David Watts, the sacrificial lamb sent into Newark as the Liberal Democrat by-election candidate must be feeling grim today. To represent what purports to be a major national party, whose strongest card until recently was its fearsome track record for winning by-elections, and to wake up on Friday morning having come sixth, with 2.6 per cent of the vote, is an experience to be forgotten.
However, it might cheer him up to be reminded of other spectacular by-election humiliations, starting with one featuring a candidate who is still very much in the public eye.
Bermondsey, Labour – February 1983
Bermondsey was one of the safest Labour seats in the country, where the sitting MP Robert Mellish scored 64 per cent of the vote in 1979. After he announced his intention to retire, he was furious that the local party selected as its candidate Peter Tatchell, who was young, very left-wing, and gay. Mellish stomped out, forcing a by-election in which homophobia ran rampant, and the result was the biggest swing against Labour there had ever been. The winner, Simon Hughes, has held the seat for more than 30 years. Tatchell never became an MP, but is a renowned campaigner for gay rights.
Labour, Leyton - January 1965
In 1964, the new Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, wanted Patrick Gordon Walker as his Foreign Secretary, but at the general election, Gordon Walker was unexpectedly defeated. So, Wilson, persuaded the long serving Labour MP for Leyton to accept a life peerage, thinking that Gordon Walker would then be a shoo-in. Leyton has returned a Labour MP at every general election since the war, but on this one occasion, the locals revolted, and the Tory candidate scraped in by 205 votes.
Conservatives, Eastbourne - October 1990
Speaking to the annual Conservative Party conference, Margaret Thatcher performed a comedy turn based on the Monty Python dead parrot sketch to mock the Lib Dems, who appeared to be a dying party. Three weeks later, the "dead parrot" gave her a nasty bite by winning what had previously been a rock solid Conservative seat, made vacant when the MP, Ian Gow, was murdered by the IRA. The Tory party took fright, and sacked Mrs Thatcher a month later.
Conservatives, Newbury - May 1993
While the Chancellor Norman Lamont was out campaigning in the solid Tory seat of Newbury, he was asked which of his economic policies he most regretted, and jokingly replied: “Je ne regrette rien.” The comment was not well received. The Tory share of the vote fell from 56 per cent to 27 per cent, as the Lib Dems romped to victory. Lamont was sacked later that month.
SDP, Bootle - May 1990
David Owen, the ego-driven former Foreign Secretary, opposed the 1987 merger of the Social Democratic Party, which he co-founded, with the Liberal Party, and continued to lead a rump SDP whose greatest success was to prevent the Lib Dems from winning a by-election in Richmond, Yorkshire, in 1989, thereby launching the political career of William Hague. But in Bootle, the SDP candidate came sixth – just like poor old David Watts in Newawk – beaten even by the Monster Raving Loony Party. Owen took the hint, and that was the end of the SDP.Reuse content