Thirty years on, how significant was the Eastbourne by-election?
By Paul Richards
Thirty years ago, the people of Eastbourne, a sedate seaside town in East Sussex, went to the polls in a parliamentary by-election, caused by the assassination of Conservative MP Ian Gow by the IRA.
It came amidst the choppiest of political waters for the Thatcher government. Interest rates and unemployment were up; house prices were down.
Labour were ready to take advantage. In March 1990, Neil Kinnock’s Labour secured a 21 per cent swing to beat the Tories at the Mid-Staffordshire by-election. Trafalgar Square had burned after a poll tax demonstration, and in August Saddam Hussein’s forces had invaded and pillaged Kuwait, provoking an international crisis.
Margaret Thatcher, in her eleventh year in Number 10, looked increasingly embattled and imperilled. But when the voters delivered their verdict, the newly-created Liberal Democrats overturned a 16,923 Conservative majority and delivered a 4,550 majority for their candidate David Belotti.
Despite a 102-seat majority in the 1987 General Election, and three big wins under her belt, within six weeks of the Eastbourne votes being counted Margaret Thatcher was gone.
So what happened?
The story of the political earthquake by the sea started with a terrible murder. Ian Gow died aged just 53, on the morning of Monday 30 July 1990. Overnight, the IRA had planted a bomb under the driving seat of his Austin Montego parked in the drive of The Dog House, his constituency home in Hankham, near Eastbourne.
It is a mark of our parliamentary system, and perhaps part of our British democracy, that MPs are not routinely assigned bodyguards as they perform their parliamentary duties. His Hankham address was listed in Who’s Who, and his phone number was in the book. Gow’s name also appeared, alongside Margaret Thatcher, among 100 establishment figures on an IRA death list discovered in a bomb-making factory in South London. His close friend Alan Clark MP wrote that Gow ‘was insouciant about death’. 
Throughout 1990, the IRA had bombed a series of mainland targets, and just a week before Gow’s death, the IRA had bombed the London Stock Exchange, without casualties.
As Gow set off, waved off by his wife Jane, five pounds of Semtex detonated and ten minutes later he was dead. Gow was the third Conservative MP to be assassinated by Irish republican terrorists on mainland Britain, and like Sir Anthony Berry MP, killed in the 1984 Brighton bombing, and Airey Neave MP killed in 1979 by an INLA car bomb on the ramp of the parliamentary car park, he was a close ally of Margaret Thatcher.
Thatcher recorded in her memoir that ‘Ian Gow was singled out to be murdered by the IRA because they knew that he was their unflinching enemy…Ian was a danger to them because of his total commitment to the Union’. 
On paper, the resulting by-election should have represented no great difficulty for the Tories. Since 1910, Eastbourne had been a safe Conservative seat. There had been three by-elections before, in 1925, 1932, and 1935, but the Conservatives had won each of them (in 1932 and 1935 they were elected unopposed.)
The Conservatives chose 43-year-old Richard Hickmet, a London-born lawyer, who had served as MP for Glanford and Scunthorpe from 1983 until his defeat in 1987. Like Charlotte Atkins the Labour candidate, Hickmet had also served as a councillor on the London Borough of Wandsworth. He could have confidently predicted a return to parliament as a ‘retread’ at the by-election.
The second placed candidate in 1987 had been Peter Driver for the Liberal Party, with 18,051 votes to Gow’s 31,501. Since then, the Liberal Democrats had been formed following an uneasy merger between the Liberals and the Social Democratic Party (SDP), under a new leader Paddy Ashdown, elected in 1988 with a solid 71% of the votes. The new party had performed poorly at the 1989 European Elections securing only 5.9% of the national vote and coming fourth behind the Green Party.
On 12 October 1990, a week before polling day, Margaret Thatcher had mocked the new Liberal Democrats in her conference speech, comparing the Lib Dem bird of paradise logo to the ‘dead parrot’ of the famous Monty Python sketch. The gag, like most of Thatcher’s attempts at humour, was shoe-horned into the speech by advisers. John Whittingdale, her political secretary at the time, recalled ‘I was never sure that she entirely grasped why it was funny.’
Given the circumstances of the by-election, Paddy Ashdown was reluctant to contest the seat, preferring to give the Tories a free pass: ‘I agonised as to whether we should fight Eastbourne, which we had a slim chance of winning. I eventually concluded that we should not, on principle, allow the IRA to decide who was and was not an MP and to allow them the spectacle of a by-election which they caused’. 
