This article was originally published on 3 July 2019.
Listening to the Today programme a voice from my past comes over the airwaves. Lord, Kenneth of old, Baker was explaining how the toppling of Theresa compared to the Tory original sin of Mrs Thatcher’s removal in November 1990.
My very small footnote in that history is that I ran, very badly, the Conservative campaign in the Eastbourne parliamentary by-election called when Ian Gow was murdered by the IRAon July 30th 1990. Defending a Conservative majority of 15,000 and given the appalling circumstances of his death (blown up outside his house in the constituency) it should have been a breeze to hold oﬀ the challenge of the Liberals.
The problem was the poll tax. That summer there had been riots in central London over its perceived unfairness and, like Brexit today, it had sucked the life out of MrsT’s third administration. I knew things were a bit sticky on the Eastbourne streets when our canvassers started reporting that previously reliable Tory voters were not looking them in the eye but, with zero local infrastructure or data, on the eve of the poll we frankly had no idea how things would turn out.
Two hours before the count I was at dinner, at the Hungry Monk in Jevington, with the Tory candidate and another MP. After a glass or two, we had persuaded ourselves that there would be an inevitable erosion of the Gow majority but nothing worse. At
“Stephen? This is Kenneth Baker [then Chairman of the Conservative Party]. I am in Number 10 with the Prime Minister and she would like a word. I am going to hand you over now.” Gulp.
“Stephen, are we going to win?” that famous breathy voice asked. “You know how important this result is to me personally and to the Government. If there is to be bad news tonight we need to prepare for it.” Double gulp. What I should have said was, “I haven’t a clue”. But, as an ambitious young Tory, what I actually did was stand up straight, cough and say, “Yes, Prime Minister, I am confident we will win albeit with a reduced majority.”
Two hours later the Eastbourne returning oﬃcer announced that Gow’s 15,000