In 1990, the IRA murdered Ian Gow, then the Conservative MP for Eastbourne. The main opposition parties fought the subsquent by-election as usual. Indeed, the principal challenger in the seat, the Liberal Democrats, actually won the contest.
These are different times, and it has been announced that there will be no Tory candidate for the by-election in Batley and Spen. Some Conservative MPs who I have spoken to today – supporters of Remain and Leave alike – believe that this is the right decision. They feel that the murder of a Parliamentarian is so heinous an act that the Party should stand aside in the by-election as a mark of respect.
However, this is not the view of most of those I have spoken to today, especially those on the Leave side. The general take is that while recalling Parliament is one thing – it is to reconvene on Monday for tributes to Jo Cox – not putting up a candidate in the by-election is quite another.
The Gow precedent was raised with me by several of them. At its heart, though, the case for standing in the by-election is that since the murder of Jo Cox was an attack on democracy itself, it is all the more important that the democratic process goes on as usual, and is not knocked off its course by murder and mayhem. “It’s part of a cuture change,” one source told me. “There’s a touch of Diana-fication here.”
“It’s a mistaken decision,” one senior MP told me. Another said “that it’s understandable doesn’t make it right. The Liberal Democrats didn’t stand down in Eastbourne, and we shouldn’t do so now”. “I can see the argument either way, but can’t help thinking that the answer to an assault on democracy is more democracy,” said a third.
Whatever your view, one potential argument against the decision doesn’t apply. Were UKIP to run a candidate and the Tories not to, the former would have a chance to build up their position during the run-up to 2020 – in a seat that could otherwise be vulnerable to the Conservatives then. However, UKIP – like the Liberal Democrats and the Greens – apparently won’t be standing a candidate either. Downing Street won’t have wanted the Party to be the odd one out.