Lord Pym: Leading 'wet' in Thatcher's first cabinet who became Foreign Secretary during the Falklands War

During the four years of Margaret Thatcher's first government Francis Pym had the distinction of holding three different posts. It was his misfortune that she found him intensely irritating in all three. When she formed a new government after the June 1983 general election she abruptly sacked him, saying: "I want a new Foreign Secretary". She went from strength to strength while his career petered out.

Pym was the bearer of one of the most illustrious names in the history of the House of Commons. John Pym (1584-1643) had courageously upheld the rights of Parliament against Charles I and was arrested for his pains. Francis Pym's forebears included lawyers, bishops and MPs. His father, Leslie Pym, a wealthy landowner, was a Conservative MP for Monmouth between 1939 and 1945 and has a footnote in election history. He died a few days before the declaration of the 1945 result and is one of the few to have been re-elected posthumously.

Francis Pym was born near Abergavenny in 1922, and educated at Eton and Magdalene College, Cambridge. He left university in December 1941 to join the war effort. He had a good war, fighting at Alamein, serving as a captain with the 9th Lancers and was awarded the MC. After the war he spurned the opportunity to become a country squire, not moving to the family estate at the Hazells in Bedfordshire.

He decided to enter business and was recruited in 1946 by Lord Woolton, the chairman of the retailers Lewis's - and soon to become an outstanding chairman of the Conservative Party. Pym became general manager of a Lewis's subsidiary, Merseyside Dairies, and then managing director of a tent-making company in Hereford. In 1958 he was elected as a Conservative member of Herefordshire County Council.

In 1961, aged 39, Pym was selected to fight a by-election for Cambridgeshire. Compared to the narrow CVs many candidates have today, he had an outstanding war record, commercial experience, a record in local politics, and a family tradition of public service. The seat was a safe one and he won it comfortably. He held the seat until 1983 when it was redrawn in the boundary review and he then won Cambridgeshire South East.

He was appointed a whip in 1962 and remained so for the next 11 years. He became Deputy Chief Whip in 1967 (the Chief Whip was William Whitelaw, a close friend) and when Edward Heath formed his Conservative government in 1970, he made Pym his Chief Whip.

Pym is one of the unsung heroes of the Heath government, having played a crucial role in the passage of the European Communities Bill in 1972. With Labour officially opposed to entry and some Conservatives determined to rebel, there was a danger that the vote on the principle of entry would be lost. Pym (with Whitelaw's support) pleaded for a free vote, largely to press for one on the Labour side or least encourage the Labour Europeans to support the motion. Heath thought that this would show a lack of resolve to the EC members. Heath did not relent until three days before the vote and, thanks to the Labour rebels, the vote was carried on 28 October 1971.

Although Heath signed the treaty of accession in January 1972 he still had to win Parliament's approval. The consequential legislation took over 300 hours of debate and dominated the life of the Parliament.

Heath faced more rebellions on his own side than any previous post-war premier. Pym's courtesy and patience as well as his determination to get the government business through were indispensable. He had to compensate for his leader's lack of touch in dealing with worried Tory MPs. Relations between the two men were correct rather than warm. As Chief Whip to Harold Macmillan, Heath had met the premier daily; as Prime Minister, however, he met Pym only weekly.

In November 1973 Pym replaced Whitelaw as Northern Ireland Secretary and became a member of the Cabinet. No sooner was he installed than much of the party were pressing for a general election against the background of a damaging miners' work to rule. Pym, again supported by Whitelaw, was among the few to advise against calling an election. In the end Heath called the "who governs?" poll in February 1974 and the Conservatives lost.

In opposition Pym voted for Heath rather than Thatcher in the February 1975 leadership election. However, she appointed him, variously, to be spokesman on agriculture, devolution, Northern Ireland, and shadow leader of the Commons, even though he had a sabbatical of some months to recover from depression. In October 1978 he became shadow Foreign Secretary. But when Thatcher chose her first cabinet in May 1979, she overcame concerns that Lord Carrington was not an MP and made him Foreign Secretary. A disappointed Pym went to Defence.

An irony of Thatcher's first cabinet is the place she gave to the great and the good of the party. In spite of her own background there was no social revolution; 20 of her 21 colleagues had been to public school. Carrington, Whitelaw, Hailsham, Soames, Gilmour and Pym were men of substantial wealth and social standing, often from families steeped in Tory politics. They all crossed her and she sacked the last three brutally. She thought their "wet" attitude towards her tough economic policies was defeatist.

She soon had cause to regret Pym's move to Defence because he proved a doughty defender of his budget in the face of Treasury demands for cuts; in late 1980 he threatened to resign. Backed by his formidable Permanent Secretary, Sir Frank Cooper, and the chiefs of staff, who insisted on a personal meeting with Mrs Thatcher, he saw off the Treasury.

