In 1994 John Maples was among the first senior Conservatives to identify Tony Blair, after a few months as leader of the Labour Party, as a figure who would prove a formidable adversary of the Tories. In a leaked internal memo Maples cautioned John Major that it would beunwise, as many Conservatives were doing, to dismiss the new Labour leader as a lightweight.
"If Blair turns out to be as good as he looks," he warned, "we have a problem." Maples suggested one inelegant tactic for undermining Blair's poise in the Commons by highlighting the gap between the leader and his party. He proposed: "Could we set some backbenchers on this – maybe a few yobbos of our own to try to knock him about a bit?"
The "yobbos" tactic was not characteristic of Maples. In his years in the middle and upper reaches of the Conservative party he established a reputation as a smart, smooth and capable operator, albeit one capable of occasional blunders. His career took him to posts which included deputy party chairman, Economic Secretary to the Treasury and Shadow Minister for health, defence and foreign affairs. But of course much of the time he, along with the rest of his party, were in the wilderness of opposition to which they were consigned by Blair. John Maples' career was marked by ups and downs, many of them caused by New Labour's effectiveness.
Born in 1943, he was educated at Marlborough College, then Downing College, Cambridge and Harvard Business School. He was called to the Bar, also working in business before entering the Commons in 1983 as MP for Lewisham West. Many years later he was to provoke local anger when he disparaged Lewisham in a speech in the House of Lords as "three square miles of concrete." For good measure he added: "Lewisham did not have an identity and I don't think many people knew which borough they lived in."
He was regarded as an MP with prospects, especially when in 1990 John Major promoted him to Economic Secretary to the Treasury. He was viewed as a pragmatic Majorite and an effective communicator: he was described as "soft-spoken, well-bred and handsomely telegenic." But he lost his seat in the 1992 election.
He resumed his business career, working with Saatchi and Saatchi and becoming deputy Conservative chairman in 1994, the year he wrote his "yobbos" memo. He returned to the Commons for the safe seat of Stratford-on-Avon in 1997, easily holding it in the 2001 and 2005 general elections. William Hague brought him into the Shadow Cabinet, where he successively held the portfolios of health, defence and foreign affairs. But during this time he caused a stir with television comments in which he seemed to press the government to moderate its criticism of the widely condemned Russian bombardments in Chechnya.
"We ought to be careful of the tone in which we criticise the Russians because there is nothing we can do about it," he declared. "The Russians are set upon the policy they are pursuing. The sooner they are successful, the better."
Dropped from the Shadow Cabinet in 2000, he supported Ken Clarke in the following year's Tory leadership contest, arguing that the party should focus on a broader and more socially inclusive range of issues. Clarke lost out to Iain Duncan Smith, and two years later Maples was alleged to be one of those involved in organising the removal of Duncan Smith from the leadership. He denied being part of a plot.
As an MP he was one of those who led the charge against Alastair Campbell and others over the "sexed-up" dossier on Iraq, alleging that a Commons committee had been misled. He said of the committee which produced the dossier: "There is a real problem here. As a result, you get rotten decisions and rotten actions."
David Cameron brought him back into the senior ranks in 2006, appointing him to his old job as Deputy Chairman with responsibility for candidate selection. But he continued to display a sometimes uncertain touch, as when he declared that "the recession must take its course." When Labour pounced on his words he issued what was described as a grovelling apology in the Commons, saying, "I do not believe, and I did not mean to convey the impression, that the government should not help victims of the recession."
Further embarrassment followed when he became caught up in the MPs' expenses scandal, attracting unwelcome attention when it was reported that he had stayed at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall while attending Westminster. Maples said he had never described the club as his main residence, saying he had difficulty in finding accommodation, believed he had set out the facts openly and honestly, and would be willing to pay back any money if a scrutiny committee determined he should. The following year he was elevated to the Lords.
In a tribute David Cameron described him as a loyal and determined Conservative who "recognised the needto change and modernise our party from an early time." The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, added: "As someone who worked closely with John I willremember him as a man of greatintegrity, kindness, humour and quiet distinction."
Maples, who died of cancer, is survived by his wife, the former BBC Panorama journalist Jane Corbin, whom he married in 1986, and by their son Tom and their daughter Rose.
John Cradock Maples, politician: born 22 April 1943; MP for West Lewisham 1983–92; Chairman and Chief Executive, Saatchi & Saatchi Government Communications Worldwide 1992–96; MP for Stratford-on-Avon 1997–2010; Economic Secretary to the Treasury 1990–92; Opposition front bench spokesman on health 1997–98, on defence 1998–99, on foreign affairs 1999–2000; a Deputy Chairman, Conservative Party 1994–95 and 2006–10; cr 2010 Life Peer of Stratford-upon-Avon; married 1986 Jane Corbin (one son, one daughter); died 9 June 2012.