“I don’t think we should rush into these things,” ventured Jon Lansman. The leadership of the Labour party, for which the Momentum movement he founded has provided the cheerleaders, had just been faced with the exit poll’s projection of catastrophic failure. But, he insisted, the lowest level of representation in the Commons for the party since 1935 should not be cause for any precipitate rethink.
Unfortunately for Mr Lansman, even as he was speaking the bookies were laying odds on who would succeed Jeremy Corbyn. Jess Phillips, the popular firebrand from Birmingham, featured, along with Angela Rayner, shadow education spokesperson. Leading the pack was the moderate Keir Starmer, the Brexit spokesman who has spent the campaign locked away from public view. Laura Pidcock, said to be Mr Corbyn’s choice, lost her seat.
And it turned out that Mr Lansman was prepared, as were other members of Mr Corbyn’s circle, to rush just a little if it would help to shield their figurehead from blame for such an abysmal result. Labour failing clearly to back Brexit rather than the toxicity of the leader was responsible, he said. There should be no thought of conducting a leadership election until the spring, he suggested.
Unfortunately again, pollster Lord Ashcroft had already checked in with the voters. Among Labour supporters from 2017 who had voted Leave in 2016, the number one fear was Mr Corbyn becoming prime minister. Number two was that the party “would spend too much and get Britain into more debt”, while a second referendum on Brexit ranked only third.
At the count in his Islington constituency, Mr Corbyn defended his election platform as “a manifesto that gave hope”, insisting he would stay on while the party went through “a period of reflection”. It was left to Alan Johnson, a veteran of the Blair-Brown cabinet, to ridicule the idea that a leader could lose two general elections and not resign: “Victory is a bourgeois concept,” he joked.
After all, as Labour historian Professor Steven Fielding pointed out: “After Labour’s terrible defeat in 1983, Tony Benn called it a socialist bridgehead.” No claim of moral victory could be possible after a night on which Dennis Skinner was turfed out of Bolsover by the Conservatives after 49 years by a margin of 5,000 votes.
There was no levity and no excuse from Ms Phillips, who described herself as “devastated”, or Mr Starmer, who vowed to rebuild the party.
Labour observers, though, questioned how easy it would be to loosen the hard left’s grip — particularly since so many of the unseated Labour MPs were from the moderate wing and any new leader will be chosen by members who have enthusiastically backed the party’s leftward march.
As Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat leader, dramatically conceded defeat to the Scottish Nationalists in her East Dunbartonshire constituency, the recriminations began between Labour and the Lib Dems about the seats in which they had fought each other. Jeers of “shame” in Kensington where a split vote had facilitated a slim Tory win provided an acrimonious contrast with collaboration in elections starting in 1997, when complementary seat targeting ended 18 years of Conservative rule.
The next Lib Dem leader will once again have to be chosen from a small group of MPs, without any of the well-known defectors such as Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger who had boosted their numbers earlier this year. The rallying cry of “stop Brexit” has been silenced by an electorate impatient with divisive rhetoric and scared into the arms of Boris Johnson by an extreme opposition leader.
So there will be no more charming videos of independent former Tory David Gauke mildly rebelling in Hertfordshire; no more opportunities for Labour supporters to attempt moral blackmail on voters who didn’t want to ignore the anti-Semitism scandal. It’s possible, though, that there will be a few more misleading claims about “Getting Brexit Done”. Which turned out to be a pretty good slogan — helped along by an even better one. Because “F*** off and join the Tories”, a favourite response of the Corbyn faithful to all criticism, proved very effective indeed.