In Memory of David Rendel

May 17, 2016 2:52 PM

Front page of Evening Standard newspaper reporting David Rendel's by-election win in NewburySad to hear of the death of David Rendel, victor of the 1993 Newbury by-election

David Rendel was not a local choice to fight the Newbury constituency when he was selected by the Liberals there to fight the 1987 General Election there. At his first attempt, he came 17,000 votes behind the Conservatives. But he moved there, Sue became a local GP, they brought up their children there, and he became a local Councillor.

At his second attempt to win the seat in 1992, he came 12,000 votes behind the new MP Judith Chaplin. In the year after that election, the Lib Dems had virtually disappeared from sight in the national media. But David and the Newbury Lib Dems had by now gained control of the District Council, he was building a strong profile in the Newbury Weekly News and we were the clear opposition to the Conservatives in the spring of 1993 when Judith Chaplin unexpectedly died.

My friend and former Campaigns Department colleague Tim Payne had rung me with the news. I made him the agent and we assembled a team including many of the party's leading campaigners. Matthew Taylor chaired the morning press conferences (daily in those days). Pat Wainwright, Gerald Vernon-Jackson (later David's agent when he retained the seat), Vicky Young, Katy Vigar, Ben Rich and James Gurling were amongst them.

At that point, the Conservatives had seemed invulnerable after winning a fourth consecutive term in Government. But in the budget of 1993, they went too far when Norman Lamont announced that VAT would in future be added to domestic fuel bills. I organised petitions against this proposal in the local papers, in all our leaflets and targeted direct mail letters. The response was massive and many people had a reason to support us.

Local campaigns about the future of Greenham Common, the need for a new hospital and to deal with the terrible traffic congestion in Newbury town centre all provided momentum for our campaign. We were helped by the fact that the former Labour candidate said that his party should make way for us. When they did not stand aside, appointing Peter Mandelson as my opposite number to run their campaign, he said that Labour supporters should switch to us.

David's high personal profile, coupled with a very effective campaign based on the issues that mattered most to the people across Newbury and West Berkshire and the work of the local Lib Dems over many years gave us as a chance. The BBC decided to make a documentary about the campaign and were delighted when 'On the Record', as narrated by the late David Walter, was broadcast on the Sunday after polling day.

It recorded how we had come from 12,000 behind, for David to win with a landslide 22,005 majority (and a 28% swing). When told of the result in the middle of the night, Paddy Ashdown famously screamed down the phone, "I wanted to be told the majority, not what was our vote." It had to be explained to him that we had won with 37,950 votes (65.1%), compared to the Tories 15,535 (26.9% and Labour's 1,151 (2%).

The high profile campaign revived the party and boosted us to the mid-20s in national opinion polls. It provided a base from which we could go on to win the Christchurch by-election three months later and was one of four parliamentary by-election gains that we made from the Tories in that Parliament, helping to weaken them and remove their slender parliamentary majority. Norman Lamont (whose Special Adviser was then David Cameron) was sacked shortly afterwards. The campaign helped to show the party a different way of fighting elections and which was hugely successful for us when we doubled our number of MPs in 1997.

The party owes much to David, the family who supported him and the team of local Lib Dems in Newbury who enabled this to happen.