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Forget the ‘Ajockalypse’, this was ArmaCleggon

For Prospect Magazine:

Hell yeah, we were pumped up. And so we came at last to Sheffield Hallam, the constituency of Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister, a national media seeking answers. How many red lines were needed to draw a U-turn? On which party would he bestow the still-glittering orangey-gold crown? The Tories might do better than expected. Or Labour might lock them out. But the one thing we knew for certain was that the Liberal Democrats were going to be the “surprise story” of the 2015 election and nobody would be able to govern without them. Sure, the polls were deadlocked with the party stubbornly entrenched below ten per cent, but when we took account of “incumbency” and “grass roots” and being “dug in deep”, we were looking at between 25 and 35 Liberal Democrat seats. Which job would Clegg ask for? Which job would he get? Could the Tories win enough seats? And, if they did, how was he going to take his two dozen colleagues with him? If Labour, how would the master negotiator renegotiate?

But we were asking the wrong questions. In the wrong universe. What we were about to experience was not the re-appointment of a kingmaker; it was nothing short of ArmaCleggon.

The first we knew of our misunderstanding was (like the rest of the nation) the exit poll at 10pm. In the vast hall of the English Institute of Sport—(here Team GB athletes trained for the 2012 Olympics)—you could hear the sly Smeagol-like sound of British media sucking its collective teeth. But it couldn’t be true, we thought. Not possible—a prediction of 10 seats for the Liberal Democrats! Surely three times that number? That’s what they’d been determinedly telling us on the big yellow bus. And we’d more or less believed them. Meanwhile, in the middle of the indoor running track, hundreds of people sat at old-fashioned desks without computers diligently counting bits of paper as if this was all in a night’s work and nothing had happened in the world since 1985. Security denied us the kind of close up scrutiny that we shortsighted Smeagols like whenever there’s rumours of newsworthy treasure. But, through our precious iPhone zooms, the two big piles looked … well, evenly stacked between Labour and the Lib Dem.

The first hard news came at 10:15pm. One of the returning officers told us that turnout was huge—a staggering 75 per cent up more than 10 per cent on 2010. The right question (in the hall at least) was who were all these extra voters? And the answer to that was that they had to be for the young Labour candidate, Oliver Coppard—born and bred, schooled and steeped in all things Hallam—since Tories and Lib Dem voters tended to register consistent levels of engagement whereas extra “dormant” Labour voters could be “got out” by a great campaign. (So the thinking went.) And Coppard had definitely run a great campaign. Hallam is one of the wealthiest constituencies in the north; but there are also lots of students and— man—did they hate Tuition-Fee Traitor Clegg. (Coppard had been helped by students bussed in from Hull, York and Lancaster, as well as those from the local Sheffield Hallam University.) So now the only important question was: would Clegg hold the seat? No, really; if the exit polls were right and all the other polls wrong, this was no longer a faux-Portillo assignment. This was the real thing. It was going to be far closer than anyone had thought.

Around midnight, I grabbed one of the very few still-semi-buoyant Lib Dems. “No, no, no ,” said Jonathan Harston, an ex-councillor, “it might be a difficult night but think about it this way: even if Labour doubled the number of seats and took every single one from Nick, he’d still have a majority of 5000.” This seemed to be common sense. So I put it straight to Joe Jenkins, the 21-year-old UKIP candidate (young, amenable) who had run his entire campaign on the basis of “talking common sense.”

“Well, I’m hoping for around 2500 votes myself,” he said. “But I have to say the doorstep was very anti-Clegg. I’m not saying they were pro-Labour, but you know …” He let out the slow breath of a man who had heard more than his fair share of ill tidings for fellow candidates. “You know what, I have to say, I think he might lose.”

Time for another lap of the track (good for maintaining focus and wakefulness) but this time with the Labour team. Geoff Smith, Labour Councillor, put it this way: “This was a huge campaign we ran here. There are well over a thousand people voting who we have never heard from before. You have to remember Clegg got in by Labour people voting tactically to block the Tories and put him there; now his only chance is if enough Tories have voted tactically to block Labour and keep him there. It’s a mad way to hold on to your seat. Lunacy really.”

