I was the Parliamentary Conservative candidate for the old constituency of Brigg and Scunthorpe that had returned a Labour MP for the previous half century. I had been selected for this safe Labour seat on 16th March 1976 – the day Harold Wilson resigned as Prime Minister.
Throughout the late 1970s there was always a prospect of an election at any time. Labour had lost its overall majority and was propped up by David Steel’s Liberals until 1978. The nation waited expectantly for Jim Callaghan to call an election at the TUC conference in September of that year. But his bizarre burst of song – “there she was waiting at the church” – signalled that we would have to wait until the following year.
If he had called the election in the autumn of 1978, I would have lost; so the winter of discontent which occurred subsequently provided the ideal backdrop for my campaign and transformed my prospects.
Polling day began bright but cold and my constituency chairman, my personal assistant (Kevin Bell – now the big cheese of Fleishman Europe!) and I drove around the polling stations and committee rooms. The rural parts around Brigg were already voting heavily and the plethora of Tory posters in the villages and on farm gates and trees told us we were getting universal support from our own people.
Lunch was a leisurely affair at a country hotel but the weather began to turn for the worse during the early afternoon as we set of for the Labour stronghold of Scunthorpe – a steel town employing 20,000 at the British Steel Corporation.
We toured the Tory wards first but became worried that the huge queues outside the polling stations might not have the patience to withstand the torrential rain and hail that started about 4pm and continued throughout the evening. But shift workers in the Labour areas who traditionally voted between 6pm and 8pm were nowhere to be seen. No-one appeared to be in the polling stations. Momentarily I thought we might just do it.
But I had to await my fate until the following afternoon as we counted the next day. So I went to bed at 10pm, not aware of a single result until I awoke at 8am to Radio Humberside reporting that Mrs Thatcher was on course for Downing street with a 5.3% swing to the Tories. “On this basis the only remaining result to be declared in our region at Brigg and Scunthorpe, requiring a Tory swing of 5.6 per cent is within range of Michael Brown”, intoned the local reporter.
The atmosphere at the count was tense but I had a secret advantage. The Mayor of Scunthorpe, Cyril Nottingham, a Labour moderate, had been expelled from his party and decided to stand as an independent. He polled over 2,000 votes which would probably otherwise have gone to Labour. In addition, he was also standing for the local council (elections for which took place on the same day). Over 700 voters cast their parliamentary ballots with two crosses – one for the official Labour candidate and one for Mr Nottingham. So these ballots were spoilt. Nice one Cyril!
Tory HQ were constantly on the phone to my agent because they were sweating on our result that would formally put the Tories past the winning post and cause the magic phone call from Buckingham Palace to Mrs Thatcher.
After three recounts I was finally declared elected at 1.30pm on the Friday afternoon with a majority over Labour of 486. So began an 18 year parliamentary adventure – the like of which we hope to see again for my successor, Andrew Percy, in Brigg and Goole in a year’s time.