Lord Peyton of Yeovil

Supreme parliamentary tactician
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The Independent Online

John Wynne William Peyton, politician: born 13 February 1919; called to the Bar 1945; MP (Conservative) for Yeovil 1951-83; Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Power 1962-64; Minister of Transport 1970; Minister for Transport Industries, Department of the Environment 1970-74; PC 1970; chairman, Texas Instruments 1974-90; created Baron Peyton of Yeovil 1983; married 1947 Diana Clinch (one son, one daughter, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1966), 1966 Mary Cobbold (née Wyndham); died 22 November 2006.

To the end of his political life Harold Wilson was haunted by the endless repetition of a remark he made in a ministerial broadcast in 1967. Wilson, announcing the devaluation of the pound, assured viewers and listeners that "this does not mean that the pound in your pocket, or in your purse, will be devalued". This was, patently, untrue, and to this day it remains incomprehensible that a politician of such skill made the remark. That the quotation of it became a staple of British political conflict in the following years was, however, almost solely due to the determination of John Peyton, Conservative MP for Yeovil from 1951 until 1983.

Again and again Peyton would rise in the House of Commons to ask the Prime Minister how much the pound in his pocket was worth. Again and again the Prime Minister would betray irritation and concern with the interventions of this gadfly. At first the Tory leadership sought to dissuade Peyton from pursuing what they considered to be an obsession. "But," replied Peyton, "the essence of opposition is repetition". Gradually, by an osmotic process, Peyton's question sunk into political consciousness as the pluperfect expression of the shiftiness which was so characteristic of the Wilson years. Peyton proved himself, by repetition, to be a supreme parliamentary tactician.

Yet, for all that, he never made it to the front of the political rank. An exceptionally widely read man (the first senior British politician to quote, accurately and effectively, Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the House of Commons) he was, none the less, intellectually lazy. The arrogance he acquired at Eton and Trinity College, Oxford, where he read Law, remained with him to the end of his days. As a minister he hated being briefed, and gave all too little attention to the papers put before him. He preferred, instead, to devote his public life to the reiteration of truisms. I once commissioned a series of articles from him. They came in. They were all beautifully honed, for Peyton was a fine writer of English prose. But they all said precisely the same thing. I reproached him. "But," he said, "the essence of a truism is that it is true." By this canon he lived his political life.

But he was also (which arrogant people are often not) acerbic. He took a very dim view of Edward Heath's performance against Harold Wilson in the twice-weekly combat of Prime Minister's Questions. "Look," he said to Heath at the weekly meeting to determine opposition tactics, "you should watch Wilson. He always remembers the constituencies of his supporters. And he always looks around to a Labour member, and pays him a compliment. That's the least you can do."

But Heath could not do that least. He was a good deal less than adroit in Parliament and besides, he could rarely remember the names of Conservative MPs, let alone their constituencies.

A few weeks after the incident just described, I was walking down a corridor in the House with Peyton. Heath was coming in the opposite direction. Peyton stopped him, and adopted an anxious expression. "Ted," he said, "I'm worried about you. How's the arthritis?" Heath was baffled. "What arthritis?" "Oh," replied Peyton, "when I saw that you couldn't turn your head to look at your own supporters I thought you had that disease."

He then walked on; but he had not endeared himself to his leader. But, then, Peyton was never a respecter of persons, and he would not move a millimetre off his chosen course to procure advancement, or even respect. When Heath won the general election of 1970 it was solely the advocacy of William Whitelaw that got him a job in government: he was made Minister of Transport, first in his own department but after October 1970 in the giant new Department of the Environment. He was not good at the job; and it bored him. "All I have to do all day," he once grumbled, "is study bloody maps."

After the Heath government was defeated for the second time in a year, in October 1974, Peyton decided to put himself forward as a candidate for the leadership. His small band of close friends sought to dissuade him, for he had no chance of success. He persisted and, in due course, was humiliated, winning a derisory 11 votes on the second ballot.

The victor, Margaret Thatcher, had, however, promised Shadow Cabinet posts to all those who had opposed her. Peyton became shadow Minister of Agriculture, having served as shadow Leader of the House of Commons under Heath. His combative nature had not really been suited to this essentially bipartisan job, but his knowledge and love of parliamentary procedure made him an effective combatant. After Thatcher gave him the agriculture portfolio, he promptly bought himself a brown tweed suit, and a mustard-coloured cardigan. Agricultural airs became the form of the day.

But, when Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, the best thing she felt able to offer Peyton was his old job at Transport. He turned her down in a matter of seconds, and went off into a business career, entering the House of Lords after he resigned his Commons seat in 1983. He was, among other things, the European chairman of Texas Instruments, but he was also Treasurer of the London Zoological Society. To friends who expressed surprise at this (apparently) new interest in animals Peyton explained that he had learned to be concerned with caged beasts when he was a prisoner of war between 1941 and 1945. In 1989, however, he resigned this post, on the grounds that the governing body understood neither animals nor finance.

To the end John Peyton was his own man, and, as such, a monument in British public life. His private life was, alas, even more stormy than his public. But his second marriage, following an acrimonious divorce, brought him great happiness. He will be remembered above all, however, for his sardonic sense of humour. "I wonder," John Biffen once said, "what quip John will make when he meets God?"

Patrick Cosgrave

*Patrick Cosgrave died 16 September 2001