The defectors' struggle to stay seated

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Very few defectors in post-war British politics have held on to their seats at the following general election. Of 27 Labour MPs who left in 1981 to join the SDP, only two are still in the Commons: Robert Maclennan, the Liberal Democrat president, and John Horam, now a Tory junior minister.

Bruce Douglas-Mann, the only one who did the honourable thing by resigning his seat to fight a by-election, lost Mitcham in 1982 to Tory Angela Rumbold.

Earlier, Jim Sillars and John Robertson defected from Labour to set up the Scottish Labour Party in 1976. They lost their seats in 1979. But Mr Sillars, who in 1981 joined the SNP and married Margo MacDonald, a former SNP MP who had won the spectacular Glasgow Govan by-election in 1973, returned to the Commons by repeating his wife's trick in 1988.

The problem for right-wing, Euro-sceptic Tories is that there is no obvious party to which they can defect. The closest parallel with the case of Sir George Gardiner is probably Enoch Powell. He gave up his seat in Wolverhampton in February 1974, and urged a vote for Labour as the lesser of two evils, because Harold Wilson had promised a referendum on Europe. He returned to the Commons that October as the Ulster Unionist MP for Down South.

Great Defections:

Sir George Gardiner: Conservative to Referendum Party; March 1997. Once leader of the largest faction of backbench Tory MPs, the right-wing 92 Group. Discovery of differences of principle with the Prime Minister no doubt entirely unrelated to recent deselection by local Tory association in Reigate.

Alan Howarth: Conservative to Labour; October 1995. Right-wing Tory minister who developed a social conscience to become first Tory-to-Labour floor-crosser. Still hoping to be drafted as last-minute candidate in safe Labour seat.

John Horam: Labour to SDP to Conservative; March 1981, February 1987. Lost his Gateshead seat in 1983. Took the slow route to Thatcherism but only got back into the House, for Orpington, in 1992, after she had gone. Still entirely unfamous as junior health minister.

William Rodgers: Labour to SDP; March 1981. Only four of the 27 Labour MPs who defected to the SDP survived the 1983 election. The former transport minister Bill Rodgers was not one of them. Fellow Gang of Four member Shirley Williams, elected in Crosby by-election in 1982, also lost.

John Stonehouse: Labour to English National Party; April 1976. The former Postmaster-General who ran off with his secretary and faked his suicide. His defection, just before disqualification and jail for fraud, cost Jim Callaghan his government's majority.

Dick Taverne: Labour to Democratic Labour, October 1972. Homo Proto- Socialdemocraticus who resigned to fight and win a by-election on a pro- Europe platform. Held his Lincoln seat in February 1974 but lost in October to anti-EEC Margaret Jackson, now Beckett.