One man’s attempt to unseat the Prime Minister

Tony Blair

Tony Blair faced an unexpected opponent in the 2005 General Election. Chatham House under a Creative Commons Licence

General elections in Britain seldom throw up moments of high drama. Aside from the occasional bitter fight in a key marginal or a tasty televised clash where the gloves finally come off, most electioneering is predictably dull.

That is why, exactly 10 years ago, Reg Key’s campaign to unseat the sitting Prime Minister, Tony Blair, offered such a rare and memorable splash of colour.

Reg Keys was the father of a soldier, Tom, who had been killed in Iraq in 2003 and Keys held Blair responsible. The prime minister had deliberately duped the country into an illegal war and Tom, alongside over 170 other British personnel, had paid the ultimate price. In order to hold him to account, Keys, backed by a small group campaigners and with celebrity support from the likes of Brian Eno, David Soul and Frederick Forsyth, would run against Blair as an independent candidate. With a pledge to stand down and call an immediate by-election if he won, the idea was that Reg would run a single-issue campaign on the illegality of the Iraq invasion. And if he won, his would be the classic ‘hero’s tale’. That of the aggrieved father who slays the duplicitous ruler, frees the kingdom, and then rides off into the sunset.

Reg Keys had not been the first-choice independent candidate to run against Blair. I had approached outspoken critic of the war, and Monty Python, Terry Jones, whose potential campaign slogan, ‘He’s not a good Prime Minister, he’s a very naughty boy’, was ready made. But Terry declined, as did others such as Greg Dyke and Martin Bell. Just as it seemed a candidate would not be found, Keys came forward.

Keys’ campaign was launched two days after the election was called and rapidly gained massive local, national and international media interest. Three makeshift offices were established, a website set up, leaflets and posters printed. Donations flooded in and over 100 volunteers came forward to help.

Although Sedgefield, a rural constituency in County Durham, is traditionally staunchly Labour, the fact that Blair’s majority had fallen from over 25,000 in 1997 to 17,731 in 2001 suggested that his popularity was on the wane. With many traditional Labour voters angry and disillusioned with Blair over his decision to invade Iraq, the 22-per-cent swing that would be needed to defeat him seemed unlikely but not impossible.

At the start of the campaign, Reg was photographed outside a local betting shop holding a betting slip with his odds to win at 150/1. Over the coming days and weeks these odds were slashed.

In Sedgefield, where people joke that votes for the Labour Party are ‘weighed rather than counted’, it is easy to assume that Keys had no chance of overturning Blair’s majority. But a number of factors could have made a Keys victory conceivable. Principal among these would have been if the Liberal Democrat and Conservative candidates had agreed to stand down in favour of Keys.

Although it rarely happens, there are precedents for rival parties standing down to make way for an Independent candidate. Martin Bell’s challenge in Tatton was unopposed by opposition parties, as was Dr Richard Taylor’s campaign in Kidderminster. Dr Taylor stood on behalf of the town’s ‘save our hospital’ campaign in 2001, managing to turn a 6,946 Labour majority into a 17,630 majority in his favour, as well as winning a second term. However, both Bell and Taylor were standing against regional MPs on matters of local concern. Keys was challenging the Prime Minister on a matter of national principle.

Whilst it became clear that the Liberal Democrat might stand down if his Conservative counterpart did the same, the Tory candidate steadfastly refused. Apart from the fear of looking opportunistic or hypocritical, the Conservatives no doubt feared that helping an independent candidate overthrow a sitting Prime Minster might set a dangerous precedent. Such tactics could be targeted against them in the future, thereby making even the safest of seats precarious. Whilst the idea that unpopular or discredited politicians, no matter how large their majority or how senior their position, could be defeated in this way might be good for democracy, it is unlikely to be welcomed by the two main parties in the British system.

It is possible that the intransigence on the part of the Conservative candidate might have been circumvented had Keys kept to the original strategy to promise to stand down if victorious and call an immediate by-election. But under the influence of his party agent, former firebrand Labour MP Bob Clay, Reg was persuaded to drop the plan of a by-election and run for Westminster. Knowing nothing about the constituency, and very little about national politics, this decision was fatal to any chance of winning the seat.

Pledging a by-election would have meant that the opposition parties would not have been forfeiting the seat, merely agreeing to contest it a few months later. There is nothing in British electoral law to stop a candidate from running on such a platform, and by employing this strategy Keys could, in effect, have turned the vote in Sedgefield into a referendum on Blair and his leadership.

The strategy would have also helped to remove one of the other major obstacles faced by Keys, namely local people’s loyalty to the Labour Party. It would have allowed even dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporters to vote against Blair without betraying their party or their beliefs. A common sentiment expressed by many Sedgefield constituents was that they supported the Party but not its leader and would be voting Labour through gritted teeth. By promising a by-election, Keys would have given locals the freedom to register their frustration with Blair. It was the crucial difference between asking people to ‘vote Blair out’ and asking them to ‘vote Keys in’.

On Election Day Blair won the seat with a large, if reduced, majority. Keys came fourth with just over 10 per cent of the vote. It was a respectable tally for an independent whose campaign had begun a month earlier, but it was a long way from the historic victory that had been hoped for. Reg Keys nevertheless had a another moment of drama up his sleeve.

As is traditional at counts, the losing candidates are each permitted to give a short concession speech and so it came to pass that in the early hours of 6 May, Reg Keys got to stand next to Tony and Cherie Blair before the glare of the world’s media. Reg began with an explanation: ‘If this war had been justified under international law I would grieve and not have campaigned. If WMDs [weapons of mass destruction] had been found in Iraq I would grieve and not campaign. Tonight there are lessons to be learned. And I hope in my heart that one day the prime minister may be able to say sorry.’

 He then read out the names of Tom Keys and five the British military police officers killed in Majar Al-Kabir in 2003 alongside him. Tony Blair was ashen-faced. Cherie Blair was holding back tears.

Whilst the Reg Keys campaign may have failed to unseat Blair, it succeeded in bringing his story to the attention of the world and helped to ensure that the issue of the war in Iraq was firmly in the minds of voters on Election Day. If rumours are true, the acclaimed screenwriter, Jimmy McGovern, is currently turning Reg’s story it into a screenplay which, if it gets the green light, will be on our screens in 2016. Hopefully it will do justice to Reg Keys and his historic attempt to unseat Tony Blair – and his continuing fight to ensure that his son did not die in vain.

Stefan Simanowitz helped to found and run the Reg Keys election campaign in 2005 and worked closely with Brian Eno to try and ensure Keys pledged a by-election. This article was originally published in the Contemporary Review in 2005 and is reproduced with permission.