Sparks have been flying in the Oxford West & Abingdon election race this week, as Liberal Democrat candidate Layla Moran told Cherwell in a video interview that there were “links” between the Conservative Party and a 2010 leaflet campaign against former Lib Dem MP for the area Dr Evan Harris.
During the 2010 General Election, leaflets were distributed calling Harris “Dr Death”, in response to his liberal views on abortion and euthanasia.
At the time, Harris told the Oxford Mail, “it is a pity that, instead of putting up a candidate to contest the election, an anonymous group, using money from no-one knows where, is distributing an inacurate personal attack leaflet in this constituency for the first time ever.
“It is offensive and would say profoundly uncristian to use the term ‘Dr Death’ – associated with Nazi murderer Joseph Mengele or mass-murderer Harold Shipman – to describe any politician.”
The Blackwood campaign also issued a statement on the matter back in 2010, saying, “Nicola has distanced herself from the literature distributed by private individuals and special interest and pressure groups attacking her opponent.”
Speaking about the 2010 election, Layla Moran said to Cherwell, “in the last few moments of the campaign, the Conservatives put out a ‘Dr Death’ leaflet because of the MP’s stance on abortion rights.”
When it was pointed out that there is no evidence that the Conservative Party was behind those leaflets, Moran admitted, “It’s not directly attributed to them, that’s true, but there are links between the two, let’s leave it at that.”
Nicola Blackwwod’s office strongly rejected the suggestion of Conservative involvement in the campaign. In a statement to Cherwell, she said, “Her comments are outrageous and untrue. The leaflet which referred to ‘Dr Death’, a phrase lifted from the tabloids, was distributed and paid for by the Animal Rights Party and a second leaflet, which referred to various conscience issues, was paid for and distributed independently by a local vicar, Rev Lynda Rose.
“At the time of their distribution the Conservative agent contacted the Liberal Democrat agent [Neil Fawcett] to assure him we neither endorsed the leaflets nor had any involvement with them. He assured us he knew that, he is the current Liberal Democrat agent.”
The Moran campaign has since backpedaled over the accusations, with campaign manager Neil Fawcett, who also worked on Dr Harris’ campaign in 2010, telling Cherwell, “As far as the leaflets that went out last time are concerned, there was no evidence that they were anything to do with the Conservative campaign, but they certainly helped divert our time and effort in the last week of the election.
“We will never know what impact thaey had on the actual result, and they seemed to motivate people both for and gainst Evan.”
He went on to comment, “I don’t think there was any hard evidence that there was a direct link between the Conservative campaign and those nasty leaflets.
“So while it may have been the intention of the people producing the leaflets, particularly Lynda Rose, to help Nicola Blackwood defeat Evan, it would be wrong of me to make any claims about a direct link.”
Layla Moran indictaed her agreement with Fawcett’s statement and said she apologised if she had “accidentally misrepresented anything”.
The ‘Dr Death’ leaflets were alleged to have been published by Keith Mann, a candidate in 2010 for the Animal Protection Party. However Dr Harris was also referring to a second set of leaflets distributed by Rev Lynda Rose, the former UK spokesperson for Anglican Mainstream, a conservative Anglican organisation.
The Anglican mainstream has been accused of homophobia in the past, largely because of its London campaign advertising the existence of “ex-gays”. Rose, meanwhile, has been vocal in her opposition to same-sex marriage, and has been a trustee of the Oxford-based pro-life charity, LIFE.
While the “links” to which Moran referred to could not be substantiated, it is perhaps worth noting that a number of LIFE members support the Conservative Party.
Indeed, Mark Bhagwandin, Chairman of Oxford East Conservative Association, is also LIFE’s Senior Education and Media Officer, and was photographed with Lynda Rose at a LIFE rally in 2011.
Rose told Cherwell, “The so-called ‘Dr Death’ leaflets were entirely the works of the animal rights activists. We did put out leaflets that were entirely comments of Evan Harris himself.
“The leaflets had nothing whatsoever to do with the Conservatives, but everything to do with informing the Christian pro-life vote of his position.”
She also wanted to make clear the differences between Keith Mann’s leaflets, which called Harris “Dr Death”, and her leaflets, which only reported that he had been given the nickname.
A copy of the leaflet has been seen by Cherwell, and is reproduced in full below. Under the heading, “Some facts you may not know: ANTI-LIFE ISSUES”, the leaflet reads, “The press has reported that Dr Evan Harris has been given the nickname ‘Dr Death’ in the corridors of Westminister because of his enthusiasm for abortion and voluntary euthanasia.”
It does seem that the nickname was at least somewhat widespread, and it was a particular favourite of Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, as well as Conservative Party activist and columnist Tim Montgomerie.
Syed Imam, co-Chair of Oxford University Liberal Democrats, told Cherwell, “It’s yet another example of where a Lib Dem MP stood up for what he believed in regardless of public opinion and self-cost, in this case the right of information for abortion and the right to information for dying with dignity, and sadly ultimately paid the price with his seat.
“The Dr Death campaign was a vile, personal attack on Dr Harris which included slurs such as calling him a ‘difficult loner’ simply because he was a single middle aged man as his partner had died of cancer after a long battle.
“Nicola Blackwood had a strong Christian platform and was associated with this toxic campaign in all but name.
“Dr Evan Harris has since been lauded by all sides of the scientific community since and his loss in 2010 was called a huge loss for science.”
Nadine Dorries could not be reached for comment.