Obituary: Nicholas Budgen

WHEN EDWARD Heath called an unexpected general election for February 1974, Enoch Powell produced a press release which came as a thunderbolt for all but a handful of his admirers: he would not stand as a Conservative candidate in the Wolverhampton South West seat which he had, by assiduous work, made safe for the Tories since he was first elected to Parliament for that constituency in 1950.

Many of his adherents felt then that, had Powell held on to the seat, and Heath lost the general election, the member for Wolverhampton could have become leader of the Conservative Party. Powell, however, felt that his principles would not allow him to stand in support of a Tory manifesto which he considered to be mendacious; and he declined to put himself forward as an Independent. Instead he supported a Conservative who was much of his own way of thinking, one Nicholas Budgen, a slight, balding barrister, with experience only of the Midlands circuit, whose grandfather, as it happened, had baptised Powell. Powell's last act, when he was in seriously failing health, was to send Budgen a message of good wishes for the 1997 general election campaign. It did not avail; and Budgen lost the seat.

In common with many other journalists - of very various political persuasions - I was, in 1974, keen to meet this unlikely successor to the redoubtable Powell. He told me, as he told others, that he had no particular ambition for office (though he did, briefly, serve as an Assistant Whip between 1981 and 1982) but that he regarded it as the highest political achievement "to succeed Enoch in his own seat".

Budgen was born in 1937 in Oxford, and educated at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. He proved to be a resolute supporter of his parliamentary predecessor's opinions, especially in his opposition to the policy of successive governments on British membership of the European Economic Community (now the European Union).

He did not have Powell's power of volcanic rhetoric; but he had a precise, dry and witty form of lawyer's utterance, which served him particularly well in all the many dry and technical debates on aspects of relations between the United Kingdom and the continental powers which took place during the (very nearly) quarter of a century that he served in the House of Commons.

In November 1994 he showed the strength of his opposition by joining with seven other Conservative backbenchers ("eight elderly unknown romantics" as he put it) in a revolt against the European policy of John Major's government. The Conservative whip was withdrawn from these Members, and efforts were made, in their constituencies, to - in modern parlance - de-select them.

This sorry episode had unpleasant echoes of the attempt by Sir Edward Heath's government to de-select Richard Body, Neil Marten, and Roger Moate for opposing policy on Europe in the early 1970s, though it is true to say that in this early case the whip was not withdrawn. Budgen and his fellow-rebels were eventually re-admitted to Conservative ranks in April 1995. Nonetheless, they deserve an honoured place in the list of parliamentarians of independent mind who have, at various times in modern history, suffered the ultimate sanction of the displeasure of the whips: the most famous name comes from another party, for the Labour whip was once withdrawn from Michael Foot, who was later to lead his party.

On matters of intellectual principle, Budgen was immovable. Whereas many other opponents of the burgeoning policy of involvement with continental European states were moved by emotional and nationalistic fervour, he approached each problem in a legalistic way. He could not be moved by the pleas or threats of his party's Whips. He would simply say that the consequences of a given piece of legislation - or such and such a regulation - were inimical to national independence; and, far more often than not, his argument was proven to be right.

There have not - certainly not in the recent history of British politics - been many Conservative politicians who have held rigidly to the intellectual propositions of cause and effect. And, it has to be remembered, Budgen was not a figure with a national appeal to the electorate as Powell had been.

He was, invariably, quiet in his utterance, and merciless in the detail of his argument. He had no taste for bombast, nor even for high rhetoric: he simply stuck to the brief he had written for himself.

There were four aspects of policy which particularly attracted his adversarial attention. These were, first the European Common Agricultural Policy, second European Monetary Union, third the implications for national sovereignty of that union, and fourth the likely severe consequences for social and political stability of continued immigration to the United Kingdom from the new Commonwealth countries. This last was a particularly staunch position to be taken by a parliamentary candidate a third of whose electorate were of West Indian, Asian or African origin. Yet, throughout his time in parliament, Budgen never neglected the affairs of these constituents, all of whom received from him the same devoted service as did his white voters.

Nor did he neglect other subjects. He was a formidable member of various Commons finance committees, and a stout adherent of traditional values in the Church of England, regarding Parliament as the proper, ultimate, arbiter of that Church's affairs.

Nicholas Budgen was regarded by many of his opponents - not least by many in his own party - as something of a bigot, not least because of his love of horse-racing (he owned several, not markedly successful horses) and hunting. But to those who knew him well he was an effervescent and delightfully irreverent companion, even about the causes for which he cared most passionately.

It was entirely typical of him that, not long before his death, he sought nomination to the European Parliament: he would have enlivened that slumbering institution as much as, for so many years, he enlivened Westminster.

Nicholas William Budgen, barrister and politician: born Lichfield, Staffordshire 3 November 1937; Called to Bar, Gray's Inn 1962; MP (Conservative) for Wolverhampton South West 1974-97; married 1964 Madeleine Kittoe (one son, one daughter); died Stafford 26 October 1998.