1990 Eastbourne by-election

The Eastbourne by-election, 1990 was a by-election held on 18 October 1990 for the British House of Commons constituency of Eastbourne in East Sussex.

The by-election was caused by the death of the town's Conservative Party Member of Parliament (MP) Ian Gow, who was killed on 30 July 1990 by a bomb placed under his car by the Provisional IRA.

The result was a victory for the Liberal Democrat candidate David Bellotti, who defeated former Conservative MP Richard Hickmet by a majority of 4,550 votes and with more than half the votes cast. The loss came as a shock to many Conservatives who had expected (not least given the circumstances under which the by-election was held, as well as the fact that it had been retained by a majority of more than 16,000 votes in 1987) that they would retain the seat. Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe sent a message to voters saying that the IRA would be "toasting their success".[1]

It was a welcome success for the Liberal Democrats, formed in March 1988, after some disastrous early local and European election showings, as well as dismal showings in opinion polls. It came at a time when Conservative support was slumping and Labour was enjoying a comfortable lead in the opinion polls, largely due to the unpopular introduction of poll tax by the Conservative government.[2]

The Liberal Democrats, whose newly adopted party emblem was a 'bird of liberty', had been compared by Margaret Thatcher in a Conservative party conference speech on 12 October to a "dead parrot".[3] The shock defeat contributed to the end of Thatcher's premiership in November 1990 as Conservative MPs worried if they could hold their seats at a general election if she remained prime minister.[4]

At the next general election just 18 months later, Bellotti was defeated by over 5,000 votes. The outcome of which was symbolic of how the fortunes of the main three political parties had altered in that short time. The Liberal Democrats, who at the time of the Eastbourne success were looking set for a big rise in votes and seats, were left with a reduced number of seats, while the Conservatives were re-elected under new leader John Major (who had succeeded Margaret Thatcher in November 1990), leaving Labour in opposition for a fourth successive term of parliament - meaning that Neil Kinnock never made it into government as the opinion polls throughout 1990 had all suggested would happen.[5]

This remains, as of 2016, the most recent by-election resulting from the assassination of a sitting MP that was contested by all of the major parties. Following the next such killing, which occurred in 2016 when Labour MP Jo Cox was attacked and murdered in her constituency, Labour's major political rivals announced they would not contest the ensuing Batley and Spen by-election.


By-election 1990: Eastbourne[6]
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Liberal Democrats David Bellotti 23,415 50.8 +21.1
Conservative Richard Hickmet 18,865 41.0 18.9
Labour Charlotte Atkins 2,308 5.0 3.8
Green David Aherne 553 1.2 0.4
Liberal Theresia Williamson 526 1.1 New
Corrective Party Lady Whiplash 216 0.5 New
National Front John McAuley 154 0.3 New
Ironside Party Eric Page 35 0.1 New
Majority 4,550 9.8 N/A
Turnout 46,072 60.7 14.9
Liberal Democrats gain from Conservative Swing +20.0


  1. The Guardian :Ask Aristotle, Andrew Roth, 20 March 2001
  2. "Top Ten: Lib Dem 'breakthrough moments'". ePolitix.com. 24 April 2010. Archived from the original on 12 May 2010. Retrieved 18 December 2010.
  3. Seldon, Anthony; Daniel Collings (2014). Britain under Thatcher. Routledge. p. 59.
  4. Seldon, Anthony; Daniel Collings (2014). Britain under Thatcher. Routledge. p. 60.
  5. "BBC Politics 97". Bbc.co.uk. 9 April 1992. Retrieved 18 December 2010.
  6. Boothroyd, David. "Results of Byelections in the 1987-92 Parliament". United Kingdom Election Results. Retrieved 1 October 2015.


See also