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The constituency of Henley is a largely rural seat in south-east Oxfordshire, which naturally includes the town of Henley-on-Thames together with the smaller conurbations of Thame and Watlington. For many years it returned Michael Heseltine to the House of Commons until he retired and his place was taken in 2001 by Boris Johnson. As it was Johnson later stood as the Conservative candidate in the London Mayoral Elections of 2008 and gave an undertaking that, if elected, he would stand down from the House of Commons. Boris was duly elected as the Mayor of London on the 1st May 2008, although it wasn't expected that he would resign from Parliament until the autumn of 2008.

Indeed at one time it was suggested that Boris's father, Stanley Patrick Johnson might take his place as he remained on the list of approved Conservative candidates. However given the criticism the Labour Party had received for applying the principle of dynastic succession at Crewe and Nantwich and selecting the daughter of the previous incumbent as their candidate, it seemed unlikely that the Conservatives would make the same mistake, apart from the fact that one Johnson was probably enough to be going on with. Nevertheless the local Conservative association had a timetable in mind which involved holding an open primary to select their candidate sometime after the summer, however Conservative Party Central Office had other ideas; specifically they wanted the by-election called as soon as possible in order to maintain the momentum generated by their recent run electoral success in May 2008. Initially the local party seemed reluctant to concede the point, and in the end David Cameron had to go down personally to persuade the local party to fall into line.

It was also said that Cameron had "learnt the lesson of Crewe and Nantwich" and so insisted on a local candidate, despite the recent local tradition of selecting 'big name' candidates at Henley. The local Conservative association therefore drew up a shortlist of three local councillors, being Ann Ducker, John Howell and John Cotton. Stanley Johnson was reported to be "disappointed" not to have been placed on the shortlist. However, even though Ann Ducker, who was the leader of South Oxfordshire Council, was regarded as the "hot favourite", on the 30th May 2008 it was announced that John Howell, a cabinet member on Oxfordshire County Council had been selected as the Conservative candidate. A former partner at the accountancy firm Ernst and Young, who had received an OBE in 2000, whom the party naturally claimed would be a "champion for the constituency".

On the 4th June, Boris Johnson announced that he would indeed be standing down as expected, and confirmation arrived later that day with the news that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had appointed Johnson as the Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead, in order to trigger his disqualification as a member of the House of Commons. On the following day the Conservatives moved the writ for the by-election in the Commons and confirmed that it would be held on the 26th June.

The Candidates

The Labour Party had their candidate Richard McKenzie, a former Reading councillor, already in place, as did the Liberal Democrats with Stephen Kearney, who was the founder and chief executive of the Action to Re:Generate Trust, a community development charity he had founded with his partner in 1989. They were joined by Mark Stevenson (Green Party), Chris Adams (United Kingdom Independence Party), and Tim Rait (British National Party), whilst naturally the Official Monster Raving Loony Party put forward one Peter Owen, otherwise known as 'Top Cat Owen' or 'Bananaman', and a veteran of successive contests at Wokingham in 1997, 2001, and 2005.

When the nominations for candidates closed on the 11th June the news emerged that there would be not one but two candidates standing for the unofficial Miss Great Britain Party in the form of Louise Anne Cole and Amanda Jayne Harrington, although neither of them were, or had been, a Miss Great Britain, but merely finalists in the contest. There was no sadly no explanation forthcoming as to why it was felt the Party needed two candidates, but since one was a blonde and the other a brunette, perhaps it was believed that each would appeal to a different class of voter.

Two further fringe candidates also emerged in Harry Bear for The Fur Play Party and Dick Rodgers for The Common Good, and indeed the returning officer was apparently anticipating two further candidates, but neither materialised in the end. As it turned out the Fur Play Party had nothing to do with the fur trade as one might have imagined, although it had everything to do with one Richard Heller, author of Membear Of Parliament (Bearmondsey Publishing, 2007), in which a bear named Harry is elected to the House of Commons. Dick Rodgers turned out to be a Church of England clergyman from Birmingham who had founded The Common Good with the sole purpose of "making the world a better place" in the belief that the British people could discover a sense of purpose by devoting themselves to the improvement of the lot of their fellow man.

