Margaret Wingfield -Wednesday
April 17, 2002
Fame came to Margaret Wingfield, who has died aged 90, during the denouement of the Jeremy Thorpe affair in 1976. She was the Liberal party president at the time of the special assembly in Manchester that June, when the party resolved to involve the membership in the election of its leader.
With her style and voice, Wingfield looked and sounded like a Conservative, but she was one of those rare, natural Liberals who accepted the burden of the Liberal millstone in pursuit of their cause. At the time, Thorpe, the then Liberal leader, had largely lost the confidence of his parliamentary party, following the sometime male model Norman Scott's claim - denied by Thorpe - that the pair had had a sexual relationship 15 years earlier.
The Liberals had polled badly in the Coventry North-West by-election of March 1976; party activists across the country were reporting embarrassing responses on the doorstep. Thorpe realized that the leadership election rules were about to change, and proposed to Wingfield that he should offer himself for re-election under the new rules, thereby circumventing the wrath of Liberal MPs. Neither Wingfield nor Thorpe thought to mention this tactic to the chief whip, Cyril Smith, who was rightly outraged.
Chaos reigned until Richard Wainwright, MP for Colne Valley, on a local radio broadcast on May 8, effectively urged Thorpe to sue the newspapers for libel, or resign. Two days later, Thorpe quit. The former leader Jo Grimond was prevailed upon to return as caretaker leader, and Wingfield presided over the leadership election that produced David Steel. She traveled widely to reassure local Liberal associations that she was in control, and that they could have confidence in the future.
Wingfield came from a political family - an uncle, Charles McCurdy, had been Liberal MP for Northampton, and Lloyd George's coalition chief whip in 1921 - and was educated at the University of Freiburg and the London School of Economics. Her experience as a care committee organizer for the London County Council, including wartime experience helping bombed-out families, focused her political determination.
Such were the constraints on women politicians that she was unable to find a seat to contest until 1961, when she fought the LCC election in Putney. Thereafter, she contested the 1964 and 1966 general elections in Wokingham, and the 1970 election in Chippenham. All were disappointing, particularly Chippenham, which had been regarded as winnable, although, in the event, the Liberal vote fell by 10%.
Her best result was at the Walthamstow West byelection in September 1967. The constituency had been Clement Attlee's seat, but the byelection was highly marginal, with the Conservatives eventually gaining the seat from Labour. None the less, Wingfield more than doubled the Liberal vote to 23% and, that year too, she joined the party executive.
She campaigned successfully for the National Liberal Club to open its doors to women members and, in 1978, became the first woman on its general committee. A justice of the peace, she also served on the lord chancellor's advisory committee that recommends magistrates for inner London.
Wingfield's experience led her to be a lifelong internationalist, maintaining her active involvement in the Liberal International until shortly before her death. She was awarded the CBE in recognition of her long service to politics. A practical politician, who could be relied upon to turn up at every byelection campaign, she retained the affection of party activists up to the end.
She was well supported by her husband Guy, a civil engineer, whom she married in 1940 and who was invariably at her side. He survives her, as do her two sons and two daughters and seven grandchildren.· Margaret Wingfield, political activist, born January 19 1912; died April 6 2002