In 1968 Harold Wilson was worn down by the strain of being lectured in daily 30-minute phone calls by the formidable figure of George Wigg, his security minister. Conscious of Wigg's unpopularity both in his Cabinet and in the Labour Party – as Norman Atkinson, MP for Tottenham, memorably put it, "Walls have Wiggs" – Wilson decided to ease his friend and campaign manager for the Labour leadership in 1963 out of the Commons. He made him chairman of the Horserace Betting Levy Board.
So a by-election was created in Dudley; Wilson was sure Labour would hold the seat, but I had filled in for Dick Crosland, whose Parliamentary Private Secretary I was, at a meeting of the Dudley Labour Party. They were not nearly so certain and went for someone who would appeal to middle class voters. John Gilbert, candidate in Ludlow at the 1966 general election, seemed to fit the bill.
What neither Dudley nor the Labour leadership realised was the extent of the resentment of electors when an MP leaves a constituency in mid-term for a "cushy number". Only death is excusable. Knocking on Black Country doors, I and other Lab MPs smelled disaster, and Labour got a bloody nose: the Conservative Donald Williams had 28,016 votes to John Gilbert's 16,360. Many might have given up hope of a political career. It is to Gilbert's credit, and thanks to his burning ambition, that he did not throw in the towel. In 1970 he won by a whisker, beating Williams by 29,499 votes to 29,163 after a double-figure of recounts.
Son of Stanley Gilbert, a civil servant and supporter of the welfare state, John Gilbert went to Merchant Taylors' School in Northwood and St John's College, Oxford. He was pleased when Tony Blair, later of the same college, became Labour leader. Gilbert graduated in PPE, with a special bias towards economics. After a short period as an "unsatisfactory" – his word – management trainee with Forte, Gilbert went to Canada. A decade and a half as a banker, accountant and international economist there made him a passionate Atlanticist and the recipient of much Labour hostility from me and many others. He demanded – yes, demanded – to be called "Dr" Gilbert; we wondered what exactly his doctorate was in. It transpired that after a year or two as a banker in New York he had somehow got a PhD in international economics at New York University.
In 1966, back from Canada, he was selected – or rather spatchcocked in at the last minute – to what was thought to be the unwinnable seat of the beautiful city of Ludlow. He lost to Jasper More by 19,303 votes to 16,123, but with a swing of 4 per cent, which stood him in good stead when he was selected for the seemingly safe seat of Dudley. More, of Eton and Cambridge and an extensive landowner with a delightful sense of humour, chuckled to Labour MPs: "You know Dr John Gilbert is far, far grander than I am."
Over the years we had to agree; Gilbert was indeed very grand and got away with it for many people because he never pretended to be anything other than what he was. He made a name for himself in the Commons by asking penetrating questions of the Chancellor, Anthony Barber, and in 1972 was chosen by Denis Healey as part of the Opposition Treasury team along with Joel Barnett and Robert Sheldon. Healey told me that Gilbert was "sensible and pragmatic. A very competent chap". Sheldon recalled that he was "very understanding". As Finance Secretary to the Treasury Gilbert piloted through the Capital Transfer Tax in the 1975 Finance Bill. But he accused the Stock Exchange of malpractice; the City was livid. Gilbert could not prove his accusations.
He also became a vitriolic anti-Marketeer. However, in order to heal Party wounds the PM promoted him to Minister for Transport in the Department of the Environment. The owner of a somewhat ostentatious Aston martin and of a Mustang, he did try to get compulsory seatbelts through but failed. He was successful on drink-driving legislation and on the control of emissions.
He also won a two-year exemption on use of the tachograph in lorries, which pleased some and not others. But the parliamentary National Union of Railwaymen group, of which I was a member, became very angry with him over his vetoing of what became the Jubilee Line extension, capping railway investment and saying that buses might replace certain trains.
In 1976 Jim Callaghan became PM and wanted to sack him. But Gilbert couldn't be contacted as he was in America, and somehow he persuaded the PM to demote him to Minister of State in the Ministry of Defence responsible for procurement. Many of the unsatisfactory current situations on defence procurement can be traced back to Gilbert, particularly in relation to Polaris, the British Army of the Rhine and the inflated costs of a number of weapons systems. In 1981 he infuriated a large section of the Labour Party by refusing to vote against the British nuclear deterrent.
In 1980 I had my first (of a number) of blazing rows with Gilbert. Opposing the British Olympic team going to Moscow he organised 20 Labour MPs to go into the lobby with Mrs Thatcher, and, worse, made cheap and disparaging statements about Denis Howell, former sports minister, about me as chairman of the PLP sports group, and unforgivably about Dick Palmer, Secretary of the British Olympic Committee. Gilbert cared nothing about athletics or swimming – motor racing was his sport; he was merely unthinkingly pro-White House.
After his ministerial career Gilbert devoted himself to select committees, and The Spectator dubbed him "inquisitor of the year" for the way he had treated Sir Brian Hayes and Sir Robert Armstrong. In fact he has been grossly overrated as an inquisitor. He was insufferably arrogant with witnesses to no great effect and seldom ascertained the truth. Frankly, he was bombastic and rude. He liked controversy for the sake of controversy.
In 1997 it was believed that Gilbert made a deal to surrender his seat in exchange for a place in the Lords. The truth is that the Dudley Labour Party was so exasperated by his policy attitudes and non-attendance at local party meetings that they were determined to deselect him (as they had tried in the mid-1980s). However Blair, probably on account of his perceived Atlantic connections, gave him back his old job as Minister for Procurement – at which he did no better than in his previous incarnation.
I have the highest regard for most of my parliamentary colleagues of all parties. I fear John Gilbert was not among them – a view shared with most of his contemporaries in the PLP and in the wider Labour movement.
John William Gilbert, politician: born London 5 April 1927; MP for Dudley 1970-74, Dudley East 1974-97; Financial Secretary Treasury 1974-75, Minister for Transport 1975-76; Minister of State for Defence 1976-79; cr. peer 1997; married 1950 Hilary Kenworthy (divorced 1954; one daughter, and one daughter deceased), 1963 Jean Ross Skinner; died London 2 June 2013.