Bellringers and running the bar dry: inside Labour’s night of elation

Keir Starmer saw the moment it became clear he would become prime minister in the same manner as much of the rest of the country – watching the BBC exit poll on the sofa at a friend’s home with his wife and children.

His close group of friends and advisers – many of whom have been at Starmer’s side since the early days of his leadership – roared at the prediction of a landslide. But Starmer was calm, embracing them all one by one. “It felt like a dream, an out-of-body experience,” said one.

Ever cautious, Starmer did allow himself a celebratory drink – beer and fizz were on offer – but there was an acute awareness of the three speeches he would now have to give over the coming sleepless hours.

After watching the first results, the group went their separate ways, splintering off for vote counts or to Labour HQ and the watch party at Tate Modern with campaigners and invited guests.

Inside Labour HQ, a throng of staff were joined by those who had travelled back to London from counts throughout the night. As the number of Tory losers mounted, the rowdiness in the room increased.

One party aide acquired a hotel reception bell, ringing it loudly every time another Tory MP fell. The sound became relentless during the early hours as Labour took seats from Penny Mordaunt, Johnny Mercer, Thérèse Coffey and Grant Shapps. When Liz Truss lost her seat at about 7am, the roar from party staff could be heard through the open windows by commuters passing by in the street.

The campaign director, Morgan McSweeney, arrived in the early hours. There was no desk-banging or celebrations on tables, just a discreet thank you with staff.

Starmer headed to a private celebration with hundreds of supporters at Tate Modern at about 3am after his own count in Holborn and St Pancras. During the ride across town he received a phone call from Rishi Sunak, conceding defeat and wishing him well as Britain’s next prime minister.

When Starmer arrived, Sunak had given his speech at his count. The Labour leader greeted delighted staff but did not give a speech, instead speaking individually to guests and campaigners and posing for selfies. “It was like a carnival. There were screens everywhere with these numbers just mounting up,” one said. “Penny was the biggest for me; when we knew we’d done that, it was just massive.”

Starmer’s aides insisted he try for a short sleep before his journey to Buckingham Palace to meet the king to accept his invitation to form a government.

“I don’t know if he did, or if he could,” one admitted. The time allocated for most of the senior staff to rest was between 6am and 7am, meaning very few were awake for Truss’s defeat, or they were lying, buzzing with adrenaline, alone in rented rooms.

For the soon-to-be cabinet ministers there was a mixture of elation and a strange terror. “It’s just incredible. Beyond our wildest dreams. We knew we were doing well but we didn’t think that well,” one new secretary of state said.

Keir and Victoria Starmer arrive in Downing Street.
Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

If there had been a sour note when the exit poll dropped and predicted a landslide victory, it was the forecast of 13 seats for Reform UK, which Labour strategists said they knew immediately would be wrong. One organiser from the East Midlands texted in outrage: “These seats are wrong. They are going to be very embarrassed.”

There was widespread irritation at how the narrative of a Reform surge took hold in the early hours of the morning across the broadcasters. “I couldn’t believe what I was watching,” said one senior Starmer official.

Starmer’s team were adamant that their own data did not correspond with that prediction. “We thought perhaps eight. In reality, they underperformed even that,” said a senior source.

Despite Reform’s underperformance in terms of seats, the rise of the populist vote was at the forefront of the minds of Starmer’s political staff, who intend to make it a priority in the coming months.

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By 5am the bar at Tate Modern had run out of booze. Starmer gave his victory speech to the cameras under glowing red lights. Sleep-deprived and delirious staffers embraced each other. “It’s a weird feeling. I could either cry or sleep for a week. I’ve worked myself to the absolute bone. I can’t believe we did it,” one said.

But there was a lot to swallow in the results that was bitter for the party. The loss of Jonathan Ashworth to an independent candidate was a huge shock that affected MPs and aides more than they admitted publicly.

Ashworth, a familiar face criticising the Tories in the media, was also the hype man internally, going through the manifesto in order to try to spot points that the Tories might attack. Those who worked for the party during the pandemic when Ashworth was shadow health secretary said they were feeling the loss particularly keenly.

“He kept grafting for the party when we knew his seat was in trouble,” one senior Starmer aide said. “People are Labour MPs today because of Jon Ashworth. It is devastating that he’s gone.”

They insisted Ashworth had a future as a key part of Labour in government whether he wanted to return to fight a seat again or not. “Whenever he’s ready, there will be a role for him,” one said. “He deserves to do what he wants.”

One aide said they were overcome in the early hours by a huge sadness. “I’m nervous for us all. We’ve got to stay unified,” they said.

With Starmer at the palace, the party had invited longtime campaigners, organisers and family members to line Downing Street with union jacks as well as the flags of Scotland and Wales.

Among them were Starmer’s leadership team, senior advisers and shadow cabinet ministers. Many of the young men in suits and trainers gripped each other by the shoulders and at least one wiped his eyes on his sleeve as Starmer spoke.

Some were already clutching their Downing Street lanyards, leaning out to embrace Starmer as he walked up the street. “God, what a slog,” one of them said to another.

The Guardian

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