Voices: Election night: Everything to watch out for once the polls close

In 2010, the 10pm exit poll predicted exactly the leading party’s seat tally  (Reuters)
In 2010, the 10pm exit poll predicted exactly the leading party’s seat tally (Reuters)

Election night starts the moment voting ends, with the exit poll at 10pm. At the last general election, in December 2019, the exit poll overestimated the Conservatives’ win by three seats. It underestimated them by four seats in 2017, and by 15 seats in 2015. In 2005 and in 2010, the exit poll got the number of the leading party’s seats exactly right, first Labour and then the Conservatives.

The size of Labour’s predicted majority will be compared instantly with the historical benchmarks: Tony Blair, 179 (1997); Stanley Baldwin, 209 (1924); David Lloyd George, 239 (1918); Stanley Baldwin, 243 (1935); Ramsay MacDonald, 493 (1931).

Then, there is a wait of about an hour and a half for the first declaration. At this point, the sensible thing to do would be to take a power nap – but everyone will discuss the exit poll on social media instead.

The first seat to declare will this time be a race between the new Northumberland constituency of Blyth and Ashington, and Houghton and Sunderland South in Tyne and Wear. Blyth is aiming to declare around 11.30pm. It produced a significant early Conservative win in 2019, but the constituency has since been redrawn, and the new seat would have been Labour last time, so it won’t count as a Labour gain if Ian Lavery, previously the MP for Wansbeck, wins it.

Sunderland South had a long run as the first seat to declare, from 1992 to 2015, but was beaten by Newcastle upon Tyne Central in 2017 and 2019. It will hope to have declared within minutes of Blyth; for its part, Newcastle upon Tyne Central now has “and West” added to it, and isn’t expected to declare until 1.15am.

The main thing to look out for in the first two results is the swing from Conservative to Labour. The opinion polls currently suggest a 16 per cent swing since the last election, the equivalent of Labour up 16 points and the Tories down 16. The exit poll will provide a first estimate, but these will be the first “real votes in real ballot boxes” to test it against.

The first drama of the night could come at 12.15am, with the result expected from Basildon and Billericay. That is where Richard Holden, the Conservative Party chair, is standing, having been imposed as the candidate by Tory HQ, which he runs, but in a decision from which he says he “recused” himself. Some local Tories were not happy, and several MRP polls suggest Labour will win, with one, YouGov, giving it to Reform UK.

Whichever way it goes, the result is likely to restore Basildon’s reputation as the early marginal result that sets the tone for the night, after it was held for the Tories by David Amess in 1992, putting paid to Labour’s hopes in that election.

If Holden is not the first Tory scalp, Sir Robert Buckland almost certainly will be: his Swindon South seat will declare around the same time – Labour’s Heidi Alexander, a former MP, needs only a 6 per cent swing to oust him.

Soon afterwards, at about 12.30am, the result should come in from another Home Counties seat with a big Conservative majority, Broxbourne. If they lose that, as some MRP models suggest, it will be confirmation that they are in big trouble.

The first result from Scotland is likely to be Rutherglen, at about 1am. Labour is expected to hold the new seat, having won its predecessor from the Scottish National Party in a by-election, but this will give us some idea of the state of play across Scotland.

There will be a smattering of results, but no big names until around 2am. Kemi Badenoch, the business secretary, who is tipped as a potential future leader, is likely to win around this time in North West Essex, an area that has been Conservative-held since 1929. Then the results will start coming in thick and fast, hitting peak volume between 3am and 4am.

Keir Starmer’s result in Holborn and St Pancras is expected at around 2.30am. He will presumably win – and make a cautious speech, thanking the police and council workers and saying that the early results are looking encouraging but that he is taking nothing for granted.

George Galloway’s result in Rochdale is expected at about the same time. He won the seat for the Workers Party of Britain in a by-election in February after Labour disowned its candidate; but Paul Waugh, a former colleague of ours at The Independent, is expected to regain it for Labour.

