PM fingered for ‘unjust style’ after heavy loss in Norwich

Author: By Nigel Morris, Deputy political editor

The party’s vote haemorrhaged as the Tories won a convincing victory in the
first contest to be forced by the Commons expenses scandal.

Chloe Smith, 27, will arrive at Westminster in the autumn as the country’s
youngest MP after achieving a swing of 16.5 per cent to capture the
previously safe Labour seat by a comfortable majority of 7,348 votes.

The by-election was called after Ian Gibson quit Parliament in protest over
being barred by Labour’s “star chamber” from standing for the
party at the next election.

As Labour recriminations grew over the scale of the defeat, MPs claimed that
the Prime Minister’s determination to act tough had backfired disastrously.

Writing in The Independent today, Charles Clarke, the former Home Secretary
and MP for the neighbouring seat of Norwich South, says that Mr Brown was
selective over which Labour MPs were targeted after the expenses storm
erupted.

He says: “It was this arbitrary approach which led directly to the
by-election as the Prime Minister vilified Ian Gibson, but not on any fair
basis. This incompetent and unjust style has deeply damaged democratic
politics.”

The Labour leadership took swift action against Mr Gibson after it emerged he
claimed more than £80,000 in expenses for a flat where his daughter lived
rent-free and then sold it to her at a discount price.

His supporters claimed he had been deliberately singled out because of his
history of criticism of the leadership and won the backing of many activists
in Norwich North when he resigned immediately in protest over his treatment.

Labour mounted a lacklustre campaign in the constituency with little support
from senior ministers. It ended with its candidate, Chris Ostrowski,
confined to quarantine with swine flu and his wife taking his place at the
count yesterday.

When the result was declared, nearly three-quarters of Labour’s support at the
last election evaporated, with Mr Ostrowski picking up 6,243 votes, less
than half of the 13,591 picked up by Ms Smith.

The size of the anti-Labour swing almost matches that achieved by the Tories
last year in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election. Repeated in a general
election, it would propel David Cameron into Downing Street with a
three-figure majority.

The only consolation for Labour was that it held on to second place as the
anti-government vote fractured between the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and
the UK Independence Party. Thousands of disillusioned former Labour voters
also appeared to have stayed at home.

The collapse in support came amid deep gloom among Labour MPs, who left
Westminster yesterday for the parliamentary summer recess.

Their low morale in the wake of the expenses revelations means there is no
immediate mood for a fresh attempt to oust Mr Brown, although the question
of his leadership could resurface at the Labour conference in September.

The mood was summed up by Andrew Mackinlay, who told his constituency party in
Thurrock, Essex, that he would step down at the next election. He said last
night: “Despite what’s peddled in the media, it’s unrelenting work ?
seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.”

Labour MPs from all sections of the party denounced the treatment of Mr Gibson
by their leadership. One minister said: “I don’t understand why he was
deselected by the star chamber ? I just don’t get it.”

Denis MacShane, the former Foreign Office Minister, said: “Ian was very
popular in the Commons and in his constituency. It was a misjudgement to
expel him and we have paid a very serious price.”

Left-winger Alan Simpson protested: “Ian was the victim of a political
assassination orchestrated by the party machine in London. The machine
wanted a sacrificial victim and who better than to go for than one of
Gordon’s critics, rather than his friends?”

Tony Wright, chairman of the public administration select committee, said: “He
was a victim of a moment when all parties, and all party leaders, were
falling over each other to show how tough they were being.”

Mr Brown admitted the reverse was “disappointing” but attempted to
play down its significance, saying no party “can take a great deal of
cheer from this” as votes for main parties fell across the board.

What happened next: The youngest members

At the age of 27, Chloe Smith joins an eclectic list of youngest MPs, from
Esmond Harmsworth, who ran Associated Newspapers, and George Grey, killed at
Normandy in 1944, to Roy Jenkins and John Profumo. Here, others recall
entering the Commons as its youngest member.

*Tony Benn, 1950, aged 25

I was only the Baby of the House for 24 hours ? a guy called Tom Teevan took
his oath the following day.

Advice: My dad said: “Say what you mean, mean what you say, do what you
said you’d do, and don’t attack people personally.”

*David Steel, 1965, aged 26

There was no induction course. People drew diagrams to show me how to get
around.

Advice: Take a little time before making a maiden speech.

*Charles Kennedy, 1983, aged 23

I was in awe of the place. Here were all these famous names, Jim Callaghan,
Powell, Michael Foot, Ted Heath, just inches away. Callaghan gave me a tour
and told the library staff I needed to be looked after.

Advice: The same as in any walk of life, don’t be afraid to ask. People always
like to be asked.

*David Lammy, 2000, aged 27

There were lots of press and flash photography. Then you’re stood in central
lobby and you might as well be a tourist. You have no office, no staff. It’s
daunting.

Advice: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Take time to reflect on the kind of MP
you want to be that’s true to your personality. It’s important to spend lots
of time in the chamber. You have to learn the craft.

*Sarah Teather, 2003, aged 29

It was an amazing spotlight for raising your constituents’ concerns ? you
don’t get that again unless you go on to be a frontbencher.

Advice: Your first few months will be a nightmare, but remember you have
something that most colleagues won’t ever have ? a profile.

Interviews by Tom Peck

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