Faces famous for fifteen months: A new dawn in centre party politics? We've been there before. Stephen Castle talks to some shooting stars of the past

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The Independent Online
AS THE result was declared, the Labour candidate stood stony- faced and the Tory's mother broke down in tears. It was hailed by the Press as 'a shattering blow' for the Conservative government and by the Liberal leader as 'a dramatic turning point in British politics'. The 1973 Ripon by-election seemed to be the start of something big.

Twenty years on, David Rendel - Newbury's new MP - probably does not even remember the name of Ripon's only Liberal MP, David Austick, who lost his seat a few months later at the first 1974 election. His story is not unusual. Since Mark (now Lord) Bonham- Carter won Torrington in 1958, there have been 23 centre party by-election victories, counting Dick Taverne's 1973 triumph for Democratic Labour in Lincoln.

Twelve of these MPs lost their seats at the subsequent general election, including all three in the last Parliament. Some did not even remain famous for 15 months.

But on election night, somehow, it always seemed different. When Eric Lubbock (now Lord Avebury) won Orpington in 1962, Jo Grimond declared it an 'incredible result' which showed that 'only the Liberals can make real inroads into the present Tory vote'. When Shirley Williams won Crosby for the SDP in 1981, David Steel said: 'If this continues it could lead us to forming the next government'.

For the candidates themselves the euphoria is real. Mr Austick, now senior director of his family's chain of bookshops, recalls feeling 'on a high'. 'Everything appears to be rosy. You are on top of the world.'

William Pitt, victor at Croydon North West in 1981, says: 'It is fantastic especially if, like me, your ambition since the age of 11 was to be an MP and you didn't really think the day would come. As an experience it ranks at the same sort of level as the birth of a child. We really did think we were going to take over the world and that people believed in us. We were deluded.'

That made losing two years later even harder. Mr Pitt had given up his job with Lambeth council's environmental health department and was out of work for a year after losing the seat. Ejection from the Commons 'was probably the worst experience other than losing a close relative. It was as if the whole world had stopped. One minute you are an MP and people are saying 'yes sir' to you, the next that is all gone. I was completely zapped for a few weeks, bitter, fed up, probably clinically depressed'.

Now a manager with the Construction Industry Training Board, Mr Pitt concludes: 'By- elections, to a certain extent, are false dawns for the Liberal Democrats. I think we pin too many hopes on them.'

Mr Austick, too, had difficulty adjusting to life outside Parliament, having become accustomed, in his own words, to 'the high life'. For a period he stayed out of the firm, unsuccessfully contesting Ripon again, then Cheadle. With hindsight, the by- election 'looked like the start of something new, but these things have happened before and will happen again'. He balks at describing the whole episode as worthwhile. 'That is too a strong a word. It is an experience I would not have missed. I don't think I achieved anything while I was in the House of Commons. I can point to two or three things I achieved in local government.'

Lord Avebury, now chairman of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group and executive with a London computer firm, notes the 'history of the Liberal Party is of making gains in between general elections and then not living up to the promise in a national test'.

But the picture is by no means completely bleak. In addition to Mr Rendel, five of the 21 Liberal Democrat MPs , Sir David Steel, Alan Beith, David Alton, Simon Hughes and Matthew Taylor, who held on to David Penhaligon's seat, are by-election victors who have held on through hard work.

Part of the problem of holding seats, according to Mr Taylor, MP for Truro since the by-election in 1987, is that 'when you are elected you immediately become a mega-star in the party and you are flooded with invitations to speak all over the country. You really have to resist that and dig into the constituency.'

Assuming Mr Rendel follows suit, the omens are good. Although the Liberal Democrats are better at holding seats won from Labour (Sir Cyril Smith, David Alton, Simon Hughes), he has a massive majority of 22,055, making Newbury easily the safest Liberal Democrat seat. The Newbury party organisation is good and Mr Rendel has time to establish himself before the next election. By- election victors hope to have a general election either quickly (in which case constituents tend to repeat their vote) or after two years, by which time they can hope to consolidate their position.

Simon Hughes, MP for Bermondsey since the 1983 by-election, argues that the secret is 'to become the person associated with the constituency, above all to be Mr Newbury, and to renounce the sins of the flesh in terms of travelling outside the constituency and abroad'.

Mr Pitt is more blunt: 'Be realistic. Think 'yes you have won but you are going to have to fight hard to hold on'. Next time he is not going to get in just because people want to kick John Major in the teeth. And don't give up the day job.'

(Photograph omitted)

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