Alan Leaman, Ashdown’s head of office, recalls that ‘Paddy’s first instinct was to fight back against the fact that Ian Gow had been killed by a terrorist bomb. Ashdown had grown up and served in Northern Ireland. He felt and understood these issues acutely. How could he signal his revulsion at this assassination? One way would be to refuse to contest the consequent by-election. How could be it right to benefit politically from this evil act?’
So what changed Ashdown’s mind? The decisive factor was a fax from Chris Rennard, the Lib Dem by-elections wizard, which Ashdown quotes in his diaries: ‘Your job is not to do what the Labour and Tory Parties want but to stand up to them….It will not be seen as bold and courageous to recommend not fighting – it will make you a laughing stock in Walworth Road, Downing St and eventually in the quality press that you threw away this chance.’
Added to Rennard’s ‘truth to power’ memo, the then-chief whip Archy Kirkwood, and others persuaded their leader to change his mind. Alan Leaman says ‘by the time I returned from my summer break a couple of weeks later, it was clear that Paddy had backed off his first reaction and was open to contesting the by-election. The party was getting ready to fight it hard, and had time to put an effective campaign in place’. The Eastbourne Liberal Democrats selected David Belotti, who had fought the seat in 1979 and had contested the neighbouring seat of Lewes in 1983 and 1987, and began to knock on doors
Labour’s by-election supremo John Braggins remembers that for the Labour Party, there was no soul searching about whether to stand a candidate. ‘There was talk at the NEC initially about whether we should contest the by-election, given the circumstances. This was quickly discounted by reference to the rule book.’
Labour’s rules state that there should be a Labour candidate whenever and wherever possible. However, with the party focusing on the Bradford North by-election on 8th November, as well as at Bootle on the same day, the Eastbourne by-election was regarded as ‘requiring low resources’,according to Braggins.‘There was never any talk of taking our foot off the accelerator, it was firmly on the brake’. 
The selection of the Labour candidate did not run smoothly. The candidate selected by local members was Peter Day, the only Labour councillor on Eastbourne borough council, representing Hampden Park ward. He narrowly beat the serving CLP secretary, Matthew Swindells, who had the majority of votes in the room, but was pipped by postal votes cast in advance of the selection meeting.
However, Day failed to be endorsed by Labour head office because of his perceived sympathies for Militant Tendency, the Leninist party-within-a-party. The Lib Dems’ Chris Rennard, in his faxed memo to Ashdown, said ‘The reason the Labour Party are terrified by this by-election is that they know that we would probably win and their candidate in Eastbourne is a Militant’.
Swindells recalls that the Eastbourne general committee (GC) instructed him, as secretary, to write to head office to complain about the imposition of a candidate instead of Day. He says ‘I wrote, “I have been instructed to inform you that last Tuesday the GC of Eastbourne Labour Party voted to condemn the NEC decision to impose a candidate for the forthcoming by-election by 16 votes to 15.” The Trots were quite cross that I’d included the numbers.’
The Labour selection panel chose Charlotte Atkins, trade unionist, Wandsworth councillor, and daughter of Ron Atkins, Labour MP for Preston North . Atkins went on to be the Labour MP for Staffordshire Moorlands from 1997 to 2010, and a government minister. She was author, with Chris Mullin MP, of the infamous guide for activists How to Select or Reselect Your Member of Parliament. She recalls winning round local members by demonstrating she would be a hard-working candidate. She addressed the Labour Party conference in Blackpool at the end of September and rounded up campaigners from amongst the conference-goers.
Atkins, the press officer for the COHSE trade union, ran a spirited campaign with a daily press conference, and visits from Neil Kinnock, David Blunkett, Tony Lloyd and the recent winner of the Mid Staffs by-election Sylvia Heal. Atkins was supported by her family, including her twin sister Liz: ‘that meant I could campaign at both ends of the constituency at the same time.’ Atkins soon established herself as ‘a safe pair of hands’, although when being interviewed by the BBC’s Vivian White, who stood over six feet tall, she recalls having to stand on a box. 
The Green Party selected one of its founder members David Aherne, and the National Front chose John McAuley who would become their national chairman. Lindi St Clair, known as ‘Miss Whiplash’, a regular fixture at by-elections in this period, also stood. The refusenik Liberal Party also stood.
Alan Leaman recalls that the issues pushed by the Lib Dems in the campaign were ‘the usual combination of national and local issues that play in by-elections. We had enough time over the summer to construct an effective local operation and campaign. Our team found plenty of local issues on which to build the campaign’s voice. The Conservatives chose a candidate from outside the area who had been an MP in the north of England. He also managed to make the division of Cyprus a bit of an issue in ways that didn’t help him.’
