25 Years on and Cornwall’s Liberal Democrats should still remember David Penhaligon today

Truro and St Austell’s MP from 1974-1986 remembered today

People often ask whether you can remember where you were when JFK died. I don’t I was too young. But, for those of us who can remember David Penhaligon the feeling, I suspect, is similar to those people felt when John Kennedy was shot. A feeling of deep loss having very little personal knowledge of the man personally.

As an MP from a peripheral party at the time he was possibly a surprising national political figure who had garnered a great deal of national publicity and was almost certainly the shoo in as the next leader of the party, ahead of the eventual winner – Paddy Ashdown.

I was sitting in my front room with several school friends when I heard the news, being only 16 he had had a surprisingly big impression on me. Although I joined the SDP I had briefly met David Penhaligon once and also seen him speak once. The former was on polling day in the Knowsley North By-election, caused by the resignation of Robert Kilroy-Silk as a Labour MP. I, and fellow campaigners, had been out delivering leaflets in the pouring Merseyside weather and returned to the Alliance HQ, where we discovered David Penhaligon and other party luminaries with their sleeves rolled up delving into the inner workings of a printing machine. It was a surprising if apparently usual event.

This was an image I will never forget, and it has rather shaped my view of what MPs and party figures should be like since. He was deep down an activist and keen to helping in a by-election, however unlikely the party’s chances of winning. The other time I saw him was when he spoke at Methodist Central Hall at a pre-election rally in December 1986. His was an inspiring speech which set the tone for an exciting day at a party rally.

However, as any Liberal Democrat in Cornwall will tell you, his influence remains an important aspect of the party’s resonance and influence in Cornwall. I can remember campaigning in several general elections in Cornwall and still getting support for the party, twenty years on, because of the work he did for Cornwall, especially in Truro and St. Austell.

Liberal Democrats, especially in Cornwall, owe an awful lot to David Penhaligon and today we remember all that he did for us, the party and for Cornwall.

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‘There’s been a missile attack at Heathrow you’ll have to do the Today Programme!’ – The Press Officer’s Guide Lesson 11 – Be Prepared for anything!

With the IRA attacking Heathrow Paddy's plane was delayed and so I had to do the Today Programme...

Leader’s visits are the highlight of any election campaign. The 1997 General Election was no exception.  Paddy Ashdown was due to fly into Plymouth airport, twenty minutes from his first visit of the day at Saltash Community School in South East Cornwall, where I was the agent.

Colin Breed was to meet the leader at the airport and arrive, by battle bus at the school, to be followed by a 45 minute walkabout of the classes talking to staff and students.

It was an excellent visit designed to engage with the party’s top policy of the time to raise income tax by 1p in the pound to pay for education.

With an early morning press conference in London the leader’s entourage would board a plane from London to Plymouth, arriving at the school in time for the first lesson of the day.

The arrival time was anticipated between 8.30am and 9am.  As such a gaggle of local and national journalists began to assemble outside the school in anticipation.

A gentleman in a nice suit, from Special Branch, took a call and after a few moments of concerned conversation he sidled across to me to tell me some bad news. ‘There’s been a rocket attack by the IRA at Heathrow airport and all flights have been grounded until further notice, he’s going to be late, very late!’

Although this was manageable with the school a number of the journalists, especially those who were hoping for a live comment from Paddy at the gate were about to be disappointed.

One of them, from Radio 4’s Today Programme, had only turned up to make sure he had something for the programme before 9am, when it ended, and with 9am fast approaching guess who was press-ganged into action.

Thankfully I was not expected to comment on the party’s policies nor the reason for Paddy’s visit to the school, he just wanted the much better story of why Paddy was late and whether this was something we normally have to deal with. I told him it was not!

Paddy arrived about three hours later.

‘Paddy Ashdown to welcome former Social Democrat David Owen to the Liberal Democrats today…’ – The Press Officer’s Guide Lesson 5 – Have a good hook in your press release!

The press release acted as the perfect hook for the local media who knew of the ongoing split between the Lib Dems and the continuing SDP

‘Today Paddy Ashdown will be welcoming former Social Democrat David Owen to the Liberal Democrats,’ read the press release. Myself and the local PPC decided that, in this desperate time for the party, we should try something creative to get the media interested in our campaign.

It was, of course the real Paddy Ashdown, but the David Owen in question was not former Foreign Secretary, David Owen MP.  It was a local student member of the continuing SDP had decided that, following the gradual decline of David Owen’s SDP he would join the local Liberal Democrats, and the visit of the newly elected Lib Dem leader, Paddy Ashdown, was a perfect opportunity to get the press involved.

So, duly we arrived in the local town centre with Paddy and David to what can only be described as a Lancastrian media scrum, which Paddy had to gradually let down the local media as he explained that he was delighted to be welcoming the student Social Democrat, David Owen.

