will depend on his attempts to renegotiate the UK’s current terms with European leaders led by Germany’s Angela Merkel.
While many election observers thought the aftermath might be a fairly interesting few weeks of negotiations and power play after a turgid and moribund campaign, the reality was that the end of the voting produced an explosion of excitement as the post-election shifts were condensed into a few seismic hours which produced a result that almost nobody expected.
By Russell Merryman in London, UK for the BRICS Post.
Russell Merryman is the acting course director for MA International Journalism (online) at the London College of Communication, former editor-in-chief of web and new media at Al Jazeera English, prior to which he was a broadcast/multimedia journalist, presenter and editor at the BBC. He is also a contributing editor for The BRICS Post. You can follow him on Twitter @merryarty.