As most of you know, at the last election I stood in North Norfolk and experienced one of the biggest swings away from the Conservatives - 8.6%. The LibDem majority increased from 483 to 10,606. As soon as the result was announced I knew I would get a whole heap of the brown stuff poured over me from people who knew nothing about the seat or what had happened. And so it came to pass. It mattered not that I ran a textbook campaign, spent huge amounts of money and time on it. It mattered not that Robert Waller, the author of the Almanac of British Politics wrote...
This [result] was largely predictable without any reference to Mr Dale's own talents and performance. It was not his fault
LibDem campaigns chief Lord Rennard warned me before I was selected...
Don't go for this seat. It will have a 10,000 majority.
Don't get me wrong. I'm sure I did things wrong. I know I did. But the lesson to draw from this was not that I was the wrong candidate.
Anyone would have been the wrong candidate. No, the lesson was not to lose the seat in the first place to a LibDem who comes across as a nice guy, proves to be an excellent constituency MP and finds it easy to get Conservatives to vote for him by appearing as a pseudo-Conservative.
So, as you can imagine I was interested to see how the Conservatives fared in North Norfolk at this election. Trevor Ivory fought hard in the redrawn seat (it lost 14,000 voters in the Fakenham area). I don't mind admitting, if he had dramatically reduced the LibDem majority it would certainly have been a blow to the Dale ego and raised a number of questions. But Trevor actually got a worse result than me. Norman Lamb's majority increased to 11,626 )from a notional one of 8,575, and the Tory share of the vote dropped by another 3.9%.
Perhaps this result will put to rest many myths, not least the one that I lost because I dance on the other side of the ballroom.
But there is now further evidence of what I assert - namely that if you lose to a popular, pseudo Conservative, good constituency MP who is a LibDem in a rural area you might struggle to win the seat back. And it comes from the seat of Westmorland & Lonsdale. At the last election, Tim Collins lost it to the LibDem Tim Farron by 836 votes. The vote shares (46-44) were almost identical to the ones in North Norfolk when David Prior lost the seat in 2001.
In both cases the LibDems squeezed the Labour vote till it squeaked. In North Norfolk in 1997 it was 25%. On Thursday it was reduced to a rump of 5.8%. In Westmorland in 1997 the Labour vote was 20%. Last Thursday it was 2.2%! And what happened to Tim Farron's majority on Thursday? It went up to 12,264 and he got a 60% share of the vote. Yes, there were problems for the Tories in that they lost a candidate and had to reselect only a few months ago, but that cannot explain that sort of jump. What happened in Westmorland was an exact repeat of what happened in North Norfolk.
So, apart from the obvious attempt at self justification, why have I written this? I've written it as a warning to any other rural Tory seat which is seeing a trend over the last couple of elections of the LibDems managing to squeeze the Labour vote. If you're not careful, you could lose the seat next time, and it could be decades before you get it back. And that will only be when the sitting LibDem retires.
North Norfolk and Westmorland can return to the Tory fold. But I suspect it will only happen when Norman Lamb and Tim Farron decide to retire*. And neither of them are exactly ancient.
* Witness what happened in Harrogate & Knaresborough. Phil Willis won it for the LDs in 1997, built up a hughe majority. He retired at this election and the Conservatives won it back.