Nonetheless the photo call went off well and it made an excellent piece in the local papers. 

The visit was in 1989, a particularly bad year for the Liberal Democrats, and any publicity was very welcome, as we had just polled 6% across the UK in the European Elections.

I seem to remember most of the rest of the afternoon was spent with Paddy trying to buy a pair of shoes off in the local shops!
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Agent’s Training 6 – The emergency kit to get through a by-election!

Scotch Whisky

The book on how to deal with difficult people was an obvious addition to my top drawer at the by-election, but why was the whisky bottle plastic?!

At the start of the Wigan by-election a lot of fellow Liberal Democrat campaigners were feeling very sorry for me, as I had been appointed as agent.

Polling day was planned for the same day as Charles Kennedy’s maiden speech as leader of the Liberal Democrats, at the party conference, due to Paddy Ashdown’s retirement.

So, our team was small but enthusiastic.

So concerned were we at the lack of volunteers crossing the threshold of our suite of offices at the HQ that we decided to take a lot of the stuffing and stamping work to Harrogate, where the conference was, to get the work done.

Avid readers will have noticed I mentioned that helicopters have a boot in the back and this was, on one occasion, how the target letters made it back to Wigan.

But, as this job needed running in Harrogate Hilary Stephenson took on the role of drumming up, and organising, volunteers in Harrogate whilst I remained, for the most part, in Wigan.

Knowing that my skills at dealing with unruly staff, anxious candidates and quixotic volunteers can at times become strained Hilary bought me an emergency kit for dealing with crises, in her absence.

On the eve of her departure for Harrogate I was presented with three items: 

  • A large container of shower gel
  • A half bottle of scotch whisky (plastic)
  • A book on how to deal with difficult people

The shower gel was primarily for activists who were keen but not necessarily house trained.  The book was obvious in its purpose as was the whisky. ‘But,’ I asked Hilary, ‘why the plastic bottle?’

She replied sagely, ‘well if you feel the need to throw something at people you won’t waste the whisky in the process! It will bounce!’

Wise words.

(The book, but not the whisky, got placed into the box of tricks for the next by-election agent, I wonder what happened to it?!)

The Candidate’s Aide’s Briefing – Lesson 2 – Helicopters

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When Paddy Ashdown tells you to 'close all orifices' in a moving vehicle you take notice!

‘Only leaders travel in helicopters,’ is a maxim that makes helicopters and leaders special.

The phrase, coined by Jim Hancock, former political editor of BBC North West, sums up three tales of when I joined the leader in his campaign helicopter.

Charles Kennedy is not a big fan of helicopters, which is a shame, because personally I think they are the biggest boys toys that have been invented.

I did fly with Charles from Harrogate to Westmorland but with the exception of the stomach churning flight over the ups and downs of the Cumbrian fells the trip to see Tim Farron, now the local MP, was relatively uneventful.

Paddy Ashdown and helicopters is a different matter.

European Elections 1999 – sharing the burden

When Paddy announced his retirement this was to be his last national election campaign for the party and as such his journey to the North West became something of a grand tour, stopping in Chester, (with the Eddibsury by-election in the offing), Southport, Kendal, Oldham and Stockport.

The tour landed in Chester, and having done a walkabout of one of Britain’s most beautiful cities, we returned to the helipad: a field I rural Cheshire.

A large crowd of well-wishers, and members, had appeared to give Paddy a big send off. Hilary Stephenson was the agent for the election and was on site to make sure all went to plan. Several people were questioning why I, and not Paddy, was sitting in the front seat.

An elderly member leant across saying, ‘weight distribution.’ We ascended, just!

Wigan By-Election, September 1999 – ‘close all orifices’

On the eve of Paddy’s retirement in 1999, and the last day of the party conference in Harrogate, Paddy agreed to come and support our candidate in the Wigan by-election.

On this occasion Paddy was in the front, I had learnt my lesson.

Flying across the Pennines, from Harrogate to a high school in Wigan, with a former Royal Marine and SBS operative was an education, the conversation, over the intercom, went something like this:

Ashdown: ‘Pilot, what’s that at 10 o’clock?’

Pilot: ‘That’s Bury Sir.’

Ashdown: ‘And what’s that at 2 o’clock’

Pilot: ‘That’s Bolton Sir.’

Ashdown: ‘Marvellous! Of course, I’ve always loved helicopters, by far the best form of transport. When I was a marine we had to do parachute jumps. The worst thing I have ever had to do.’

Pilot: ‘I see Sir.’

Ashdown: ‘In fact before every jump I used to tell my men, “close all orifices”.’

Me: ‘Chapter 3 of the Ashdown Memoirs – ‘Close all Orifices’

Ashdown: ‘Can you hear us in the back?’

(And for those that don’t know much about helicopters – they have a boot, which you can transport target letters back from conference in.)