In a series of pieces, Uncut writers look back at election day 1997. Stephen Hardwick had been a shadow cabinet adviser to John Prescott and moved to South Africa to work for the ANC shortly before the election
“Where were you for Portillo?” Drinking white wine and whooping with delirium at the UK High Commissioner’s residence in Bishopscourt, Cape Town, with half of Nelson Mandela’s ANC Cabinet, and my comrade-in-arms, Mike Elrick.
There are worse places to watch the BBC election night coverage than amid the great and the good of South Africa’s first democratic government and as a guest of the fabulous (and late) Maeve Fort – who knew how to throw a party.
But why there?
I’d been working as an adviser to the ANC Chief Whip, Max Sisulu, for a year by then, and Mike, who had been a press officer for John Smith, had joined me six months in. After four years as John Prescott’s speechwriter and policy adviser, I’d quit because I had wanted to ‘do something’ to support the new ANC government in South Africa.
As far as I was concerned, by mid-1996 Labour was nailed-on for a big win, and I felt that I’d done my bit. So while my contemporaries among the Shadow Cabinet advisers – the Milibands, Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper, Pat McFadden and co – would be heading for government or Parliament, I was already there, working ultimately for Mandela.
So on election night, there was a huge projector screen and a BBC satellite feed set up in a grand and spacious dining hall. There was fizz, I recall, to get things started, and waiters circulated topping up bottomless glasses of chilled whites and fruity reds. There was also buffet and the most enormous wheel of cheddar.
It was the scale of the rout that was so shocking, and as seat after seat fell, we Brits kept looking at each other with growing disbelief and, in some cases, unalloyed joy.
Around 2am I called John Prescott to congratulate him. He was on his way from Hull to London and he told me that he’d been up to Sedgefield to see Tony Blair earlier that day and that he was going to be Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions. I’m still proud that I was among the first he told.