Election 2017: Interrupting by-elections

On the day that the Manchester Gorton by-election was due to take place, Dr Kathryn Rix of our Victorian Commons project looks at by-elections that never were, and MPs returned at by-elections who almost immediately faced a general election contest…

Alongside the local government elections taking place across the country today, there should also have been a by-election to choose a successor to Sir Gerald Kaufman. However, with the 2017 general election little more than a month away, Manchester Gorton’s electors will now be going to the polls at the same time as the rest of Britain. When the question of cancelling the writ for this by-election was discussed in the Commons, the Leader of the House, David Lidington, cited a precedent from November 1923. This blog discusses that earlier cancelled by-election and other by-elections that were subsumed by the dissolution of Parliament. It also looks at by-elections held close to a general election, including one MP who faced two elections within the space of a week.

Labour candidate for Warwick and Leamington, Daisy Greville, by The Lafayette Studio, via Wikimedia Commons

In November 1923, following the appointment of their Conservative MP, Sir Ernest Pollock, as Master of the Rolls, the voters of Warwick and Leamington faced a by-election to fill the vacancy. Three candidates came forward. The most politically experienced was the Liberal, George Nicholls, who had sat as Labour MP for North Northamptonshire from 1906 until January 1910. He had since made several unsuccessful attempts to return to the Commons, both as a Labour candidate and, more recently, as a Liberal. His Conservative opponent was Anthony Eden, the future Prime Minister. Eden had just got married, and his wife Beatrice was greeted with bouquets and confetti as she toured the constituency’s villages during his by-election campaign. He was making his second attempt to win a parliamentary seat, having stood the previous year for Spennymoor, county Durham. The Labour candidate was Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick. A former mistress of Edward VII, she had long been engaged in politics, being elected as a poor law guardian in 1894, and in 1904 had joined the Social Democratic Federation. Her candidature generated a great deal of interest, not only as an aristocratic woman campaigning for the Labour party, but also because she and Eden were related: her son, Lord Brooke, was married to Eden’s sister.

All three candidates handed in their nomination papers on 13 November 1923. However, since the Conservative Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, informed the Commons on the same day of his decision to call a snap general election on the question of free trade, the returning officer, acting on advice from the Home Office, cancelled the by-election the following day. Instead of polling on 22 November, Warwick and Leamington’s electors voted with the rest of the country on 6 December. They returned Eden at the top of the poll, with Nicholls second and Lady Warwick a distant third. Eden represented the constituency throughout his Commons career.

In a curious case, discovered by Dr. Martin Spychal in his research for our House of Commons, 1832-68 project, a by-election which in fact never took place has been recorded in reference works such as Charles Dod’s Electoral facts (1853) and McCalmont’s Parliamentary Poll Book (first published in 1879). They both record the return of Sir Charles Knightley for Northamptonshire South in November 1834. The seat had become vacant on 10 November, when one of the constituency’s sitting MPs, Viscount Althorp, succeeded to the peerage as Earl Spencer on his father’s death. In fact, although Knightley canvassed the constituency in anticipation of the by-election, no writ had been issued before the new Conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel took the decision to dissolve Parliament in December 1834. Knightley had to wait until the general election in January 1835, when he was elected unopposed.

The last by-election of the first Reformed Parliament actually took place on Christmas Eve 1834, just five days before the dissolution. Thomas Fitzgerald, one of the MPs for the double-member Irish county constituency of Louth, had died on 30 October 1834. Two candidates came forward for the ensuing by-election. Sir Patrick Bellew had previously sat for the county from 1831-2, and his brother Richard was County Louth’s other sitting MP. He was challenged by the Hon. Chichester Thomas Skeffington Foster. However, once it became evident that the dissolution of Parliament was imminent, Skeffington Foster announced on 22 December that he would not contest the by-election, holding his fire for the general election. Bellew was elected without opposition, and retained the seat alongside his brother at the general election the following month, when Skeffington Foster came third.

Daniel O’Donoghue by ‘Spy’ (Leslie Ward) published in Vanity Fair, 1880, via Wikimedia Commons

An Irish constituency also saw the last by-election contest before the 1857 general election. Like the 1834 Louth by-election, it took place just five days before the dissolution, but as Parliament was still sitting, the victor was able to take his seat, which had not been the case for Bellew. On 16 February 1857, one of the seats for Tipperary became vacant after James Sadleir was expelled from the Commons. Both he and his brother, John, MP for the borough of Sligo, had become embroiled in scandal after their fraudulent transactions led to the collapse of the Tipperary Joint-Stock Bank, which they had co-founded in 1838. John Sadleir committed suicide in February 1856, while James fled to the Continent a few months later to escape justice. At the by-election on 16 March 1857, Daniel O’Donoghue defeated Laurence Waldron. He was sworn in at Westminster on 21 March 1857, taking his seat ‘amidst considerable laughter’. This no doubt stemmed from the fact that, apart from a few questions to ministers, the only other business conducted by MPs that day was to hear the dissolution announced. O’Donoghue did, however, return to the Commons following his re-election at the general election the following month.

Although they took place so close to the dissolution, neither the Tipperary nor Louth contests hold the record for the latest by-election before a dissolution. That goes to the Ealing division of Middlesex, where Lord George Hamilton had to seek re-election in July 1895 following his appointment as Secretary of State for India by the new Conservative Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury. Until 1926, ministers had to stand for re-election when they were appointed to office. Hamilton’s was the last of eight ministerial by-elections held in June and July 1895, and like his colleagues, he was not opposed. According to one press report, he was declared elected at noon on 8 July. At 3 p.m. that day, at a privy council held at Windsor Castle, Queen Victoria signed the proclamation for the dissolution of Parliament. Five days later, Hamilton was again returned for Ealing at the general election.

All the MPs mentioned so far were successful in winning a seat at a general election. This was not, however, the case for the last MP elected before the 1906 general election. On 6 December 1905, polling took place in the New Forest division of Hampshire to replace the Conservative MP John Scott-Montagu, who had succeeded to the peerage. Henry Francis Compton retained the seat for the Conservatives, seeing off a Liberal challenge from Richard Hobart, but as Parliament was not sitting, he could not be sworn in as an MP. Compton and Hobart stood again at the general election, when there was some local feeling that ‘rejecting Mr. Compton before he has been allowed to take his seat would be adding insult to injury’.  However, although this constituency had been held by the Conservatives since its creation in 1885 (including by Compton’s uncle), the Liberal landslide of 1906 saw him narrowly lose out to Hobart. Compton’s fate was shared by the Barkston Ash MP, Joseph Andrews, who had won a surprise by-election victory for the Liberals in this Yorkshire constituency in October 1905. This spurred the Conservatives to reinvigorate the local party organisation, and Barkston Ash reverted to its traditional Conservatism at the 1906 general election, ousting Andrews before his Commons career had even begun.


See our ongoing series for more posts inspired by the 2017 General Election – more to follow soon!

One thought on “Election 2017: Interrupting by-elections

  1. “but also because she and Eden were related: her son, Lord Brooke, was married to Eden’s sister”

    Strictly speaking they were “connected” not “related” – there was no blood relationship between Eden and Lady Warwick.

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