Geoffrey Johnson Smith: Television journalist who became a Conservative MP

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz