Eric Forth

Thatcherite minister who made his reputation in opposition as a true, but troublesome, parliamentarian

Eric Forth, who served as a Conservative MP for 23 years, enjoyed an unbroken junior ministerial career from 1988 until the Tories were ejected from office in 1997. But, whereas many of his contemporaries had by then disappeared into oblivion or electoral defeat, Forth's best years, when he made his reputation as a true parliamentarian, were yet to come.

He flourished on the opposition back benches, from where he single-handedly harried the New Labour government at every procedural opportunity - winning an award as "Opposition MP of the Year" in 2000. He lived up to the sketchwriters' regular descriptions as "colourful" and "flamboyant", thanks partly to his appalling taste for loud ties, bright waistcoats, fob watch-chains, bracelets and rings the size of knuckledusters but more because of his mastery of the art of political knockabout.

Forth's lasting legacy will be the Parliamentary Resource Unit which he set up in 1997 with David Maclean and Patrick McLoughlin, the past and present Tory chief whips. This is a subscription briefing service - used almost exclusively by Tory MPs but available to any MP - as a way of countering ministerial briefing from the Civil Service.

His chief delight was to scupper Private Members' Bills on Fridays - even those with all-party support - because he believed in a general presumption that legislation was usually harmful and, at the very least, deserved maximum scrutiny at every stage. Only three weeks ago he was submitting the Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Bill to such scrutiny - much to the annoyance of even his own front bench.

But if he was handled properly by Labour ministers he would occasionally allow a Bill to pass. David Maclean, the former Tory chief whip, recalls that Jack Straw, as Home Secretary, wanted support for a Private Members' Bill and sought out Forth privately to explain the reasons. But Forth insisted on a debate and Straw, being a respecter of parliamentary debate himself, guaranteed the necessary time. This may account for the extraordinarily generous tribute paid on behalf of the Labour Party by Straw, the new Leader of the Commons, in the Chamber on Thursday.

Forth was born in Glasgow in 1944 and educated at Jordanhill College School and Glasgow University, where he studied Politics and Economics and was Secretary of the university Conservative Club. He worked first in industry, for Ford Motors and Rank Xerox, and served on Brentwood Urban District Council for four years from 1968.

A staunch Thatcherite, Forth adored Parliament from the day he was elected for Mid Worcestershire in the 1983 general election. He had previously stood in Barking, unsuccessfully, in the two 1974 general elections. Initially, he supported entry into Europe and, having failed to get selected for another parliamentary seat, he was elected for North Birmingham, in 1979, in the first ever direct elections to the European Parliament, where, but for his growing Euroscepticism as a result of his experiences in Brussels and Strasbourg, he might have otherwise remained for the rest of his career.

After his maiden speech in the Commons, attacking the Sex Equality Bill, he was marked out as gloriously politically incorrect and immediately identified by Lord Harris of High Cross and myself as one of the new "likely lads", who along with Michael Forsyth, Francis Maude, Peter Lilley, Edward Leigh and others of his intake, would be a supportive praetorian guard for Margaret Thatcher. The 1983 manifesto was largely a blank cheque and we were anxious for the Prime Minister not to listen to the siren voices to "consolidate" the second term. Instead we wanted to encourage her to move the programme of privatisation and further deregulation up the political agenda.

So was born the infamous NTB (No Turning Back) group of which Forth was to become the distinguished convenor. Michael Forsyth believes he owes his first ministerial post to Forth's outspokenness at a dinner, in 1986, given by the NTB for the Prime Minister at the Institute of Economic Affairs. During a lull in the prime ministerial monologue Forth suggested that she might help herself to get her policies implemented if she appointed more of her supporters - "starting from around this table" - to the Government. A few months later many in the group, including Forth, began their ascent up the greasy pole.

Forth joined the Government as consumer affairs minister at the DTI, under his other hero, Nick Ridley, in 1988 and subsequently held a succession of further posts at Employment and Education throughout the remainder of the Tory years in power. Although he was a perfectly competent minister he was unflashy and determined not to drop any catches. He refused to seek good publicity and, when he demanded improvements by BT in their services to the deaf in return for granting a licence, he would not allow a departmental press release to trumpet his decision lest it undermined his hard-line credentials.

His was a risky but popular appointment designed to appeal to the right-wing groups and also to encourage backbenchers who thought office had passed them by. If Forth, an outspoken troublemaker, could get a job, so could the rest of us. This made him unsackable when John Major took over - and, even after he was spotted going into the putative headquarters of Michael Portillo's abortive leadership campaign when Major called his bizarre "back me or sack me" leadership election in 1995, Forth held on to his post - even becoming a Privy Councillor.

As a minister Forth continued to play an active part in the internal politics and direction of the Government with a central role in trying, unsuccessfully, to persuade Thatcher to stand in a second ballot in the leadership contest in 1990. He supported John Major but believed that the right's long-term hopes rested with Michael Portillo. After Portillo's defeat in 1997 Forth was seen as his chief disciple but, after Portillo's return to the Commons in 1999, Forth became anxious that Portillo was abandoning his Thatcherite credentials. After the 2000 party conference speech by Portillo, who was then shadow Chancellor, Forth convened a meeting of the NTB, saying:

I must say I always thought we believed in lower taxes, locking up more criminals, and standing up for Britain. But now I am told we stand for something called "reaching out".

Turning to Portillo he said,

"What was your speech all about? You should be attacking the Labour government and cutting taxes, not talking about yourself. "

It was not surprising that by the leadership contest of 2001 Forth swung behind the outsider, David Davis, before switching to Iain Duncan Smith, guaranteeing a permanent rift with Portillo, who was defeated. From then on he was a Davis man but was rewarded by being appointed to the IDS shadow cabinet as shadow Leader of the Commons. He was up against Robin Cook and the weekly business questions sessions were far more exciting than Prime Minister's Questions (nicknamed by Forth PMPs - "Prime Minister's Porkies"). Cook and Forth sparred and jousted but became firm friends. The two would often have private gossip sessions afterwards in Cook's office, where each became privy to each other's innermost views on their parliamentary colleagues.

Forth was annoyed that Davis gave Michael Howard a clear run when IDS fell in November 2003. Howard and Forth never got on and Forth returned to the back benches. Forth was disappointed that Davis lost to David Cameron but was always amused that Cameron's first frontbench post had been as Forth's junior. A month ago at a drinks party Forth told me he had just put to Cameron a question at the backbench 1922 Committee: "I believe in lower taxes, grammar schools and big business. Mr Cameron, am I still a Conservative?"

It is ironic that Cameron's new "A-list" of candidates, giving priority to women, will be put to the test for the first time in Bromley and Chislehurst, the constituency Forth has represented since 1997. I doubt that Forth would ever have been admitted to this list if he were beginning his career today. There will certainly be no one with his demeanour or views among the dozens of young metropolitan Notting Hill setters who will be competing for the chance to replace him.

Michael Brown

Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Life & Style
life
Arts & Entertainment
Back in the suit: There are only so many variations you can spin on the lives or adventures of Peter Parker
filmReview: Almost every sequence and set-up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems familiar from some earlier superhero film
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones
tv
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit