Sir Malcolm Rifkind’s announcement that he will be stepping down as MP for Kensington leaves vacant a safe berth for Conservatives. He steps down too late to free up a space for Boris Johnson’s return to parliament, but the seat has long been a safe re-entry point for Conservatives such as Michael Portillo and Alan Clark. Their track record from that moment is, though, mixed.
Affluent and prestigious, the West London seat is by anybody’s reckoning a nice place to be. It also offers a Conservative majority of 8,600 at the last count. The boundaries of the constituency have shifted repeatedly since the war, but the list of Tory MPs representing Kensington tells its own story about the fortunes of the party.
Only a few months into the Attlee post-war administration, the MP for Kensington South William Davison took a seat in the Lords and vacated the seat. His successor Richard Law chose Kensington as the place to return to politics after being swept aside from his previous seat in Hull in the 1945 Labour landslide.
With the return of a Churchill government in 1951, Law returned to his previous region as MP for Haltemprice, having vacated the previous year the Kensington South seat to the William Spens. Spens was another returning MP who had most recently been Chief Justice of India, overseeing the details of partition.
After a decade in the Commons, Spens took the journey to the Lords, to make way for William Roots, to be followed in 1968 by Brandon Rhys Williams. The latter’s death in 1988 saw the only real moment of crisis for the Tories. The by-election for the new Kensington constituency amidst an unpopular Thatcher government returned a Conservative majority of only 815 for Dudley Fishburn.
One more election saw a more comfortable majority, then consolidation into Kensington and Chelsea and the return to the Commons of celebrity scoundrel Alan Clark, whose diaries had by this time done little harm to his profile. Clark’s death in 1999 gave the opportunity to Michael Portillo, then seen as one of the real stars of the party, and one of the real scalps claimed by Labour in 1997.
After being at the forefront of the fairly bleak campaign of 2001, but with a substantially changed public profile and budding career as a broadcaster, Portillo gave way in 2005. Sticking with tradition, the seat was claimed by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, another casualty of 1997 looking for a way back into Westminster.
After further boundary changes, the Kensington seat was restored and in this Parliament has continued to be the home to Rifkind, until his sudden departure today. Winning the seat will be a minor challenge to the new Conservative candidate – the hard bit will come after.