Michael Brown: Count your good fortune, for disaster lurks just round the corner

'A wise owl came up and suggested restraint: "See that fellow you've defeated? That's you one day." '
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The Independent Online

"And I hereby declare that the under-mentioned has been duly elected to serve as Member of Parliament for the said constituency." Those were the magic words that heralded my first parliamentary victory by 486 votes, 22 years ago, and that are ringing in the ears of today's successful candidates. But they were also the nightmare words of the returning officer, four years ago, that brought down the curtain on me and that have just ruined the lives of a number of MPs this morning.

I can still remember every hour and minute of both those counts ­ each of which changed my life. The sheer thrill of my unexpected win in May 1979 was indescribable. It was probably a combination of the day I passed my driving test, the day I got the required A-level grades to get to university place, the day I graduated and the day I got my first job offer. The joy was public, in front of my friends, supporters, and enemies. Up and down the land the message "Brigg & Scunthorpe ­ Conservative gain" was being greeted with disbelief as the words flashed across the bottom of millions of TV sets. I can still see the utter devastation on the face of the kindly, harmless, middle-aged Labour MP whose life I had just wrecked.

Just before the returning officer summoned us to the balcony (in those days there had to be a public declaration to the crowd waiting outside), a wise owl came up to me and suggested restraint. "Don't rehearse all those election speeches all over again; and see the fellow you've defeated? That's you one day." With those words of sound advice I confined myself to thanking everyone and even ended by thanking my predecessor "for his outstanding work in this constituency". All the previous month I had been making speeches saying how useless he had been.

Magnanimity, however, must be the order of the day. How I loathed those winners and losers, in the early hours of this morning, who ranted on and on when everyone else just wanted to get on with the champagne celebrations or slink away for a stiff brandy. No one has perfected the art of winning and losing better than Michael Portillo, who was remembered for his dignity in defeat at Enfield Southgate in 1997. When he subsequently took the seat of Kensington & Chelsea at a by-election two years later, he summed up the two emotions by quoting the poem If, by Kipling: "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same..."

Because my first election result was so close, there was, inevitably, a recount, adding another two hours to the process. But you know you've won when your agent tells you that there are no more of your opponent's votes left to count. All remaining ballots still being counted are yours. That is the time for you to go off quietly into the toilet to scribble down your first words of triumph.

The other white smoke signal is when the officious returning officer's attitude to you changes. Scunthorpe was hitherto a Labour town, and the returning officer ­ who was also the chief executive serving a Labour council ­ had treated me like dirt throughout my campaign. Suddenly he became progressively more polite as it dawned upon him that he would be lumbered with me for years to come. Oh how I savoured the beginning of his grovel. The local constabulary quietly sidled up to check my phone numbers and address.

Then came the collective clambering aboard my bandwagon when I made my first walkabout in the high street as the new kid on the block. Based on the fact that everyone I met claimed to have voted for me, I could not understand why my slender majority was not at least 10,000.

Defeat, by contrast, is like dying but still being alive afterwards. In 1997 I was fortunate in that I knew I was down the toilet months before the count. But for many that lost this morning, defeat will have been a surprise, with only a few minutes to come to terms with the prospect.

Being able to prepare for the disaster did not, however, reduce the pain. Going through the previous month pretending to the media, party workers and voters that "one last push and victory can still be ours" required the acting abilities of Laurence Olivier. If I had not kept up the pretence, my activists would have given up. But such acting brings its own problems as, 24 hours before the count, I had to prepare them gently that "we might not do quite as well this time". Not warning them in advance would have caused tears at the count. I was determined that there would be no crying ­ at least no crying in public.

Etiquette demands that the defending MP is the last to arrive at the count. During the glory years of the 1980s when I knew that I was going to be re-elected things were very civilised. Dinner at home. Wait for Basildon. Then the sneak phone call from the returning officer that I should set off. "Which speech will I be making?" I would ask nervously. "Upbeat, Mr Brown," would come the reassuring reply.

Arriving last time, however, was like attending my own funeral. As I walked in the door, the vultures from the press and television were ready. I foolishly stopped by the door to do an interview. Above was the "exit" sign that provided the brilliant backdrop for the photograph and caption in the Grimsby Evening Telegraph next day. Crumpled faces of my own supporters told their own story before I even walked into the hall. The counters had long since run out of my votes and were sitting around watching their colleagues sort the surplus nine thousand Labour votes.

Then came the moment of truth as I stood on the platform to listen to those familiar words from the returning officer. Except that this time the "under-mentioned" was Labour's Shona McIsaac. I played it by the Portillo book and suddenly felt a huge relief that it was all over. But the prospect of not knowing what I would do ­ whether I would ever work again ­ began, in the days ahead, to cause far more worry. Although I had a pay-off cheque of £21,000, there were still two homes to run until one could be sold. Thank you letters had to be written to party workers. Cards of condolence (usually meant for bereavements) also needed responding to. Then there was a secretary and a research assistant to sack. Politics is such a cruel business.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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