The Campaign

Clearly Labour did not have a snowball's chance of hell in winning in Henley, given that it was, after all, one of the safest Conservative seats in the country, and that Labour had only recently achieved its lowest recorded opinion poll rating in history. The Liberal Democrats however entertained hopes of winning the seat. Indeed Henley might well be regarded as 'traditional' Lib Dem by-election territory, where a combination of apathy from Conservative voters and tactical voting by Labour supporters had in the past combined to deliver a 'stunning' victory. Unfortunately this always seemed to be something of a long shot at Henley, if only because there appeared to be a distinct lack of Labour supporters around.

As it was the Liberal Democrats claimed that the Conservatives were 'split' over their choice of candidate, whilst their candidate's campaign had got off to a "strong start". On the other hand the Conservatives were equally insistent that their campaign had got off to a "flying start" and that the Liberal Democrats were 'split' over their choice of candidate. Indeed the Liberal Democrats had followed the pattern set at Crewe and Nantwich of dumping their existing local candidate in favour of a presumably more media friendly outsider. The original Liberal Democrat candidate was an Oxfordshire councillor named Susan Cooper, who was however de-selected when it became clear that a by-election was in the offing. Ms Cooper was understandably not entirely happy with the decision and was quoted as saying, "I think cross is the wrong adjective, but I am probably not meant to say anything about it". As it turned out Stephen Kearney had last been seen in Plymouth where he and his partner Julia Olsen, were living on board a "37ft Etap boat at Plymouth Yacht Haven" which they claimed was cheaper than a house. At that time Kearney was insisting that he was "now settled in Plymouth and I love it" when he unsuccessfully stood for election to Plymouth City Council in May 2008.

Naturally the first big Conservative leaflet drop made much of Kearney's status as a carpetbagger newly arrived from two hundred miles away to the south-west, and equally naturally the Liberal Democrats objected to this portrayal of their candidate. On the 2nd June Mr Kearney called on John Howell to withdraw the leaflet on the grounds that it contained a "mis-truth" (sic), and claimed that he had "moved to Aston Rowant" within the constituency "several weeks ago". However given that he had only announced on the 30th May 2008 that he had made good on his pledge to move into the Henley constituency "less than a fortnight" after being selected it appeared that perhaps "weeks" was a typographical error for "days". (Indeed it was probably Mr Kearney who had taken op the lease of 'The Annexe', a "bright and self-contained flat within a family house" in Aston Rowant which was being advertised at a rent of £995 a month earlier in May.)

John Howell's Campaign Blog featured details the usual round of local electioneering events, whilst Stephen Kearney's Campaign Blog largely consisted of sundry attacks on Mr Howell, and Richard McKenzie ... well, to be honest, it didn't appear as if the Labour candidate was doing much at all, which was perfectly understandable in the circumstances. The Liberal Democrats however appeared to have decided to 'go negative' from the off, and variously claimed that Mr Howell was "unpopular with pensioners", and that his selection was a "major mistake" because of his links to "property developers" which they claimed laid him open to charges of "hypocrisy", although they were probably simply upset that he was organising a petition against the proposed building of 4,000 homes in the Green Belt by the Liberal Democrat controlled Oxford City Council, a suggestion which was naturally vehemently opposed by the Conservative controlled Oxfordshire County Council.

On occasion it seemed as if matters were getting a little out of hand, as when the Thame Gazette ran the headline 'Don't use us as a pawn, school tells Lib Dems' as it reported on a complaint by the Mill Lane Primary School in Chinnor that the Liberal Democrats had circulated a leaflet around the village that claimed there was a "budget squeeze" on local schools and featured a photograph of Stephen Kearney together with two school children which rather implied that he'd visited the school. Mill Lane denied that there was any squeeze on its finances or that Mr Kearney had ever set foot in the school. More significantly perhaps the Liberal Democrats also accused Howell of misrepresenting his involvement in a campaign to save a local hospital. The Conservatives did not like this, requested a retraction which was not forthcoming, and so instructed its solicitors to "pursue the matter legally". There was also threat to pursue a libel action over another suggestion by the Liberal Democrats that their candidate had been backed by Boris Johnson. The Conservatives duly retaliated by complaining that the Lib Dems were fighting a negative campaign and that voters "deserved better", and appeared confident that this tactic was having an effect on the doorstep. This was perhaps what Stanley Johnson meant when he wrote in the Daily Telegraph of the 22nd June of how the local campaign had "been fierce and unforgiving".