At around 3am, we will learn the fate of Jeremy Corbyn’s bid to hold onto Islington North as an independent against the party he recently led. His supporters paid for an opinion poll in the constituency that suggested he was a long way behind Praful Nargund, the Labour candidate.

Around the same time, we will find out whether Faiza Shaheen, a third Labour dissident, has succeeded in splitting the vote against Iain Duncan Smith, allowing him to hold on to Chingford and Woodford Green. She was dumped as the Labour candidate in favour of Shama Tatler, a Starmer loyalist, who remains likely to win.

If Holden hasn’t fallen already, cabinet ninepins are now likely to start toppling. Alex Chalk, justice secretary, and Mark Harper, transport secretary, are likely to lose to the Lib Dems in Cheltenham, and to Labour in Forest of Dean.

The big Green vs Labour battle is at about 3.15am when Bristol Central declares: Carla Denyer, Green co-leader who performed well in TV debates, is up against Thangam Debbonaire, who hopes to be in the cabinet as culture secretary if she wins.

Around 3.30am, there may be several “Portillo moments” – when big-beast cabinet members have their majorities overturned, as in 1997 when former Tory leadership contender Michael Portillo lost Enfield Southgate to Labour’s unknown candidate Stephen Twigg. Around this time, there will be a flurry of results and we could see several high-profile ministers lose their seats in quick succession.

Among those most at risk are the chancellor Jeremy Hunt, in Godalming and Ash, which is tipped to fall to the Liberal Democrats; Penny Mordaunt in Portsmouth North, who is defending a majority of 15,780; and possibly Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, who could lose her Chichester seat to the Lib Dems or even Labour. Barring recounts, the likes of defence secretary Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield), transport secretary Mark Harper (Forest of Dean), and former education secretary Gavin Williamson (Stone, Great Wyrley and Penkridge) are expected to learn their fate before 4am.

Clacton is expected to declare at about 4am, and everyone thinks Reform UK leader Nigel Farage will win. A poll paid for by his supporter Arron Banks said he would. It would be funny if he didn’t, though.

Richard Tice, who was pushed aside as leader of Reform UK by Farage, will hear his result in Boston and Skegness at about the same time. If Reform is going to win more than a single MP, Tice is well-placed to be one of them.

Braintree, the seat of James Cleverly, the home secretary, will also declare around this time: if it is a very bad night for the Tories, he could be in danger, with Reform taking enough of his vote to hand victory to Labour.

Rishi Sunak’s declaration in Richmond and Northallerton is also due around 4am. This would be the biggest Portillo moment of them all if he loses, the first time a sitting prime minister is deposed in their own seat – something that happened to Kim Campbell, the Canadian Conservative prime minister, in her 1993 wipeout. Only one MRP poll, from Savanta, predicts that he will lose.

The timing may be awkward for the prime minister, because some calculations suggest that it may be around the time of his declaration that Labour will have notched up enough seats to hit the 326 mark, the number needed for a House of Commons majority. So it may be that soon after his speech at his count that Sunak concedes that Labour has won the election.

Now would be a good time to take a power nap, but some will want to stay awake for North East Somerset and Hanham, a version of which for 14 years has been Jacob Rees-Mogg’s seat, declaring at around 4.30am. True die-hards will hang on for South-West Norfolk, Liz Truss’s constituency, expected to declare at 5.30am – with an outside chance that she might lose it. If she wins, tune in for her re-election speech, as it will doubtless become an internet meme and you could say you were still up for it when it happened…

Unless there are complications, the counting should be over by about 6.30am – Wes Streeting‘s east London constituency Ilford North will be one of the last to declare.

Then, it will be time for the comings and goings on Downing Street. If the general election result is as expected, Sunak will leave No 10, and Starmer will arrive by lunchtime. A new cabinet will be appointed within a few hours in the early afternoon.