Dependable campaigner who defies 'traitor' slur

Scott fall-out: Thurnham emerges with credibility intact as report row grows
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The Independent Online
CHRIS BLACKHURST

Westminster Correspondent

Question: Which person recently wrote a personal cheque for pounds 60,000 to a home for the handicapped? Answer: The man derided yesterday by Conservative party officials as dishonourable and as a traitor.

Try as they might, the Tories were struggling yesterday to sound convincingly rude about Peter Thurnham, their erstwhile member for Bolton North-East. A gross act of betrayal, probably; madness - well, not quite.

Mr Thurnham may be many things but he is not bonkers. He was desperately keen late on Thursday night, after his meeting with the Prime Minister, not to be seen as an eccentric maverick whose mind was never made up, who came and went from the party and came back again. In short, he did not want to be - and is not - another Sir Richard Body.

Ever since he arrived at Westminster in 1983, Mr Thurnham has maintained a fairly low profile. Solid, conscientious, widely respected and well- liked, he is deeply sincere on social issues, especially the plight of the disabled. Upright and dependable, no suggestion of sleaze ever came near him.

One fellow Tory said yesterday that Mr Thurnham was "an old-fashioned MP who went into politics to genuinely try and improve peoples' lives".

He was never someone the whips would ever get concerned about. That all started to change last summer when the normally mild-mannered Mr Thurnham started to display rumblings of discontent. Having already decided not to stand for Bolton North-East (majority 185, and bound to disappear with boundary changes) he had consigned himself, at 57, to bidding farewell to politics.

He was happy to return to his farm at Crook, on the fringes of the Lake District, near Kendal, and Sarah, his wife and their four children - one of whom, Stephen, is adopted and suffers from cerebral palsy. Mr Thurnham loves the rhythm of the working farm and he was also looking forward to building up his veteran car collection - he is a regular in the London- Brighton run. Money is not a problem: for years the Thurnhams have run their own engineering firm.

When Westmorland unexpectedly became available, he saw it as the ideal constituency for someone anxious to see more of his family and one he felt he had a good chance of winning. At the least he thought he would secure an interview.

A career as a councillor prior to Westminster should have been a bonus and he is popular within the area. With his son at a handicapped home in nearby Barrow-in-Furness, he is an ardent campaigner and fund-raiser for the disabled.

An indication of just how popular can be gauged from the local newspaper. When he failed to be offered an interview its letters page was full of voices of support. The editorial vented its rage and the paper printed in full the speech he would have made.

It is from the heart, full of references to his family, his love of the area and its people, his realisation of their frustrations about the way decisions made hundreds of miles away affect their lives. Ironically, in view of his resignation, towards the end of the speech he never got the chance to make, he pleads for unity within the party: "No Prime Minister can do the job if he is constantly having to look over his shoulder."

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