The best account of the Lib Dem campaign is contained in Chris Rennard’s Winning Here, which dissects how they used local members, local councillors, and local polling to fight on a series of local issues, including a data-harvesting petition against local NHS hospital car park charges.
The by-election team included Candy Piercy handling the media, Norman Baker (then a Lewes councillor) doing casework, John Ricketts in charge of direct mail, and Paul Burstow (then a staffer for the association of Lib Dem councillors) in charge of leaflets. One such leaflet gleefully pointed out that a hospital listed by the Conservatives’ media guide had just been demolished, and the leaflet showed a pile of rubble with the headline ‘The Conservative calls this a hospital’(note the focus on the candidate himself).
Lib Dem ‘pavement politics’, coupled with the unpopularity of the Poll Tax and the Government’s economic policies, allowed them to hoover up protest votes, as well as tactical votes from Labour supporters. There was also the suggestion that the Lib Dems’ persistence in using the Conservative candidate’s full name ‘Richard Saladin Hickmet’ (his father was Turkish) might have served, not only to dissuade the small local Cypriot community from voting Conservative, but also as a ‘dog whistle’ to sections of the wider electorate, cementing his ‘outsider’ status. The Lib Dems issued a pretend tabloid with the headline ‘Ex-Scunthorpe MP fails to impress’. This kind of faux-newspaper, commonplace now, was an innovation. ‘It was brilliantly done’ concedes Labour’s Charlotte Atkins. 
The Conservative campaign focused on the IRA, and on Gow’s murder, with a core message that a vote for anyone other than the Conservatives was a vote for the terrorists. One Tory campaigner told the Sunday Times: ’Our campaign did not put out a single leaflet that sought to explain and defend any aspect of government policy. It was just Gow, Gow, Gow.’
One hard-hitting leaflet in particular caused much resentment, drafted, according to the Sunday Times, by Tony Garrett and Mark Fulbrook, director and deputy director of the campaigns unit at Central Office, who had not visited Eastbourne.
This strategy came under immediate scrutiny once the results were in. The Times quoted Norman Miscampbell, Conservative MP for Blackpool North: ’I cannot believe that running a campaign largely based on asking people to vote out of sentiment for a predecessor is what people appreciate’.
The Sunday Timesreported an anonymous minister as saying: ‘In 11 years of by-election ups and downs I have never found myself actively disliking one of our candidates. This time it was different.’. In response, Richard Hickmet told the Sunday Times: `’Don’t blame me for the campaign. I just did what I was told by (Conservative) Central Office’.
Ann Widdecombe MP tore into the voters themselves, saying that the IRA would be ‘toasting their success’.  The weekend after the election, the Sunday Times reported that ‘bitter infighting broke out inside the Conservative party yesterday over its crushing defeat in the Eastbourne by-election. Party headquarters and Richard Hickmet, the defeated candidate, blamed each other for his ill-fated campaign message that a vote for anyone else would be a victory for terrorism.’
Philip Webster in The Times reported that ‘although there had been some signs that Mr Hickmet’s campaign had not been going as well as expected, particularly his relations with the media, there had been no alarm bells in Smith Square about a possible defeat.’
Clearly, the Conservative campaign was ill-conceived, poorly enacted, and revealed a dysfunctionality at the heart of the Tory election machine. And, as is often the case, the party machine sought to blame the candidate.
The result, when it came in the early hours of 19 October, was a triumph for the Lib Dems, with a 20 per cent swing from the Conservatives. Appearing on an ITV election special Ken Baker, the Conservative chairman, conceded that ‘the parrot has twitched’, to which Ashdown responded ‘some twitch. Thatcher has been bitten hard by this one.’ Labour was lucky to save their deposit.
David Belotti was carried aloft from the Cumberland Hotel on Eastbourne’s Grand Parade, as the first-ever Liberal Democrat to be elected to parliament. The pictures of Ashdown and Belotti waving from the hotel balcony appeared across the media. Belotti’s parliamentary career would last just two years.
At the 1992 general election, the Conservatives would regain Eastbourne (as they did in all seven seats they lost in by-elections in this parliament), and keep it for the next 18 years until Lib Dem Stephen Lloyd’s success in 2010. Belotti died in June 2015, after serving as a county councillor (and less propitiously as chairman of Brighton & Hove Albion football club). Richard Hickmet, after a bruising experience, returned to practise law and is currently a lawyer in the West Country.