However, in contrast to the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, media interest in the Henley contest was always subdued, given that a Conservative victory seemed inevitable, and indeed apart from the sundry Lib Dem pot-shots at the Conservative candidate, very little of interest took place. The Miss Great Britain Party made the odd public appearance to promote their campaign for a National Beauty Day; Louise told the Henley Standard that "We need more beauty in our everyday lives" and Amanda said that she wanted "to see everyone make themselves beautiful for a day"; whilst some "mystery intruders" raided the Conservative Campaign Headquarters in Thame on the 6th June and carried out "some minor vandalism", but that was really the sum total of the excitement. In any event the whole by-election was rather overshadowed by the news of the 12th June, when David Davies announced his resignation from both the shadow cabinet and the House of Commons, in pursuance of his one man campaign for civil liberties.

The Result

Whilst the Liberal Democrats were sticking up posters across Henley bearing the slogan "Winning Here", for a more realistic assessment of the likely outcome one should always 'follow the money'. On the 6th June Ladbrokes were quoting the Conservatives as the 16-1 on favourites with the Liberal Democrats at 6/1 and Labour at 100/1. After two weeks of campaigning Ladbrokes had shortened the Conservative odds to 25-1 on by the 21st June, whilst those on the Liberal Democrats had lengthened to 8/1. At Betfair the market appeared to have settled at 18-1 on for the Conservatives, with the Liberal Democrats at 12-1, which was much the same really, and indicated that no one really believed the Lib Dems had much of a chance.

On polling day the weather in Henley was described as "sunny intervals with maximum temperatures of 21C", and after the poll closed at 10.00 pm, all eyes turned towards the count at the Thame Leisure Centre. The overall turnout was 34,915 or 50.5%, well down on the General Election of 2005 turnout of over 67%, but no bad for a by-election where the result never appeared to be in doubt. Just after 1.30 am the result itself finally came through, which was to no one's surprise a Conservative victory, with the top six polling as follows;

John Howell - Conservative Party, 19,796 (56.95%)
Stephen Kearney - Liberal Democrats, 9,680 (27.85%)
Mark Stevenson - Green Party, 1,321 (3.80%)
Timothy Rait - British National Party, 1,243 (3.58%)
Richard McKenzie - Labour Party, 1,066 (3.07%)
Chris Adams - United Kingdom Independence Party, 843 (2.43%)

giving a Conservative majority of 10,116, which was marginally up in percentage terms from the General Election result of 2005, and constituted a 0.81% swing from the Liberal Democrats to the Conservatives.

The Liberal Democrats may well have taken comfort from the fact that their share of the vote was up from 26% to almost 28%, although they were also likely disappointed given the time and effort expended that they had failed to obtain much benefit from the collapse of the Labour vote, which fell from 14.7% to just over 3%, as the Labour candidate both lost his deposit and found himself pushed into fifth place behind the Green Party and the British National Party. As far as the remainder were concerned, the Monster Raving Loony Party received 242 votes, ahead of the English Democrats with 157, whilst in the 'battle of the beauties', Amanda Harrington came out ahead of Louise Cole by 128 votes to 91, as the Common Good received 121 votes and Harry Bear trailed in last with a mere 73.

This was a "massive victory" according to ConservativeHome, if only because the party had succeeded in blunting the once fearsome Lib Dem by-election machine, whilst the Labour collapse was variously described as an "abysmal", "grim", "shocking" and "humiliating" and not quite the "anniversary present Gordon Brown was hoping for" as he was due to celebrate his first year in office as Prime Minister. No doubt David Cameron took as much pleasure from Labour's failure as did from his own party's success.


There was a previous by-election at Henley in 1932. The Conservatives won that one as well.


SOURCES

The above article is drawn from a variety of reports in the British media including BBC News, The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express and their Sunday equivalents, as well as The Sun, Daily Mirror and the News of the World as well as sundry political blogs of a semiofficial nature such as Liberal Democrat Voice and ConservativeHome. See also;

  • UK Polling Report:Henley, http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/guide/seat-profiles/henley
  • South Oxfordshire District Council: Henley by-election, http://www.southoxon.gov.uk/ccm/navigation/council-and-democracy/henley-by-election/
  • The Acting Returning Officer, David Buckle's blog, http://henleybyelection.blogspot.com/
  • The main candidates own campaign websites:-
    http://www.henleylibdems.org.uk/
    http://www.henley.labour.co.uk/
    http://www.henleyconservatives.com/
  • Thame Gazette http://www.thametoday.co.uk/
  • Henley Standard http://www.henleystandard.co.uk/

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