Election 97: for some, the war is not yet over

Hold on to your seat! Ros Wynne-Jones in Winchester on the combatants still slugging it out to be MP
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The Independent Online
There is the former Tory minister who gave his address on the ballot paper as London and never expected to lose his country seat. There is the victorious Liberal Democrat who never thought he would win. There is the election saboteur who was willing to take on any of the seven other candidates at random. There is Britain's unhappiest returning officer for whom nothing went quite right. And there they all are in Winchester, still fighting the general election.

On 2 May, after a 20-hour count, briefly interrupted by a wedding reception, the unexpected happened in the cathedral city. The Liberal Democrat candidate, Mark Oaten, deprived the former health minister, Gerald Malone, of his seat by two votes on the second recount.

Two weeks later, Mr Malone launched a High Court petition challenging the result on the basis that 55 ballot papers were excluded because they lacked the perforated strip that confirmed they were genuine - and because, he says, two other votes declared void should have been allowed. Two weeks ago, Hampshire police launched a separate investigation into two votes that may have been cast illegally.

"Everything that could go wrong did," sighs David Cowan, Winchester's beleaguered returning officer and council chief executive, of a saga which looks set to continue well into the autumn. "Things like this go wrong at most counts, but with a majority of hundreds or thousands it would be neither here nor there."

Mr Cowan's stoicism is admirable given that his problems began back in December when the maverick candidate, Richard Huggett, who first entered the political scene in the Euro elections as a "Literal Democrat", announced he had changed his name to Gerry Maclone and wanted the space above Mr Malone's on the ballot paper.

Mr Cowan put a stop to this, but could not prevent him entering as "Richard Huggett - Liberal Democrat Top Choice for Parliament", forcing Mr Oaten to stand as "Liberal Democrat - leader Paddy Ashdown".

"I don't believe in political parties," says the unrepentant Mr Huggett, whose stepfather chairs the Winchester Lib Dems. "I see elections as a way of challenging their monopoly on political life.

"Really, though, there was no need for Mark Oaten to threaten to kill me on the night of the count. It was quite rude and my wife was terrified."

At the moment in question, after a recount, Mr Oaten thought he had lost by 22. Mr Huggett had 640 votes. "It was a stupid thing to say," says Mr Oaten, "but it had been a long night and I was at the end of my tether."

At the next recount, Mr Oaten was back in the lead by two votes, and won. Curiously, Mr Malone's agent, Hugh Johnson, did not request another recount.

Mr Malone took a different view. "I'm not convinced that the election result reflects the will of the people," he says. He wants the High Court to recount the vote. The judge could decide either that the vote stands, that Mr Malone is the rightful winner or to trigger a by-election.

He has the unanimous backing of his constituency party's executive, but some local Tories are embarrassed. "It's just not very English," said one elderly party activist. "He should have lost gracefully. The chance of winning a by-election now the entire country has gone lovey-dovey with Labour is probably nil."

Mr Oaten, who tried to resign "because we would win again," after Mr Malone announced his High Court bid but was prevented by law, says the election has restored Winchester's faith in democracy. "With the vote that close people realised their voice counted," he says. His local party has made badges saying: "I'm One of the Winchester 2".

If there is a fresh ballot, Mr Malone may think of registering his wife in Winchester rather than London. Mr Huggett, meanwhile, could be registering as anyone at all and is looking forward to another election. "They can be such fun," he says. It is doubtful Mr Cowan would agree. Even his post-election holiday in an obscure French village was ruined by the appearance of Mr Oaten and family getting away from it all.

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