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Your viewing guide to election night

What time is the exit poll? When will the key seats declare? How long will you have to stay up to see Sunak concede?

The front door of 10 Downing Street in Westminster - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

The key thing about election night is that nothing that happens after 10pm on Thursday can affect the result – at that stage, the die is cast, the votes are in, and all that’s left is to find out what’s happened.

As a result, there is no need for any sensible person to stay up and watch the results all night. Anyone who so wishes can go to bed – perhaps even before the exit poll drops at 10pm – in the knowledge that they will wake up knowing the election result, while being far better rested than anyone who tried to push through the evening.

That should be enough to weed out the normies. While it’s all true, any political junkie knows that the real joy of election night is being able to say you were there when the magic happened.

What follows is a rough, hour-by-hour, viewing guide as to what you can expect at different stages of the evening – building off the excellent work the Press Association does compiling estimated declaration times each election, complemented by consultation with various other sources. A few general caveats:

These times are guidelines, not set in stone: If a count is particularly close, one or more parties might ask for a recount, which can delay the results. Stormy seas can mean that boats carrying ballots can be delayed (this has happened, though largely only affects a few Scottish seats). Tellers can be ill. This is a rough guide as to how things should go, not a promise as to how it will unfold.

Results are very slow and then all at once: There are just 25 results expected by 2am, and only 87 by 3am – that’s only just over one in ten Commons seats. That means if you are planning on a strategic sleep, going to bed after the exit poll and waking up at 2.30-3am is the way to go; by 5am you’ll have 530 results. They will come in fast at that point.

Be careful with your drinking games: If you’re trying to stay up until we know the size of the majority, this is a marathon not a sprint. A few drinks on an election night is a delight, but anyone doing a shot any time the Conservatives lose the seats would be looking at downing between four to ten bottles of spirits – and would be unlikely to survive the night. 

Even just doing a finger-width of lager every time a Conservative seat was lost could mean drinking as many as 25 pints. If someone is suggesting a drinking game based on Tory seat losses, assume they’re trying to kill you.

Without further ado, here’s what to watch out for at each stage of the night – interesting seats, what the results mean at different times, and potential high-profile departures are all flagged:

10 to 11pm

The big (and only) news during this hour is the exit poll. Despite being called a “poll”, this works nothing like any other poll in existence. It is also immensely expensive and difficult to do, and can only be done on election day.

It works by targeting voters at around 100 different locations around the country, carefully chosen by psephologists (aka polling academics, aka nerds) to reflect the demographics of the country. Crucially, the same locations are used election after election, so that the results can be compared to previous general elections.

Voters are stopped as they leave the selected polling stations and are essentially asked to repeat what they just did – they are given a dummy ballot paper, and asked to drop it anonymously into a box. They never have to tell the person they meet how they voted. This is done to make the process as identical as possible to the actual process of voting.

These results are pulled together in an undisclosed location under tight security – it is illegal to reveal the results of an exit poll publicly before 10pm, and the information could also be extremely valuable either in betting markets or the stock markets proper. 

At around 9.30pm, a small number of key staff at the main broadcasters (usually including some very senior bosses) are briefed on what the exit poll is showing, so that they can prepare their first hour of coverage. Come 10pm, the first result is dropped.

Because the exit poll can be “calibrated” to the real results that come in over the course of the night, it is updated through the evening, getting more accurate as more and more real results come in. The exit poll has generally been very good, but its predictions do shift in a real way over the evening – it has moved around 20ish seats in recent elections.

All of that detail aside, there will be no other news this hour – expect to hear wisdom such as “the exit poll is only a poll” and “the only poll that matters is the election” repeated quite a few times across the different channels.

11pm to midnight

Barring huge surprises, there are only two results in this hour, both of which are in the North East and both of which should safely go to Labour. Blyth & Ashington is a new seat slightly north of Newcastle (with a ‘notional’ Labour majority of 6,000 or so), and in Hough & Sunderland South (the seat which used to try to break records for the fastest count), Bridget Phillipson is defending a majority of 3,217.

The only thing these seats can really give us is early confirmation that votes are moving in the direction expected; they’re both Labour-held and have Conservatives in second place. If you’re not seeing majorities in the five figures, something is looking awry for Labour.

Midnight to 1am

Finally, there are some interesting seats! But not very many of them: we are only expecting six declarations this hour. Former shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander is attempting to return to parliament, and is challenging former justice secretary Sir Robert Buckland for Swindon South. If the polls are anywhere near right, Alexander should win comfortably. If she does not, something has gone awry.

Assuming the polls are roughly correct, there is perhaps an even more interesting seat declaring during this hour: Basildon & Billericay, down in Essex. This is the seat the Conservative chairman Richard Holden fled to after his seat in the North East was abolished in the boundary review – despite having promised he was committed to the region.

Holden was imposed on Basildon & Billericay at the very last minute, giving local members no say at all in their candidate. This move absolutely infuriated the local party and activists, many of whom have simply refused to campaign for him. Holden is defending a majority of over 20,000 and the Conservatives should hold the seat even with the polls where they are – but it’s not a given, and if he loses it could spell a very bad night for the Conservatives.

