Geoffrey Johnson Smith: Television journalist who became a Conservative MP

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Geoffrey Johnson Smith was a television journalist who became a Conservative MP. But though he rose to become a junior minister, his early promise was not fulfilled.

He was born in Glasgow in 1924, the son of an electrical engineer. The family moved to southern England when he was still very young and he was sent to Charterhouse, the public school whose old boys included an amazing array of talents. Smith would bump into several former pupils among his fellow MPs.

From Charterhouse, Johnson Smith, like his future Party leader Edward Heath, served in the Royal Artillery, in his case from 1942 to 1947. He reached the rank of captain. He completed his education at Lincoln College, Oxford, where he read philosophy, politics and economics. In his final year he and Robin Day, later a leading light at the BBC, toured the United States with the Oxford Union's debating team. From Oxford he was recruited by the British Information Services, serving in San Francisco from 1950 to 1952. This experience gave him an abiding affection for the US; he also met a doctor, Jeanne Pomeroy, there, and they married in 1951.

BBC television had restarted in 1946 with a tiny audience. Many thought it could not replace radio, but with his experiences in the US Johnson Smith knew otherwise and on his return he joined the BBC's current affairs department, working first on the political programme Highlight and then on the award-winning Tonight, which was on air from February 1957. He remained with the BBC until 1959.

Contemporaries said he was a socialist at Oxford but like some others, he went for what appeared to be a chastened, reformed and resurrected "one nation" Conservative Party of Butler, Heath and their like. Perhaps remarkably, given his BBC position, he served as a Conservative member of the London County Council from 1955 to 1958. In 1959, he fought and won the marginal seat of Holborn and St Pancras South from Labour's Lena Jeger by 656 votes. One could be forgiven for thinking his television appearances won him the day.

Within six months he was appointed PPS at the Board of Trade and Ministry of Pensions, retaining the post until 1963. Perhaps sensing his vulnerability, he did not abandon television altogether. He was the presenter on ATV's weekly The Warning Voice and other programmes in 1963. His parliamentary career was momentarily interrupted at the following election of 1964, when Jeger had her revenge, retaking the seat for Labour.

The following February he was returned to the Commons for the safe seat of East Grinstead with a majority of more than 10,000. He represented the constituency until 1983, when its boundaries were redrawn, and he remained as Member for the new Sussex Wealden constituency until 2001. Handsome, polite, well turned out, he was almost old-fashioned, in the best sense. For his detractors, inside his party and elsewhere, he was too smooth by half. He was expected to gain high office but failed to do so.

At first all went well. Sir Alec Douglas-Home appointed him an opposition whip and when Edward Heath became leader in 1965 he promoted Johnson Smith to be a vice-chairman of the party. Working with the chairman, Edward du Cann, he inevitably made enemies as they struck off "dead wood" from the list of party hopefuls.

Once Heath became Prime Minister, in 1970, Johnson Smith hoped to be rewarded for his loyalty and his labour. In 1971, he was appointed Under Secretary of State for Defence for the Army. Within months he had to deal with the mounting crisis in Northern Ireland. In 1972, after Bloody Sunday, he spoke strongly in support of the army, particularly the Parachute Regiment: "It is bad enough," he said, "for our troops to have to run all the perils and be shot at by gunmen without having their pain increased by smears in this House."

It was while he was at the MoD that a strange incident took place that was to put a damper on Johnson Smith's career. Somewhat unwisely, he held a meeting with the bank robber and self-styled MI6 agent Kenneth Littlejohn hoping to receive information about IRA arms supplies. The MoD stressed that the conversation had been set up with the authority of the Defence Secretary Lord Carrington, and that Johnson Smith behaved correctly throughout. But the episode was an embarrassment to Heath's government and led many to question Johnson Smith's judgment.

Heath moved him sideways in 1972 to Parliamentary Secretary in the Civil Service Department, where he remained until the Conservative defeat in 1974. When Margaret Thatcher was elected leader in 1975, she put him in charge, along with a fellow TV professional, Gordon Reece, of media activities at Conservative Central Office.

However, her victory in the 1979 election did not lead to a prestigious appointment for Johnson Smith. From 1980 to 1996 he chaired the select committee on Members' Interests, a poisoned chalice. There, he had to deal with embarrassing questions about the business activities of Thatcher's son Mark, and later had to sort out the wave of "sleaze" revelations regarding members of John Major's government.

Johnson Smith developed many business interests over the years, among them London Weekend Television, Brands Hatch, Glengate Holdings (a commercial and industrial property) and Eagle Star Insurance. He was knighted in 1982.

From 1985 Johnson Smith chaired the military committee of the North Atlantic Assembly, and, from 1987 to 1997 led the British delegation. For six years he chaired the Conservative backbench defence committee – in his last session he remained joint treasurer of the powerful All-Party America Group. Among other his interests were those of the all-party group on the ex-POWs captured by the Japanese.

But for all his work on the Party's behalf, Geoffrey Johnson Smith never took centre stage: Thatcher, Major and Lord Carrington all failed to mention him in their memoirs.

David Childs

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith, journalist, broadcaster and politician: born Glasgow 16 April 1924; MP for Holborn and St Pancras South 1959–64, East Grinstead 1965–83, Wealden 1983–2001; PPS, Board of Trade and Ministry of Pensions 1960–63; Opposition Whip 1965; Chairman, Select Committee on Members' Interests 1980–95; Kt 1982; married 1951 Jeanne Pomeroy (two sons, one daughter); died Sussex 11 August 2010.