Jo Grimond and the 1966 General Election

At the 1966 election I was in charge of the HQ end of Jo's Leader's tours. His travelling aide was a splendid Liberal barrister, Keith Wedmore, who had himself been a candidate in Bristol. Whilst Keith's political judgement was certainly sound he turned out to be rather shy for the organisational task in hand. We had installed a special "hotline" at HQ - at that time in Victoria Street, roughly where the Westminster City Council building now is - and this 'phone flashed a red light whenever Keith, and only Keith, called me.

We had hired a light 'plane and Jo's first excursion was to the west country. Keith and Jo, and Jo's secretary, Catherine Fisher - the only person who could ever read Jo's handwriting - duly set off to Heathrow to fly to RAF Chivenor. As the scheduled time for departure passed, I relaxed. A least an hour's flying time to go. Suddenly the red light flashed. It was Keith. "We're delayed at Heathrow. Cancel the first meeting at Chivenor." I protested mildly, but to no avail. I then asked, "Keith, have you told the authorities at Heathrow that there's a General Election on and that you've got the party leader on board?" Long pause. ""No", Keith replied. I suggested that it might speed things up a little if he mentioned it.

I took a deep breath and 'phoned Lilian Prowse, Jeremy Thorpe's formidable agent in North Devon. "Lilian, we've a problem; Jo is delayed at Heathrow and you'll have to cancel the rally at Chivenor." Another long pause. "OK, fine", said Lilian. Surprised to get such a co-operative response, I again relaxed. But then, eventually, Keith rang again. "I thought I told you to cancel the rally at Chivenor." "I did". "Well, short of mowing down five hundred voters we had to stop and address them." I realised immediately Lilian's shrewd assessment of the situation when I'd 'phoned. Keith went on, "Cancel the meeting at Bideford so that we can get back on schedule." Learning swiftly the Prowse technique, I agreed immediately and 'phoned Noel Penstone, the Torrington Division agent. Noel, not being as experienced as Lilian, protested vehemently as I told him the facts of a leader's tour's life.

Keith's next call was somewhat later. "Michael, where are we lunching in Cullompton?" "The guide will tell you." "What guide?" "The guide you picked up in Bideford." Pause. "We didn't stop in Bideford." It turned out that Keith rightly fearing a repeat of the Chivenor episode had taken a diversion around Bideford! What happened next was related to me by Catherine Fisher. Apparently Keith returned to the limousine containing the Liberal Party leader in the middle of a General Election campaign, becalmed in a apparently depopulated Devon village, got into the car and sat there, not saying a word. Eventually Jo demanded an explanation and got it. Jo then said, "this demands action" got out of the car himself and approached the sole remaining inhabitant of Cullompton quietly sitting on his doorstep, and demanded where he was due to lunch. The startled Devonian directed Jo to the local pub which duly produced a sandwich or two. To this day I reckon that there's a loyal Cullompton Liberal with a gigantic spread on the table still waiting for the Party leader.

By way of postscript Catherine told me that the pilot, trying catch up time between Heathrow and Devon, didn't climb to the normal cruising height but kept quite low which meant they regularly hit air pockets. Apparently Keith was sick the whole time, Catherine thought her last hour had come, but Jo nonchalantly read the day's newspapers!

97819029570989781902957098Jo and Laura Grimond: A Selection of Memories and Photographs, 1945-1994
by Orkney Liberal Democrats

ISBN 10: 1902957091 / ISBN 13: 9781902957098
Published by Orcadian, 2000