The Conservatives had held the Cheltenham constituency, interrupted only by the independent Daniel Lipson, since James Agg-Gardner’s historic by-election victory in 1911. But in 1992, the omens were not good. At national level, Mrs Thatcher had been ousted and her replacement John Major had struggled to hold the government’s different factions in check.
The Liberals and now Liberal Democrats had been edging closer and closer to victory in Cheltenham for 20 years and were now the dominant party in local council elections. Worst of all, the much-loved Charles Irving was standing down. His Liberal challenger Richard Holme had taken a shortcut to Parliament as Lord Holme of Cheltenham so both parties were looking for new candidates.
After a close-fought selection contest, the LibDems chose the returned candidate from 1987, Nigel Jones, now a councillor and proven local campaigner. Despite the obvious vulnerability of the seat, the Tories bravely picked John Taylor, a Birmingham lawyer with no campaigning experience. In one TV interview he tactlessly described his choice of Cheltenham as ‘just a box I ticked on a list’. More controversially, Taylor was also the party’s first black candidate for a winnable seat and racist remarks were attributed to members of his own party during the campaign, a doubtless unconscious echo of the prejudice against Lipson that had doomed their 1937 campaign.
The result that had looked increasingly inevitable following years of campaigning by Jones and his Liberal predecessors finally came about. He snatched the seat with a narrow 1,668 majority, the first Liberal to represent Cheltenham for more than 80 years. Taylor later followed Richard Holme into the Lords as the Tories’ first black peer but chose Warwick not Cheltenham as his territorial designation. In 2011 Taylor’s parliamentary career ended in disgrace when he was prosecuted for false accounting following the parliamentary expenses scandal. Media comment that Jones had won the seat in 1992 because of Taylor’s colour did a particular injustice both to years of Liberal campaigning and to Nigel’s profoundly anti-racist politics.
In his maiden speech Nigel paid an unusually generous tribute to his Tory predecessor Charles Irving and repeated his own commitment to the restoration of trade union rights at GCHQ. He had the satisfaction of seeing this happen in 1997 and worked hard to keep GCHQ in Cheltenham when its relocation was suggested. His own career had been in the fast-growing computer technology sector and he brought a rare technical expertise to Parliament. He was quickly made spokesman for his party on local government and housing and then on science and technology. A bewildering succession of spokesmanships followed, including consumer affairs, national heritage and international development. He shared previous Cheltenham MPs’ interest in food and drink and became chair of the all-party beer group. But he was also a former Cheltenham Young Liberal and deeply rooted in the radical community politics tradition of the modern Liberal Democrats.
The 1997 general election saw a national rejection of the Conservatives, taking Labour’s Tony Blair to Downing Street and helping Nigel to a quadrupled 6,645 majority despite his opponent being a popular local Tory councillor John Todman. Nigel worked hard to earn the loyalty of his constituents and occasionally described his aim to become ‘Mr.Cheltenham’. Sadly, his second term was overshadowed by one terrible event. In January 2000, a mentally-ill constituent, Robert Ashman, attacked Nigel and his assistant Andy Pennington with a samurai sword in their office. Nigel was wounded, Andy killed.
Coping with the obvious trauma, Nigel returned to work and developed a growing interest in the promotion of democracy and development overseas. He was re-elected with another comfortable majority at the 2001 general election. But more problems lay ahead, probably compounded by the stress he had suffered since the attack. Nigel suffered a series of heart attacks which further limited his work at Westminster. Late in 2004, he accepted the inevitable advice of family and doctors to stand down. But his contribution to British politics and the international causes he had adopted was not over. He became a working Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords after the 2005 general election, the first former and so far only Cheltenham MP to be awarded a peerage and the first to sit in the Lords since Lord Duncannon in 1937.
Cheltenham remained a Liberal Democrat seat at the election, Martin Horwood’s win marking the longest run of Liberal victories since the days of the Berkeleys in the 1840s.