Hemel’s MPs through history

Nicholas Lyell celebrates victory
Nicholas Lyell celebrates victory

Hemel Hempstead might have remained true blue after the 2015 general election, but the town has seen its fair share of variety with MPs over the last century.

From county constituencies to rejected Iron Ladies, the county has been everything from a Conservative heartland to being at the vanguard of the New Labour landslides.

Hemel's first Labour MP Robin Corbett, at a 1973 CND rally in The Marlowes

Hemel's first Labour MP Robin Corbett, at a 1973 CND rally in The Marlowes

With the dust settled, and the Conservative Mike Penning settling in for another five-year term, we look back at the history of the town’s MPs.

Hemel began life as a ‘county constituency’ (don’t ask) at the 1918 election. It was held by the Unionist - aka Conservative - MP Gustavus Arthur Talbot until his death. Unfortunately for him, his death was only two years later.

No Hemel MP would ever have such a large majority (he claimed 77.6 per cent of the vote). No MP anywhere ever would have such a good name. He was also a former Mayor of Hemel, a local Justice Of The Peace, and died at his home at Marchmont House in town.

He was succeeded by a fellow Unionist, John Colin Campbell Davidson - later 1st Viscount Davidson - who won a 1920 by-election and then the 1922 general election. Viscount Davidson is mainly remembered today as being a former civil servant who was a close ally of Stanley Baldwin, but he actually played important roles under three Prime Ministers, as well as some diplomatic work during the Second World War.

When John Davidson stepped down as an MP after 17 years the good people of Hemel had the chance of a sweeping change - a new face, a new party, a new era. Instead they elected his wife Frances. She won the elections in 1937, 1945, 1950, 1951 and 1955.

1923 was a strange general election. The Conservatives won, but they didn’t win - which is to say, they were in government, called an election, emerged from it as the biggest party, and then didn’t form the next government. This meant that the UK had the first-ever Labour government, with just 191 MPs.

In Hemel that meant we had the town’s first non-Conservative MP, the Liberal John Freeman Dunn, who won by just 17 votes.

Mr Dunn only lasted until the next election one year later, whereupon the future Viscount Davidson returned as Hemel’s Tory MP. He won again in 1929, 1931 and 1935, always with a Liberal in second place and a Labour candidate in third.

When he stepped down as an MP the good people of Hemel had the chance of a sweeping change - a new face, a new party, a new era.

MP Mike Penning visited the new access lifts at Hemel Hempstead on Friday. PNL-150327-165048009

MP Mike Penning visited the new access lifts at Hemel Hempstead on Friday. PNL-150327-165048009

Instead they elected Viscount Davidson’s wife Frances. She won the elections in 1937, 1945, 1950, 1951 and 1955.

Her father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all been MPs too, and for a brief while after the 1945 election she was the only female Conservative MP.

The long tenure of the Davidsons as the town’s Conservative MPs was followed by, erm, the long tenure of another Conservative MP. This time it was James Allason, who was elected in 1959, 1964, 1966,1970 and February 1974. His was one of those quietly effective Parliamentary careers, as he was known by insiders for his knowledge of both defence and pensions. He also developed the Conservative Party policy of allowing council tenants to buy their own homes, and before his political career he apparently solved the problem of how to use magnetic compasses with tanks.

Ironically, the quiet effectiveness of Mr Allason could have been replaced by something radically different. A young chemist called Margaret Thatcher had tried to become the Conservative candidate for Hemel Hempstead in the 1950s. Hemel’s Tories were not alone in rejecting her candidacy - Orpington, Beckenham and Maidstone also turned her down.

Margaret Thatcher. EMN-140331-094911001

Margaret Thatcher. EMN-140331-094911001

Whatever did happen to Mrs Thatcher?

The second general election of 1974 saw a boundary change in Hemel and a seismic shift too - the town’s first Labour MP. Australian-born Robin Corbett had first stood for election in town eight years earlier, and when he did get in he only lasted one term, but he was later elected in Birmingham where he was an MP until 2001.

Conservative Nicholas Lyell then managed one term after the 1979 election, but boundary changes meant that the seat disappeared. That wasn’t the end of Mr Lyell’s political career - he served five years as Attorney General under John Major - but it does meant the end of this chapter of our story.

Hemel Hempstead returned to the Parliamentary map in 1997 after another redrawing of the boundaries a few years earlier. And as so much of the country went red in the Blair landslide, so too did Hemel.

Tony McWalter won in 1997, and in 2001 became the first non-Conservative candidate to retain the seat. Although he was part of a huge wave of new Labour MPs, and despite having previously failed in four election bids (for both Westminster and the European Parliament) he was no party lackey; Mr McWalter was one of a number of Labour MPs who petitioned for a planned cut in single-parents benefits to be cancelled. He also opposed the Iraqi invasion in 2003, and he fought against the tendency of parties to appoint “nodding dogs” to select committees.

Another tight election - shades of 1923? - saw Conservative candidate Mike Penning take over the seat in 2005, before retaining it in 2010, and again in 2015. His early political career saw him positioned as something of a Tory rebel, being a media advisor to the ‘Euro rebels’ who had the whip taken from them by John Major in the early 1990s.

Dacorum Hospital Action Group 3oth anniversary parade Hemel Hempstead'Tony McWalter and Maureen Flint 05-1738-46

Dacorum Hospital Action Group 3oth anniversary parade Hemel Hempstead'Tony McWalter and Maureen Flint 05-1738-46

But his talents were quickly and then consistently recognised - he was a key advisor to both William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith as Tory leaders, and then a shadow minister under David Cameron. Since then he has held various ministerial roles, and has even been talked of as a potential future leader.

Half a century after Maggie, could a Prime Minister finally be based in Hemel Hempstead? Perhaps, but that is one chapter of our story that will have to wait for another day.