London: Boris Johnson was momentarily stunned. The official UK election exit poll wasn’t just predicting he would hold on to power, it put his Conservative Party on course for its biggest win for more than 30 years.
As the British prime minister watched the results on television in his Downing Street study at 10pm, an elated Johnson leaped from his seat and hugged his partner, Carrie Symonds.
The exit poll was accurate. As the votes were confirmed in the hours that followed, Johnson’s gamble on a snap election paid off in full. He now stands to complete the Brexit divorce that he began three years ago as leader of the referendum campaign to leave the European Union.
After that, Johnson, 55, has pledged to heal the deep divisions that Brexit has carved into British society by moving the toxic public debate onto other priorities, such as improving schools and hospitals, cutting taxes and boosting business. Nationalists in Scotland and Northern Ireland still pose a challenge, but his biggest rival has been crushed.
For the 70-year-old Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, election night brought disaster. His four-year project trying to sell a radical socialist agenda to Britain was resoundingly rejected. A wall of working class districts deserted the party that had dominated them for decades, recoiling at Corbyn’s leadership and his proposal for another Brexit referendum.
In Labour’s London headquarters, there was total silence when the exit poll was announced, broken only by a single wail from one young staffer. Officials had laid on pizza and a few drinks. Few had the desire to drink it. The atmosphere was “harrowing,” according to a person who was there.
Johnson triggered the election after trying and failing to rush his new Brexit deal through a deadlocked parliament. His core message to voters was that if they gave him a working majority he would “get Brexit done” so the country can move on.
Yet while Johnson’s aides always believed they had a good chance of success, they were haunted by the failure of his predecessor, Theresa May, when she called a snap vote two years ago. A dismal and robotic campaign and a resurgent Labour party under Corbyn cost May the majority she started with, plunging Britain into political chaos and ultimately dooming her premiership.
This time, Johnson took no chances. He began eyeing up an election even before he became Tory leader in July. When the contest began in earnest, he hired the 35 year-old Australian election strategist Isaac Levido to be his campaign director. Slim, softly spoken, and bearded, Levido was the famously calm presence at the heart of the Tory election headquarters at No 4 Matthew Parker Street, in Westminster.
Levido was a demanding boss, starting every day with a 5:40am meeting and ending it still in the office, late at night. But he rallied his troops by playing music in the office — including 1980s hit “The Final Countdown,” and in the last day of campaigning, “One Day More” from the musical Les Miserables.
He also handed out daily awards to party activists for their efforts on the election campaign. Usually, this involved giving particular Tory staffers a small trophy star.
But for the most impressive work, the Aussie handed out a soft toy kiwi bird — a tribute to his New Zealander colleagues who joined the campaign. These included a young duo, Ben Guerin and Sean Topham, who ran the party’s often controversial social media war.
Levido is a protege of Lynton Crosby, the veteran political strategist who helped deliver a majority for David Cameron in 2015 and Scott Morrison in Australia earlier this year. Like his former boss, he espoused a safety-first campaign, focused on precise use of electoral data, and insisted on strict message discipline. Johnson did as he was told, rarely veering from his slogan to “get Brexit done,” and dodging the most difficult television interviews that risked tripping him up.
It was a message Corbyn’s Labour Party struggled to counter. Poll after poll during the six-week contest put Johnson’s Tories ahead, while Labour failed to set out a clear position on whether they supported leaving the EU.
Instead, Corbyn tried to convince voters Johnson could not be trusted with the future of the much-loved National Health Service, warning he would put it up for sale in a trade deal with Donald Trump.
Johnson was ready for that attack, though the wheels almost came off his campaign when he showed a flash of temper instead of compassion after he was confronted by a photograph of a four year-old boy being treated on an overcrowded hospital’s floor.
On Thursday, the weather for Britain’s first December election in almost 100 years was appalling. Rain and wind swept much of the country, leaving some Tories deeply nervous about the impact on voter turnout.
After six long weeks of campaigning, the clock ticked down to the exit poll, a usually accurate survey based on how tens of thousands of voters have cast their ballots during the day. Labour MPs were now nervous.
World Cup win
Inside Conservative headquarters, 100 staffers got ready for a long night. A buffet of bagels, sausage rolls and Spanish tortilla had been prepared. When the numbers flashed up on the screens, projecting the biggest Tory majority since Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1987, the room erupted.
Levido turned to embrace his girlfriend as staffers cheered and roared with delight, hugging each other as if they were celebrating at a soccer match. “It was like we’d won the World Cup,” one Tory official said. In Conservative HQ, the party continued partying.
As the results came in, Corbyn’s team knew he would have to go. At 3.24am a weary Labour leader announced he would resign.
In Downing Street, Johnson and Symonds celebrated with close aides including his senior adviser Dominic Cummings, and Lee Cain, the Conservative communications director.
Soon after, Johnson made the short trip to Tory HQ, where he gave a speech thanking his team as they bellowed “Boris Boris! Boris!”
“We must understand now what an earthquake we have created,” Johnson told his staffers. The country had chosen to complete Brexit, and the political map of Britain had been redrawn, he said. “You should be incredibly proud of what you have achieved. I hope you will allow yourselves some brief celebration because the work is going to begin.”