John Cordle

Moralistic Conservative MP brought down by the Poulson affair

John Cordle was not unfairly characterised recently by Reginald Maudling's biographer Lewis Baston as "a blustering moraliser with an intriguing private life and business links that stretched from West Africa to the Church of England newspaper".

John Howard Cordle, politician: born London 11 October 1912; managing director, E.W. Cordle and Son 1946-68, chairman 1968-81; MP (Conservative) for Bournemouth East and Christchurch 1959-74, for Bournemouth East 1974-77; owner, Church of England Newspaper 1960-71; married first 1938 (three sons, and one son and one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved 1956), 1957 Venetia Maynard (one son, three daughters; marriage dissolved 1971), 1976 Terttu Heijura (two sons); died Salisbury, Wiltshire 22 November 2004.

John Cordle was not unfairly characterised recently by Reginald Maudling's biographer Lewis Baston as "a blustering moraliser with an intriguing private life and business links that stretched from West Africa to the Church of England newspaper".

Cordle was one of three MPs - Maudling and the Labour MP Alfred Roberts were the others - who were associated with the corrupt architect and businessman John Poulson, and were subject to an investigation by a Select Committee of the House of Commons in the winter of 1976-77. Its report in July 1977 found that Cordle had been guilty of conduct amounting to a contempt of Parliament and, although he attempted to brazen it out, it became clear that he was bound to be expelled.

After a largely hostile meeting of the 1922 Committee, the Conservative whips brought pressure to bear on him to resign. Four days before the report was to be debated, he did so. Although he admitted to receiving £5,628 from two Poulson companies to promote their interests in West Africa, he denied any impropriety, but told the House that "if a group of my colleagues decide unanimously that I was at fault in a matter, then I must bow to their judgement".

He left the House in tears, but few were shed for him. He had set himself up as the very model of a hardline moralist and he was thought to be sanctimonious and something of a hypocrite. His resignation almost certainly saved the much more popular Maudling from a similar fate.

When he bought The Church of England Newspaper in 1959, Cordle declared his intention to use it to campaign against easy divorce and for "high standards of public life, discipline in the home and a decisive approach to hooliganism and juvenile delinquency". But his own life fell short of the standards he had set for others and, while no outsider can know the truth of any marital breakdown, two marriages ended in an atmosphere of well-publicised rancour.

When his first wife, Grace, sought to have him jailed for breaching a custody order, Cordle escaped penalty by pleading parliamentary privilege. However the judge condemned his conduct as "utterly disgraceful". In the terminal stages of his second marriage, to Venetia Maynard, he imposed a 7 o'clock curfew on those visiting his wife and posted security guards to prevent his mother-in-law from coming to stay. His final marriage, to his children's nanny, Terttu Heikura, 35 years his junior, lasted until his death.

Much of the appalling tragedy that beset Cordle was not of his own making. One grandson was killed in a road accident and a granddaughter electrocuted. One son, who subsequently made good, was jailed for theft and a daughter became a heroin addict and prostitute. Not surprisingly perhaps the tabloids began to talk of the curse of the Cordles.

John Cordle was born in London in 1912, was educated at the City of London School and joined the family firm, E.W. Cordle and Son, which made family linen and supplied linen to hospitals and hotels. In 1940 he enlisted in the RAF and eventually reached the rank of flight lieutenant.

Returning to the family business in 1946, he found that large sums of money had been embezzled from the firm, and he had to pay between £60,000 and £70,000 to the Inland Revenue as a result of the firm's books' being doctored. He took over as managing director in 1946, holding the position until 1968 when he became chairman of the board. By 1952 he had sufficiently rebuilt his finances to be in a position to become a member of Lloyd's and he led an active social life. He was a Gold Staff Officer at the Coronation and, as a friend of the Princess, an usher at Princess Margaret's wedding.

A staunch evangelical, Cordle became a lay reader at Rochester Cathedral and served on the Archbishops' Commission on Evangelism and the Church Assembly. He was Treasurer of the World's Evangelical Alliance from 1949 until 1953 and became a long-serving member of the Oxford Churches Patronage Trust, taking over the chair in 1955.

