Mr Fix-it goes global

Simon Edge talks to the once reviled by-election bruiser Andy Ellis
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The Independent Online
The Romanian revolution broke out at Christmas 1989. Most of us were content to watch events unfold on television, between the Queen's Speech and the James Bond film, but not Andy Ellis. He filled up his car with emergency supplies, hooked up with a friend in Budapest and entered bullet-pocked Timisoara three days after the fall of the dictator Ceausescu. "It was dangerous, but not particularly scary to me," he recalls. "Perhaps I'm not easily scared."

If Ellis doesn't suffer from fear, he sure as hell inspires it. As vice- chairman and then secretary-general of the Liberal Party for much of the 1980s, he struck terror into the hearts of his Labour and Tory opponents by presiding over the series of spectacular by-election upsets that threatened for a while to change the shape of British politics. And now, although he's all smiles and geniality, he's scaring the pants off me.

We're huddled in the kitchen at the bustling south London headquarters of the lobby firm GJW, of which Ellis is a director, discussing the company's success in picking up contracts to run elections in Palestine, Bosnia and now Yemen. I'm trying to pluck up the courage to ask how someone associated - rightly or wrongly - with the dirtiest tricks in politics can forge a second career out of guaranteeing fair play. Trouble is, he's six-foot- three and the windows rattle when he speaks.

"Political players are supposed to be skilled at getting the result they want, within the overall framework of the rules, and it's the job of politicians to campaign as effectively as they know how within that framework," he says, in the stentorian Brummie tones that used to excite the by-election sketch writers almost as much as his sticking-plaster specs and nerdish pullover. "What we are doing is establishing the framework in which those campaigns can take place." His people never ventured outside the confines of electoral law, he insists.

At a time when political lobbying is getting a bad press, Ellis is GJW's star turn. Now based in Brussels, he joined the firm as an Eastern Europe expert to set up offices in Budapest, Warsaw, Prague and Bucharest. Five or six years on, these outfits are thriving in their own right, and Ellis is busy bringing the ballot box to some of the world's most democratically- challenged areas. He and his team bring the know-how, from drawing up constituency boundaries to organising the count and handling the media, while the international community picks up the tab. Ellis's technical- assistance package, costing around pounds 1m for a two-year programme, is a relatively small price for the UN or the European Commission to pay if it helps brings stability to a war zone.

Elections are in Ellis's soul. He first stood for Parliament in 1974, as a Liberal, at the age of 22. Two years later, he made headlines by coming a surprise second in the Newcastle Central by-election. He tried twice more to reach Westminster, but his true metier turned out to be getting other people elected. In Bermondsey in 1983, he masterminded what remains the biggest by-election swing in modern political history. Labour's Peter Tatchell, vilified for homosexuality he chose then not to acknowledge, was opposed by a rebel from his own party, John O'Grady. As canvassers did the rounds wearing "I've kissed Peter Tatchell" badges, Simon Hughes romped home for the Liberals and has held the one-time Labour stronghold ever since.

Ellis picked up an OBE for political services and wound up as chief executive of the merged Social and Liberal Democrats. He says he bears no grudge against the SDP loyalists who allegedly plotted his ousting in 1989, and he is still a paid-up Lib Dem. "I'm very happy with what we developed in the Eighties, which was a series of major innovations in election campaigning," he says. But would some of those by-elections pass the test of the electoral supervision that GJW now offers? Take the Tatchell lapel badges, or the notorious "Which queen would you vote for?" leaflets in the same campaign. "Those weren't done by Liberals. As far as I remember they were done by the O'Grady people." But did he approve? Pause. Smile. "Nothing went on in Bermondsey that we were unhappy with," he chuckles.

By-elections generate enduring stories, Ellis says, but so do international peace-keeping elections - whereupon he meanders off into a long story about Palestine, the punchline of which is basically that winters on the West Bank are colder than you'd think. Perfectly true, and the tale is jolly enough, but this is hardly the stuff of legend. Not like the one about the Labour activists burning the Liberal "battle bus" after the Newcastle-under-Lyme by-election in 1986. The Liberals are said not to have complained too much because they knew they deserved it.

But times have changed, and so, no doubt, has Ellis. He certainly looks different. There's a stain on his shirt but the pullie has gone and the black plastic glasses have given way to fancier frames. Dressing down to make people underestimate him may have worked on the by-election battlefield, but it's a less productive tactic in the clean-cut world of international consultancy.

I can't leave without asking what he's done with the pullover. Pause. Ominously long pause, in fact. Then the gravelly boom: "There are a lot of myths about me." And finally, praise be, the table wobbles. He's laughing.