Public Servant, Secret Agent by Paul Routledge

Making a mess of a mystery
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Airey Neave was a man of mystery with three claims to fame. He was the first British officer to escape from Colditz, in an epic Boy's Own adventure on which his reputation rested for the next 30 years. Then he emerged from the obscurity of the Tory back benches to mastermind Margaret Thatcher's seizure of the Conservative leadership in 1975. Finally, weeks before her election as Prime Minister in 1979, he was blown up by a car bomb planted by Irish republicans – the first MP to be killed within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster since 1812.

Yet between those three dramatic episodes – the bold escape, the stunning political coup and the violent death – Neave was to all appearances utterly unremarkable. The son of an entomologist, educated at Eton and Oxford, he joined up in September 1939 only to be taken prisoner in the fall of Calais, just before Dunkirk. Quite why he was chosen to be one of the first to try to break out of Colditz just three months after his arrival, when – according to Neave – every man there thought of nothing but escape, is far from clear.

Still more surprising, when that amateurish attempt failed, he was quickly given a second chance, this time paired with a Dutch officer who had the vital attribute of speaking German. It was natural that Neave, having once got back to England, should be given responsibility for helping to organise escape routes for the rest of the war. But it is not obvious why – on the basis of a third-class law degree and a few months' pupillage – he was appointed a legal assistant at the Nuremberg tribunal, with the job of serving the indictments on the Nazi defendants.

After this "good war", he had scant difficulty in being selected for the safe Tory seat – Abingdon – that he held for the rest of his life. At Westminster he took an interest in defence and atomic energy and served briefly as a junior transport minister, but otherwise made little impact. Though firmly anti-socialist, he was not regarded as a right-winger; rather, as a mildly progressive, pro-European moderate, quiet, courteous and a bit dim – a natural pillar of the 1922 Committee.

All the time, however, he kept close links with the intelligence services. Neave was part of the underworld of right-wing groups and private armies that sprang up in the early 1970s with a self-assigned mission to combat subversion and maintain order in the event of a Soviet takeover or a breakdown of civil authority. This was the counter-revolutionary subsoil in which the darker side of Thatcherism flourished, targeting the twin enemies of union militancy at home and Soviet expansionism abroad.

Yet the connection between Neave's twilight world and the removal of Ted Heath is not established. Neave harboured a long-standing grudge against Heath for blocking his promotion in the 1950s. After the Tories' second defeat in 1974, he was by no means alone in concluding that Heath must go; but he offered his services first to Willie Whitelaw, then to Edward du Cann, if either had been prepared to stand.

Far from the spooks' hand-picked instrument, Margaret Thatcher was Neave's third-choice candidate. He supported her faute de mieux. Nor was his running of her campaign essentially more Machiavellian than Peter Walker's similar operation for Heath in 1965, or Norman Lamont's for John Major in 1990. Neave's black arts were exaggerated after the event by Heath's allies to explain his unexpected defeat.

For the next four years, he ran her office and allegedly guided his innocent protégée in some of the murkier byways of her new job. Once again the evidence is thin, but Thatcher was certainly enthralled by the intelligence world and keen to learn all she could from Neave and others.

Meanwhile, his overt job was shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland, in which capacity he strove to recreate the old link between the Tories and the Ulster Unionists, ruptured by Heath's abolition of Stormont in 1972.

Mrs Thatcher sympathised but was restrained by Whitelaw, who would have resigned if she had repudiated power-sharing. Plainly, what interested Neave was the military intelligence aspect of Northern Ireland: he had no feeling for the province or its people but was keen to prosecute a vigorous war against the terrorists. That was why the INLA killed him. It is claimed that the terrorists thought him uniquely dangerous because his experience of Colditz gave him an understanding of the mentality of "the men behind the wire". Whether he would really have persuaded Thatcher to take the gloves off if he had become Secretary of State in 1979 is doubtful. But his murder hardened her heart against any concession to the hunger strikers two years later.

Neave is a good subject; but he covered his tracks too well. Where one hoped that this biography would shed new light on the connection between his activities, Paul Routledge reveals almost nothing new. His account of the Colditz episode is largely based on Neave's published story, though he did interview his Dutch co-escaper, whose recollection is different in some details.

Less excusable, his account of Nuremberg is an uncritical paraphrase of Neave's book, complete with grossly simplistic descriptions of the monsters in the dock that might have passed muster in the 1950s, but not today. Neave's parliamentary career is dutifully covered from Hansard, but what he was really up to does not appear there.

Routledge adds nothing at all to existing accounts of Thatcher's election and of Neave's role until his death. All is hearsay and supposition, the writing sloppy, vague and full of minor errors. He gives a lot of space at the end to alternative conspiracy theories about Neave's death and seems to conclude that the INLA did kill him – not the CIA or MI5. But at the end of this disappointing book, the mystery remains.

The first volume of John Campbell's biography of Margaret Thatcher, 'The Grocer's Daughter', appeared in 2000 from Cape; the second will be published next year