Margaret Thatcher was no stranger to by-election defeats. But she’d got used to taking them in her stride. Between 1979 and 1987, her Conservative government lost seven of them – six to candidates representing either the Liberals or the SDP, the two parties that went on to form the Liberal Democrats. But that didn’t stop the Tories winning huge majorities in 1983 and 1987.
The loss of the Eastbourne by-election in October 1990, however, proved fatal. Like the defeat in North Shropshire , its impact had much to do with the fact that it was considered a rock-solid Conservative seat. Indeed, it had been held by the party, with only one interruption (occasioned by the Liberal landslide of 1906) since its creation in 1885.
Moreover, the defeat was all the more spectacular because it was so unexpected. Only a week before polling day, the prime minister, speaking at the Tory Party Conference had mocked the Lib Dems (who’d finished a humiliating fourth behind the Greens at the European Parliament elections the year before) by comparing their avian avatar to Monty Python’s dead parrot.
Thatcher’s confidence was in some ways understandable. The contest had been brought about by the IRA’s assassination of the popular sitting MP, Ian Gow – one of Thatcher’s closest confidantes. Surely the voters of the small seaside town, who had returned Gow with a 17,000 majority (equating to 60 per cent of the vote) just three years previously, would do their patriotic duty and replace him with another Tory?
That they decided not to was down to a number of factors – some of which provide a marked contrast with those that led up to yesterday’s stunning result.
First and foremost was the fact that the government had become deeply unpopular as the economy ran into trouble, as its controversial poll tax began to bite, and as Cabinet arguments over Europe raged. Indeed, by October 1990 it had been behind in the opinion polls for well over a year, with Labour regularly recording the kind of double-digit leads that Keir Starmer and his colleagues have so far only dared to dream about.
But then there was the campaign itself. For one thing, the Conservatives made the mistake of picking as their candidate, Richard Hickmet, who had been ousted by the voters of faraway Glanford and Scunthorpe after four years as their MP between 1983 and 1987. If he hadn’t been good enough for them, locals reasoned, why was he good enough for what the town’s tourism-inspired postmark labelled ‘The Suntrap and Showplace of the South’? Nor, it turned out, were they too impressed by a Tory campaign that, understandably shying away from defending the government’s record, seemed to hint that voting for anyone other than the Conservative candidate would provide succour to Republican terrorists.
For another, the Lib Dems may have looked down but they were actually far from out, not least because the party (and its Liberal predecessor) had for a long time been well-represented at local level. That gave it a base from which to fight one of its classic, hyperlocal, ‘pavement politics’ by-election battles, masterminded – not for the first or last time – by its campaign guru, Chris Rennard. Added to that, the Lib Dems’ leader, former soldier Paddy Ashdown, was by then beginning to find his feet on the national stage.
The result, when it came, was quite something. The Lib Dem’s candidate, David Bellotti, won just over half of the vote and was returned with a majority of 4,550 on a swing of 20 per cent – nowhere near the swing recorded last night but still enough to shock Tory MPs, not least the 160 or so sitting for constituencies where the Lib Dems were presumed to be in second place whose majorities were smaller than Ian Gow’s had been.
Had the party only just begun to lose its opinion poll lead to Labour, as is the case now , perhaps the fear of losing their seats might not have been enough to panic so many of Thatcher’s troops. But their unhappiness with her leadership had been growing for some time, and they had given up hope of her changing her style or her policy stances. Maggie, they felt, was finally past her sell-by date. Can the same be said of Boris?