FOR 11 weeks in 1993, the gaze of the national news media was focussed on an unlikely place – Christchurch.

Prime Minister John Major was facing an unwelcome by-election in a traditionally safe Conservative seat, with commentators suggesting his leadership could be on the line.

The by-election was triggered by the death on May 13 of MP Robert Adley at the age of 58.

Tory supporters had almost no time to deal with the shock.

Judy Jamieson, Mr Adley’s agent in two general elections, recalls: “First of all you’re losing a great member of parliament and a personal friend and colleague, tragically taken at quite a young age.

“Then you almost haven’t got time to mourn their loss because you’re straight into a by-election.”

On June 7, the Echo reported that the Liberal Democrats had selected 48-year-old Southampton councillor Diana Maddock to fight the seat.

Now Baroness Maddock, she recalls applying at the 11th hour after a colleague urged her. She first consulted her daughters, then 15 and 17.

“It nearly didn’t happen. I rang the party HQ and the woman in charge was a bit negative because I was ringing up at the last minute.

“There was a point at which I thought ‘Can I really be bothered?’ and I thought ‘Can I really do it?’”

The Tory candidate was Rob Hayward, 44-year-old former MP for Kingswood near Bristol.

His selection was reported in the Echo on June 9 under the headline “Can this man save Major?”

Mr Hayward, who had a reputation as a political analyst, says he knew he was likely to lose.

“I knew it was going to be difficult and it was hell,” he says.

The Conservatives were criticised for taking a long time to set a date for the by-election.

Labour leader John Smith, visiting to support candidate Nigel Lickley, told the Echo: “It is no wonder John Major has been so slow to commit himself to a date. He knows he faces another massive humiliation at the hands of the voters.”

Senior politicians descended on the constituency for daily press conferences and campaigning.

Agent Judy Jamieson says her average day would start at 5am.

There was a daily 8.30am press conference and campaigning would go on until 10-11pm.

“Then we would review the day and get a couple of hours’ sleep before the whole thing started again,” she said.

The government was under fire for introducing VAT on fuel, while backbenchers were rebelling over the Maastricht Treaty.

Rob Hayward recalls: “We were a year and a half or so into a parliament. The party was fighting among itself. There was a vote of confidence in the government while I was in the middle of the campaign.”

Mrs Jamieson remembers: “I knew in my heart of hearts, because of the climate and because by-elections are the opportunity for people to protest, life was looking a bit dodgy.”

Another activist recalls Tory chairman Sir Norman Fowler suggesting the campaign should recruit a comedian like Norman Wisdom.

We may never know whether the nation’s favourite accident-prone clown would have been the right mascot.

Baroness Maddock said her party’s own polling had been positive from day one.

“They tended to keep you away from it as a candidate but they could see early on we had a chance of winning, which was unheard of. With all the hard work we did, it just took off,” she said.

Two days before polling, the Echo reported on a packed Lib Dem rally addressed by Paddy Ashdown, Lib Dem president Charles Kennedy and the party’s leader in the Lords, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead.

Lord Jenkins said the country was “crying out for a change of government”.

On the same day, shadow chancellor Gordon Brown made his third visit to the constituency.

The result was declared at Two Riversmeet Leisure Centre in the early hours of July 30. A Conservative majority of 23,015 had been turned into a Lib Dem majority of 16,427 – a swing of 34.5 per cent.

Diana Maddock said the message to John Major was: “Change your policies or change your job.”

In fact, Mr Major kept his job for another four years, but lost it to a Labour landslide in 1997.

One consolation for the Tories that night was that they won back Christchurch.

Rob Hayward says of the campaign: “I’m proud of what I did in very difficult circumstances. I knew it was going to be very difficult.

“I still hold the record for the largest anti-government swing of all time. I rue the decision [to run] but I don’t blame anybody else.”