Thatcherite minister who made his reputation in opposition as a true, but troublesome, parliamentarian
Saturday 20 May 2006
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.
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