When a snap election was called, a divided Labour sprang into action to defy predictions of a wipeout and upturn the political consensus. The key players tell Heather Stewart how it all happened
At 10pm on Thursday 8 June, shadow chancellor John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn’s oldest and best political friend, was sitting with Conservative defence secretary Michael Fallon in the glare of the BBC studio lights, preparing for a long night ahead. The general election exit poll was meant to confirm that Theresa May’s gamble had paid off, and she had strengthened her majority. Instead, it suggested Labour was in touching distance of ousting her from Downing Street.
“I was on air when the exit poll was announced,” McDonnell recalled. “I get on all right with Michael, but he’s a tough character, he’s robust. When it came on, I did the usual bit, ‘This is just a poll.’ That’s the standard line for politicians to spout at the early stage of a marathon election night”. But as he glanced at the defence secretary, “the blood drained from his face,” McDonnell said. “When the cameras were off, he was gripping my arm, saying, ‘This can’t be right John, this can’t be right.’ And I was having to calm him down and say, ‘It’s only a poll Michael, don’t worry.’”