For the Liberal Democrats, Eastbourne provided a welcome boost in their fortunes, cemented the reputation of Rennard and his team, and presaged a string of by-election successes: Ribble Valley, Kincardine & Deeside, Newbury, Christchurch, Eastleigh and Littleborough & Saddleworth. They proved themselves to be what Alan Leaman dubbed the ‘Heineken’ party, reaching the parts other parties could not reach, garnering protest votes, and pulling off dramatic wins. 
Duncan Brack, editor of theJournal of Liberal Historysays Eastbourne ‘was critical to the growth of the Liberal Democrats. It provided a much-needed morale boost for the party, and, even more importantly, helped to underline the Liberal Democrats’ recovery in the public eye; it showed not only that the party had survived the assaults of the merger (self-inflicted), the Owenites and the Greens, but that it was capable of reaching parts of the electorate that the official opposition, Labour, could not.’ 
Charlotte Atkins wrote a report for Labour’s leadership on her experience as the candidate, recommending that any future by-election should be taken seriously as a showcase for the party and its policies. This led to Labour forming a more professional by-election operation, including Peter Mandelson, for the contests that followed.
She puts the Tories’ unpopularity down to economic malaise, privatisation, underfunding of the NHS, and cuts to local services, more than the Poll Tax. Atkins recalls:‘the pavements were pitted with holes, and in an appalling state. I would not have let my mother loose on those pavements’
Did Eastbourne see off Thatcher? Eastbourne has understandably entered Lib Dem mythology.
Rennard wrote on the Lib Dem Voicewebsite that ‘Paddy predicted during the by-election that if we won (which he didn’t expect!) Mrs Thatcher would resign. We won and six weeks later Mrs Thatcher went’.
But Thatcher’s resignation had been a long time in coming, and events leading up to her departure, from the poll tax fiasco, to Nigel Lawson’s resignation, to the growing Eurosceptic challenge, to her own aloof leadership style, can also be blamed.
For the Conservatives, Eastbourne was a catastrophe, and a catalyst. In 1990, there were roughly 160 Conservative-held seats, with the Liberal Democrats in second place with smaller majorities than at Eastbourne. Conservative MPs in these seats contemplated their own defeats and looked upon the person who was once their saviour as the main barrier to success. Margaret Thatcher wrote in her memoir ‘The restiveness of Tory back-benchers was transformed into open panic by the Eastbourne by-election…’
This, then, was the most likely reason for Thatcher’s defenestration – pure electoral politics, self-interest, and the ruthlessness for keeping power that the Conservatives have always displayed.
Professor Tim Bale, author of The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron, says ‘forget what Eurosceptics say about Thatcher being brought down by her supposedly Europhile cabinet. She was brought down by backbenchers and frontbenchers alike, whatever their views on Europe, because it had become clear that she had passed her sell-by-date. The Eastbourne by-election was the final straw, proof positive that she had to go.’ 
Thatcher was deposed, and her successor John Major went on to win the 1992 general election with the largest number of votes in British electoral history. Eastbourne proved the Conservatives’ ruthless attachment to power, outweighing any residual loyalty to even successful leaders, and their capacity to remove such leaders with devastating speed and surgical skill.
When you become a liability, you are shown the door: a lesson that will not be lost on Boris Johnson.
Paul Richards lives in Eastbourne and writes about politics. He is author of How to Win an Election.
Alan Clark MP, Dairies (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1993), P.319.
Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years(London: Harper Collins, 1993), P.414.
Paddy Ashdown, The Ashdown Diaries Vol.1(London: Allen Lane, 2000), P.92.
Paddy Ashdown, The Ashdown Diaries Vol.1(London: Allen Lane, 2000), P.93.
Alan Leaman interview with the author 2020
John Braggins, interview with the author 2020
John Braggins, interview with the author 2020
Matthew Swindells, interview with the author, 2020
Paddy Ashdown, The Ashdown Diaries Vol.1(London: Allen Lane, 2000) P.92.
Matthew Swindells, interview with the author, 2020
At the time of writing Ron Atkins is the oldest living former MP, aged 104.
Charlotte Atkins interview with the author 2020
Charlotte Atkins interview with the author 2020
Chris Rennard, Winning Here(London: Biteback, 2018) P.134.
Charlotte Atkins, interview with the author, 2020
Alan Leaman, interview with the author 2020
Dancan Brack, interview with the author 2020
Charlotte Atkins interview with the author 2020
Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years(London: Harper Collins, 1993), P.832.
Tim Bale, interview with the author 2020