Over to the fringe parties, then. Tom Brown, a student for the Above and Beyond Party campaigning to get “none of the above” placed on the ballot box was shaking his head. “This is a nightmare for everyone except the Scottish Nationalists,” he said. Suddenly brightening, as he remembered the party line, he added: “That’s why we need None of The Above.” Another joined the huddle. Someone from the Pirate Party. Where were the Monster Raving Lunatics? Here? No. This was someone called Jim Stop The Fiasco Wild. Hang on. Really? Yes, really. Jim Stop The Fiasco Wild. He was standing as in independent. Well, what did he have to say? He wasn’t sure. But was is it true that sturgeon feed by extending their syphon-like mouths to suck food from the bottom such as crustacean and fry? Yes, it was.

Anyway, the fiasco could not now be stopped. Rather, it was only just getting going. Ed Davey lost his seat on the big screen. A 15 per cent swing. Ashen faces. Jo Swinson. Horror. Danny Alexander. Scotland. By now the entire arena was engulfed in twin Mexican waves of OMG and WTF sweeping around the hall in opposite directions.

Enter the Deputy Prime Minister’s official spokesman, right foot going like a jazz drummer on amphetamines with a woodpecker trapped in his shoe. “I’m not going to pretend that it’s been a good night.” (The assembled almost wanted him to do just that though—one more time; the ultimate spin-test; come on, mate, if you can do this, you can do anything.) “The Conservatives fought a very divisive campaign. They mobilised the fear factor. They based the entire campaign on division.” Gone all talk of the exit poll being wildly inaccurate. No, now the exit poll was looking … optimistic. No doubt about it: Paddy Ashdown was going to be on the brutal Millinerial Diet for years to come. And still the fiasco couldn’t be stopped: Vince Cable lost his seat. Charlie Kennedy. David Laws. Forget the “Ajockalypse”; yes, this was ArmaCleggon.

But where was Clegg? It had long gone 4am. Where was he? Was he even going to turn up? The coffee ran out. Rumours started in the spectator stands and whispered up the walls. He’d come in and gone sideways. Straight into the loos some people claimed. He was desperate, they said.

Out on the track, my laps around the still-counting tellers were getting slower and becoming more surreal. Liberals were telling me that it was really bad but really bad for Labour, too. Labour people were telling me it was really bad but really really bad for the Liberals, too. As if by emphasising how bad it was for the others, the personal badness might not feel quite so bad. Look, we’ve fallen in a massive black hole, said one, but there are black holes all over the political universe now and everyone is falling into them. You just can’t avoid them. It’s a black hole of an election. I checked the time: three thirty in the morning.

Paul Blomfield, the winning Labour candidate for nearby Sheffield Central could only say: ‘”It’s volatile, very volatile, the whole of British politics.” I asked about the Labour leadership and Ed Miliband. Mind Blank.

Out came another Labour councillor with more hard trackside news. ‘We’ve just won a box in Ecclesall—320 to 280,” he said beaming.

“Is this good?”

“Great—Ecclesall should be pure Clegg. Affluent and—basically—Tory.”

“Right.”

“Exactly. And we were close on the postal votes 40 per cent Lib Dem to 32 per cent us which is basically rich old people. So we shouldn’t be anywhere near.”

“So it’s close, then?”

But—wait here was Clegg himself. Right next to Jim Stop The Fiasco Wild. How had he managed to get in without us seeing? The result was coming any minute. 76.85 per cent turn out. Here was Miriam, too. (Did ever a woman’s expression manage to convey such density of emotion while remaining steadfast and impassive?)

The results were read out. He’d held on! (Almost alone of his party.) His majority cut from just over 15,000 to just over 2,000. The activists cheered but it was the cheer of passengers holding hands as they jumped overboard from a ship that was already three quarters sunk. Clegg himself looked chastened and emotional and utterly, utterly disheartened; as though every single thing he had done and said and achieved and lived by in the last five years had not only been instantly deleted, but peremptorily erased from the national hard drive forever.

Nine o’clock in the morning and I sat down to go through my phone book looking for a Liberal Democrat MP whose number I could call who was still actually a Liberal Democrat MP. There was one. Amazing.

He was sanguine and saddened—deeply, deeply saddened. This is some kind of an end. Terrible. The contest for the leadership will be between Tim Farron and Norman Lamb, he told me. Not that anyone has any enthusiasm for anything. I’m not going to run. I put it to him he might win—he already has enough nominations with just himself. He does the telephone equivalent of a shrug. What about coalition, I ask. (At this point, Cameron was not yet over the line.) “No, there will definitely not— definitely not—be any kind of coalition.” I get the feeling he means ever again. I zipped up my laptop and stowed it in my Gladstone man bag.