1am to 2am

The trickle of results speeds up slightly this hour, but will still be a trickle – there are about 17 results expected between 1am and 2am. The first SNP versus Labour marginal seats should declare this hour, with East Kilbride & Strathaven being the one to watch: if Labour take this, the SNP are in for a bad night, and Labour can expect to be on the high side of their potential gains in Scotland.

2am to 3am

This is the last hour where there will be time to take in each result – expect around one per minute – but unfortunately not many of them are especially interesting in terms of high-profile Tory targets. This is a good time to eat something sugary or get some caffeine in – it’s not a very interesting hour, but the two that follow are relentless.

Rochdale is one to watch, as George Galloway will be trying to defend his very recent by-election win against Labour’s Paul Waugh (who was until recently a longstanding lobby journalist). Labour is optimistic it will re-take the seat.

Keir Starmer’s Holborn & St Pancras seat is due to declare – this is about as safe as a seat gets, though he has faced a challenge from an independent Corbynite candidate who’s attracted some online following.

In terms of landslide watch, if Labour wins or even comes close in Cannock Chase, the party is on track for a landslide at least as big as 1997.

3am to 4am

And now the deluge begins. 241 seats are due to declare this hour, which is almost exactly one every fifteen seconds. It is almost impossible to keep up with this torrent, so expect to miss a few interesting results. By the time we hit 4am, we should know the new occupants of the seats of more than half of the House of Commons.

This is the do-or-die hour for several Conservative cabinet ministers. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt would have to be extremely lucky to hold his seat in Godalming & Ash against the Liberal Democrats, while justice secretary Alex Chalk is almost certain to lose his Cheltenham seat, again to the Lib Dems.

Defence secretary Grant Shapps is likely to lose his Welwyn Hatfield seat to Labour if the polls are accurate, while Penny Mordaunt’s Portsmouth North seat is on a knife edge – Mordaunt is hotly tipped to challenge for the leadership if she holds on, but her majority of 15,780 does not look as safe as once it did.

Other prominent Conservatives whose seats declare this hour include education secretary Gillian Keegan and sometime GB News presenter Esther McVey. If either lose their seats, the night is looking distinctly bad for the Conservatives. Labour is hoping to unseat Iain Duncan Smith in Chingford and Woodford Green – and should succeed as his majority is just over 1,000 – but the race is complicated by its deselected candidate Faiza Shaheen running as an independent.

Less significant to the outcome of the night, but of wide interest is the result in Islington North, where we will see if Jeremy Corbyn has managed to beat Labour’s Praful Nargund to hold onto the seat he has held since 1983. 

Labour could also experience one of what is expected to be very few losses over the course of the evening as Bristol Central declares. The seat is currently held by well-regarded shadow DCMS secretary Thangam Debbonaire, but she faces a fierce challenge from Green Party co-leader Carla Denyer.

4am to 5am

The deluge barely slows; there are 200 results expected in this hour, which is around one every 20 seconds.

By now, we will know very well how the evening is going, and if it’s at the bad end of estimates for the Conservatives, one seat will be very interesting indeed: Richmond & Northallerton – currently held by Rishi Sunak – is due to declare shortly after 4am. No serving prime minister has ever lost their seat at a general election, and the Tories may have a headache even if they hold it; who would want a by-election if the PM departs?

Also this hour we find out whether it’s eighth time lucky for Nigel Farage – who has indeed tried and failed to become an MP seven times – in Clacton, the only seat ever won by a party he had led at a general election (by Douglas Carswell for UKIP). The result is also expected for former Tory deputy chair turned Reform defection “30p” Lee Anderson’s Ashfield seat.

Meanwhile, former Commons leader and general fake toff Jacob Rees-Mogg is touch and go in most projections to hold Somerset North East and Hanham – with a majority of 16,389 if earlier votes are in line with the worse MRPs for the Tories, he is unlikely to hold on.

The other two potential seats the Greens are likeliest to pick up come this hour, too; they are defending Brighton Pavilion, formerly held by Caroline Lucas but now contested by Sian Berry, against Labour, while party co-leader Adrian Ramsay is looking to pick up Waveney Valley from the Conservatives.

5am to 6am

At this stage, we won’t need any forecasts to tell us who is forming the next government – unless the polls are more wrong than they have ever been in history, and then some. 530 of 650 seats should have declared by 5am, and most of the rest (around 100) arrive by 6am, meaning the main thing to look out for at this stage is who else might lose their seat.

Liz Truss has a majority of more than 24,000 in her seat of Norfolk South West, so in theory it is as safe as they come – but there are whispers she may be more vulnerable than that majority suggests.

Also declaring this hour is Plymouth Moor View, currently held by the vocal veterans’ minister Johnny Mercer. His fight with Labour opponent and fellow veteran Fred Thomas has been a particularly nasty one, with accusations of “swiftboating” (a term for the denigration of John Kerry’s military record in the 2004 presidential election) against Thomas’ military record. If the polls are right, Mercer is unlikely to hold the seat.

There are a few results not due until around 7am, and there will be a few that got caught up in the delays of recounts and similar chaos, but it is as the sun comes up that we move past finding out what the results were to what it all means – and The New European will have the first analysis up around breakfast time.

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