Baroness Blatch

Conservative minister who was full of feisty common sense
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Emily Blatch was a formidable, no- nonsense politician in the Thatcher mould, but with a good deal of charm and a much better sense of humour than she allowed herself to display when tackling the Government front bench in the House of Lords.

Emily May Triggs, politician: born Birkenhead, Cheshire 24 July 1937; member, Cambridgeshire County Council 1977-89, Leader 1981-85; created 1987 Baroness Blatch; Baroness in Waiting (Government Whip), House of Lords 1990; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment 1990-91; Minister of State, Department of the Environment 1991-92, Department for Education 1992-94, Home Office 1994-97; married 1963 John Blatch (two sons, one daughter, and one son deceased); died London 31 May 2005.

Emily Blatch was a formidable, no- nonsense politician in the Thatcher mould, but with a good deal of charm and a much better sense of humour than she allowed herself to display when tackling the Government front bench in the House of Lords.

Raised to the peerage by Margaret Thatcher in 1987 - at first she could not believe the invitation was genuine - she enjoyed a successful career, which took her to ministerial rank in both the Department of Education and the Home Office. In the latter post she worked first with Ken Clarke and then with Michael Howard, who became a great friend and described her as "a fantastic colleague". Although suffering latterly from cancer, she continued to be a regular attender and she will be greatly missed by her Party.

The daughter of an electrician who was often unable to work through illness, Emily Triggs was educated at Prenton Girls School in Birkenhead and left school at 16 to become a typist. She joined the WRAF in 1955 and spent her four years with it working in Air Traffic Control. She left as an NCO with a commendation for outstanding achievement and she was proud of the fact that her daughter, Elizabeth, had followed the same profession. Subsequently she continued in air traffic control, working for the Ministry of Aviation until her marriage in 1963 to John Blatch, an RAF test pilot. Their married life was marred by one great tragedy, the loss of their eldest son at the age of 14; he was a diabetic, who died of bronchial pneumonia. She had received faulty medical advice, but could not bring herself to go through the harrowing business of making a formal complaint.

Blatch was elected on to the Cambridgeshire County Council in 1977, where she was one of the pioneers of devolving budgets to schools, and she led the council from 1981 until 1985. In many ways she thought this one of the high points of her career and she always believed that Whitehall had much to learn from local government. In 1984 she was appointed to the Peterborough Development Corporation, but stood down in 1988.

As an active member of the Huntingdon Conservative Association, she had been influential in securing John Major's selection for the constituency and the two families became great friends. The unkind said she owed her rapid promotion to that connection, but her ability and drive would had already brought her recognition and she would undoubtedly have made a successful career under any Prime Minister. Appointed a government whip in January 1990, she became Under-Secretary at the Department of Environment that autumn, taking charge of Britain's heritage in 1991, and Minister of State at the Department of Education in the following year. She served under the ill-fated John Patten and rumours were soon running round Westminster that the two did not always see eye to eye.

Blatch was an unabashed traditionalist so far as the syllabus was concerned - she was, she once said, for Shakespeare and against soap operas - and she denounced "progressive" teaching:

Instead of learning to add up, children are to be taught how to use a calculator. Instead of learning how to spell, children are to be taught to look for the meaning in words. Instead of being told that they are right or wrong, children are to be told that they achieved something.

Nevertheless she thought the national curricuum had become over-prescriptive and testing too burdensome. She wanted to lighten ship in order to preserve the reforms carried through by Patten's predecessors. The Government had fallen foul of the teaching profession, and John Major had given Patten a "ferocious bollocking" for his failure to win them round. Many believed that the inspiration for that intervention was not a million miles away from the "Huntingdon connection". When Patten temporarily retired from the fray, apparently suffering from stress, Blatch took the reins and conducted a partial retreat from the reforms with grace and style. The proposals put forward in the Dearing Report of December 1993 were an acceptable compromise and were accepted by her.

She was already a Privy Councillor and there were some who thought she should have been made Secretary of State. Characteristically she pooh-poohed the idea and accepted with good grace a sideways move to the Home Office in 1994, where she served until the Major government ran out of luck and time in 1997. In opposition, she served first as a shadow education minister and from 2000 as Deputy Leader in the Lords, but she fell out with her own leader over his decision to support new rights for those who changed sex. A staunch evangelical, she had earlier supported her great friend Janet Young over the retention of Section 28. Nevertheless Michael Howard kept her in post and she died in harness.

She was not always popular with Labour peers, but charges that she did not listen to them and that she was a bully passed her by. She knew that bullies take on the weak, not the strong, and profound convictions underpinned her ferocious assaults on figures like Shirley Williams, the more ferocious because she knew that they knew their subject even if she thought them wrong-headed. At her best she was a formidable debater, full of feisty common sense, but although she never wore her heart on her sleeve, her care for children and particularly the disadvantaged was very genuine and her attacks on modern trends in education was rooted in her belief that they had let those children down.

John Barnes