This evening, at 10pm, the BBC will publish the findings of its exit poll and we will have some idea of who this winter election has favoured. Based on analysis of interviews with people who have voted, the exit poll has proven very reliable at predicting the actual result in recent years. It was right that Cameron had won a majority, against expectations, in 2015. It was right that Theresa May had lost hers, against expectations, two years later. So whilst you can’t rely on its findings 100%, what that poll tells us before any of the actual seat results come in will probably be a fairly good picture of what our new Parliament will look like.
For Boris Johnson, what it means to have ‘won’ is ruthlessly clear. He needs to have an overall majority. Unless he has that, his Brexit Policy is in the bin, his chances of remaining PM are incredibly slim, and his hopes of continuing as Tory Leader are less than certain. The precise arithmetic depends on individual results (because Sinn Fein MPs do not take their seats) but if the exit poll says Boris has won less than 330 seats then it is, as they say, squeaky bum time for him and his party.
For Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, matters are a little more complicated. He doesn’t actually have to win in order to be said to somehow have won. No one expects the Labour Party to win an overall majority – that is almost impossible, short of a Lazarus like resurrection in Scotland, but if Corbyn can prevent a Tory majority (or, better still, get Labour to single largest party status) then he will be seen by some to have triumphed. In these scenarios it is possible that Corbyn becomes PM – with help from the SNP or from the Lib Dems etc. That also – probably – means we will be returning to the ballot box soon. Votes on Europe and on Scotland could follow. Another General Election would be likely sooner rather than later.
And, of course, because these things turn on such small numbers in a clutch of seats, the margin of error on the Brexit poll could make a massive difference. If it predicts a range of Tory outcomes – from 315 -335 seats, say – it is predicting a range of national outcomes, from a Tory majority and Brexit to a Labour minority Government and a referendum. That is why we have been providing readers with spotlights on particular seats and with the Lodestone Barometer tool. So that as actual results come in you are equipped to judge their significance and the story that they are beginning to tell. It would be foolish to go to bed at 10pm, satisfied that the exit poll has concluded the excitement. But if you are up to see the Tories take Workington or Labour holding on in Crewe then you will have an idea of where things are headed.
Whatever happens tonight, we will have a new Government next week. Boris plans a significant overhaul of his top team. Corbyn would be a very new broom indeed in Downing Street. New ministers, new policies, new risks and new opportunities – we’ll be in touch soon to explain and to offer our help. The exit poll may feel like the end of this long slog – and in a small way it will be. But in truth, of course, it is only the beginning. Sorry about that.