Although he was adopted as the Conservative candidate for Wolverhampton North-East in 1949, he did not contest the seat in 1950 and fought his first parliamentary contest for the Wrekin in 1951, losing by 1,804 votes. The seat was won for the Conservatives by William Yates in 1955 and Cordle did not contest that election, perhaps because his first marriage was breaking up after 17 years.

He finally made the Commons in 1959, beneficiary of an extraordinary set of circumstances in which Nigel Nicolson was displaced as the MP for Bournemouth East and Christchurch, largely for opposing the Suez operation, and his chosen successor was revealed as an Empire Loyalist and in turn dismissed. Cordle was a staunch supporter of Anthony Eden's ill-fated enterprise and clearly on the right of the party. He proved a popular choice and was undoubtedly a hard-working constituency Member.

He was good-looking and forthright, and developed a fine command of trenchant phraseology, which was usually devoted to the denunciation of his pet hates - the Roman Church, pornography and homosexuality. He denounced the BBC for putting on un-Christian and anti-moral plays, spearheaded calls in the House of Commons to have Lady Chatterley's Lover banned, and attacked the film Lolita. "The wind of change in our affluent society has brought in its wake a gust of lust," he believed, and he blamed the rise in sexual disease on filthy books. Homes were being "subjected to suggestive, dirty and corrupting plays on ITV and BBC" and "Priests who indulge in the abominable and intolerable practices of buggery and homosexual genital sex should be expelled from the Church".

When John Profumo resigned in 1963, Cordle was predictably censorious:

Men who choose to live in adultery ought not to be appointed to serve our Queen and country . . . I was appalled to hear that our beloved Queen should be so wrongly advised as to give an audience to a minister who has proved himself so untrustworthy.

It was a series of remarks that many recalled when Cordle incurred the wrath of his colleagues 14 years later.

Cordle's company traded extensively in West Africa. In December 1963 he was approached for "promotion representation overseas for Construction Promotions Ltd in West Africa and Libya". Construction Promotions was one of John Poulson's companies and within weeks Cordle was sending back reports and asking for a formal contract and expenses.

In March 1965, he wrote to Poulson setting out his efforts country by country and, in terms that were to prove fatal to his parliamentary career, he noted the use of his official positions to further the firm's interests, the Conservative West Africa Committee (of which he was Chairman) "to give me further entrée in that region", the use of the Commons for a Construction Promotions business lunch, and chairmanship of the Anglo-Libyan parliamentary group as a useful position to give the firm the right contacts.

In April 1965 an agreement was made with another Poulson firm, Ropergate Services, but by November 1967 the two men were at odds. Poulson considered he had been "conned", but Cordle took legal action to ensure that his contractual relationship was perpetuated and he stayed on the payroll until 1970, collecting £5,628 over six years. It was his failure to declare an interest in debate that proved fatal to him when the select committee came to consider his activities.

Poulson had been forced to file for bankruptcy in 1972 and his meticulous files allowed corruption charges to be successfully brought against him and several associates. However, when the DPP consulted two senior barristers in the autumn of 1974 about the activities of the MPs involved, they advised that no charge for corruption could lie against an MP.

Harold Wilson's response to the evidence of corruption was to set up the Salmon Commission, and in the course of its investigations Salmon recommended that Cordle's case should be subjected to parliamentary investigation. When the Attorney General failed to act, a member of the commission leaked material relating to MPs to Adam Raphael of The Observer, and the story was printed under the headline "Corruption - 3 MPs escape prosecution". The Commons was outraged and the Government was forced to act.

Cordle never ceased to protest that he had been the victim of slurs and innuendo and in 1991 he was finally able to get the Clerk of the House of Commons to acknowledge "the very narrow basis of the committee's criticism, and the moderating factors to which they drew attention".

John Cordle resigned chairmanship of the family firm in 1981 and in retirement played an active part in local charities. He opened his home, Malmesbury House in the Close at Salisbury, to the public, but played little further part in public life.

John Barnes

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