The day my life changed (thanks to the weather)

My election promise to end the closed shop enabled me to campaign heavily in Labour areas
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The Independent Online

Today is 4 May, 1979. At least it is in the room where I am writing this, cocooned next to the television set where I am watching, courtesy of the BBC Parliament Channel, the marathon broadcast of the general election that led to the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, 25 years ago today - and to my own election, at 27, as the first Conservative MP for Brigg and Scunthorpe since 1935.

I never saw the television coverage of the election night - or the day after, when Mrs Thatcher stood on the steps of 10 Downing Street doing her bit as St Francis of Assisi. My own count was not due to take place until 9am on 4 May, so I was able to go to bed immediately the polls closed without knowing a single result until the following morning. During the campaign I had been reading a biography of President Harry S Truman who was expected, according to the polls, to lose the presidential election in 1948. Emulating his excellent example I was spared the tensions of the night and awoke fresh the following morning to cope with a day that would change the rest of my life.

But watching the Parliament Channel is proving an exciting experience as I re-live in real time the excitements of that dramatic night which I alone among parliamentary candidates missed. As I write, there are, according to a brown haired David Dimbleby, only three Tory seats which have so far declared. They are all safe constituencies - Torbay, Guildford and Cheltenham. Ironically all were Liberal Democrat seats in the 2001 election. A cigar-smoking Robin Day has just interviewed the future Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, and Bob Mackenzie presides over his swingometer.

The main issues have been prices, top of 42 per cent of voters concerns; jobs, raised as an issue by 26 per cent of voters; taxes, 22 per cent of voters worries; and strikes, raised by 20 per cent. Law and order is raised by only 12 per cent of voters.

In Brigg and Scunthorpe, election day had dawned bright but cold. I did the traditional tour of the polling stations, stopping hourly at phone boxes to call the constituency office. In those days there were no mobile phones. We had pulled rank with the nationalised GPO (General Post Office) Telephones to get an extra line installed. We were spared the usual six-month wait which my constituents endured. My agent drove an Austin Allegro which had a square steering wheel. It was manufactured by British Leyland which was owned by the Government. Her car broke down so often that we assumed it was fitted with square tyres as well.

Scunthorpe was a steel town employing 20,000 workers at the nationalised British Steel Corporation. To get a job there it was necessary to have a union card - known as the closed shop. Secret ballots for many union officials were unheard of and strike decision were often taken by a show of hands in the works car parks.

More than 10,000 homes in Scunthorpe were council-owned. If a tenant painted the front door a colour banned by the council - or made any minor structural alterations or painted the internal walls a colour forbidden by the Labour controlled authority, they could be evicted. My election promise to end the closed shop, have secret ballots for strikes and union officials and to sell council houses at a discount of up to a third of the market value were well received and enabled me to campaign most heavily in the Labour areas.

Only the letter, reproduced in its thousands by the Labour Party, from Mrs Thatcher's correspondence clerk, Matthew Parris, insulting a council house tenant, gave me the nearest thing to a heart attack. I responded with a vicious attack on the incumbent Labour MP, by reproducing in a leaflet, his last Commons speech with the words, "Mr Speaker, I speak as a member of the Transport and General Workers' Union". Underneath were the words "But Michael Brown will speak as an MP for his constituents". It led to an angry exchange during the count on the only occasion I debated the issues with my opponent - in the gents.

I was greatly assisted by the intervention of the Mayor of Scunthorpe who had been expelled from the Labour Party a few weeks earlier because he was not left wing enough. He decided to stand as an independent and polled more than 2,000 votes. He also stood for the council, which had elections on the same day. Over 700 ballot papers were discounted because voters had conflated the two contests by voting for both the Labour candidate and for the Mayor.

In the end it was the weather "wot won it". By 6pm the Heavens opened with rain, hail and snow. The retired (most Tory) voted in the morning. Shift workers, likely to vote Labour, voted after work. But they went straight home - encouraged by the weather. After three recounts I was declared elected on 4 May at 1.30pm with a majority of 486. If the sun had shone I would have lost. But after 25 years I am about to witness on my television screen those magic words I never saw in 1979 - "Brigg and Scunthorpe: Conservative Gain". Tonight the dream lives on at the Savoy Hotel where I will attend the anniversary dinner for the Lady.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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