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Where Are They Now? David Howarth

David Howarth | portrait by Tracy Worrall

3 min read

When David Howarth was elected as the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge in 2005, the party was, he says, factionalised and riven with intrigue.

“This was the era of the fall of then-Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy,” he says. “The big thing in the party was Charles’s troubles with alcohol. I was among the last two or three people to encourage him to carry on, although, looking back, it was probably impossible for that to happen.”

Howarth’s solidarity with Kennedy, he feels, stemmed from the newness of the job and not knowing the inside line. Being an outsider in Parliament generally took some adjusting to. Howarth describes becoming an MP as “a comedown” from his previous role as a councillor on Cambridge City Council, a position he held from 1987 to 2004. “I used to handle a budget of £125m and more than 1,000 people working at the council, to really being a nobody in Parliament. No one had ever heard of me,” he says.

Howarth was also getting used to a life outside of academia, having studied law at the University of Cambridge and Yale Law School, and obtained a Master of Philosophy in sociology at Yale University, returning to teach at Cambridge in 1985.

With his local background, Howarth was chosen to stand as the Liberal Democrat candidate for Cambridge in 1992 and 2001, and in the nearby seat of Peterborough in 1997, but was defeated each time. In 2005, however, he became the first Liberal to win in Cambridge since 1906. 

Despite the changing milieus, Howarth did settle into parliamentary life, making friends across the parties. But as a Liberal Democrat, he found befriending the media trickier. “The Lib Dems found it difficult to get their voice heard, so there was a lot of concentration on how to get seen,” he says. “A lot of my time was spent in the studios hanging around, trying to get interviewed.”

In 2007, Howarth became party spokesperson on the justice brief, and remembers it being “campaign after political campaign”. When trying to protect the rights of environmental protesters, he recalls visiting a climate camp in the City of London, where “one MP became well and truly stuck from police kettling”.

A lot of my time was spent in the studios hanging around, trying to get interviewed

Howarth decided to step down as an MP at the 2010 general election, citing his desire to return to academia. He also feared his wellbeing would be at risk had he remained in politics. “I thought it was not possible to be an MP and stay sane and healthy,” he says. Aside from the commute from Cambridge into Westminster every day, Howarth says the psychological toll of the era – where a “‘hunt the MP’ attitude [in the wake of the 2009 expenses scandal] meant you thought you were walking round with a target on your back” – became too much to bear. 

On leaving politics, Howarth accepted a role as an electoral commissioner, a post he held until 2018. He has now returned to the University of Cambridge, where he is professor of law and public policy. However, the mental shift back into academia proved challenging. “If you are in politics, you have to think very fast all the time, whereas the academic life is the opposite; it is a life of thinking about things hard, but slowly,” he says.

While Howarth, now 64, enjoys the slower pace of academic life, he does miss “getting the news first and trying to influence it” and “thinking about how Parliament can do things differently”. However, he is glad to be rid of the set-piece shouting debates, “particularly PMQs!”

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