She complained that Pym had gone native at Defence and decided to replace him with somebody who would insist on value for money. In a reshuffle in January 1981 she replaced him with John Nott, and appointed Pym as Leader of the Commons and, initially, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and then Lord President of the Council.

At Defence Nott made the cuts Thatcher wanted. They included the symbolic decision to withdraw the ice patrol ship Endurance, the last British naval vessel in the South Atlantic. The military junta in Argentina, intent on capturing the Falkland Islands, read this as a sign of a lack of British commitment. Ironically, this was to lead to Pym's appointment as Foreign Secretary.

Lord Carrington's resignation as Foreign Secretary on 5 April 1982, after the Argentine capture of the Falklands, presented Mrs Thatcher with a problem. She needed a person of weight but she did not want a wholesale reshuffle of the Cabinet. The whips convinced her that Pym was the obvious choice. He had after all shadowed foreign affairs in opposition, been at Defence and had been a distinguished soldier.

Thatcher never warmed to Francis Pym's pessimism, lugubrious face, hunched shoulders and ponderous manner. Missing the charm of Carrington, she complained that she had "exchanged an amusing Whig for a gloomy one". He stood for the old Conservative values of reasonableness, compromise and consensus, the very qualities that she reckoned had got the country in such a mess. Pym, unlike her, had spent a decade at the centre of the party and was an experienced man of government. He never came to terms with her political certitudes and her sex. His code of gentlemanly conduct meant that he never tackled her directly on their policy differences but relied on colleagues to convey his unease. She was not impressed.

At the outset of his appointment Pym won much approval for his eloquence, his instinctive feel for the Commons, and his aura of authority. But even as the troops sailed to the South Atlantic differences of approach with the Prime Minister emerged. He was receptive to US and Peruvian schemes to broker a compromise and avoid bloodshed, and apparently willing to explore terms that Thatcher would sooner resign rather than accept. Luckily, the Argentines rejected them.

As he commuted regularly between Washington and London, Thatcher grew more impatient. Once the Falklands were recaptured she, with her confidence sky high, increasingly acted as her own Foreign Secretary. Her poor opinion of the Foreign Office had been confirmed and there were disagreements between Pym and her on Palestine, arms control and the EC.

Pym further angered Mrs Thatcher during the 1983 general election campaign, when he warned of the dangers of having too large a majority: "Landslides on the whole don't produce successful governments". In public she dismissed the remark as the natural caution of a former chief whip. In private, she was scathing. She also openly rebuked him for implying that the Falklands sovereignty was negotiable. When she formed her new government, she dismissed him, without the usual offer of a consolation prize. He had been in office for 21 years and served four different prime ministers.

In the new Parliament, the One Nation Conservative malcontents looked to Pym for a lead. His book, The Politics of Consent, was published to some acclaim in 1984. The book raised the standard for a different kind of Conservatism. He criticised Margaret Thatcher's "absolutist" style of politics and called for less harsh economic policies to alleviate social tensions. In Parliament he opposed the abolition of the GLC and the rate-capping of local authorities, largely because these were elected bodies and the measures smacked of partisan spite.

In 1985 Pym formed the Conservative Centre Forward, a group of some 30 Tory MPs who claimed to stand for traditional Conservative values. But pressures from the whips and local associations soon whittled down the number and it faded away. A natural man of government, he was no conspirator and still had many good friends in the Cabinet. For a short time he was seen as a possible successor in the event of the party turning away from Mrs Thatcher but when he decided to stand down in 1987 he was already a diminished figure in the House.

In time-honoured fashioned he might have retired to his estate. But he had already transferred ownership of the Hazells, although he lived in a handsome property, Everton Park, on the estate. He took on a number of company directorships and enjoyed one of his few leisure activities – tending to his splendid gardens.

In the House of Lords, to which he was elevated in 1987, he continued to take an interest in foreign affairs. He chaired the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee and the committee on party funding which called for a stricter enforcement of the ministerial code and presented a new framework for party funding, largely delivered in the Labour government's Political Parties and Referendums Act (2000).

Pym's contribution to British government has so far been seriously undervalued. There is no biography and he has suffered from the dominant Thatcherite flavour of the modern commentaries on the Conservative Party. Many of the successes are attributed exclusively to the great leader and the failures to the pygmies around her. Yet Pym's diplomatic efforts were important in maintaining US and UN support for Britain on the Falklands. The far-reaching reforms of parliamentary procedure in 1979, usually credited to the Leader of the House of Commons Norman St John Stevas, were actually the product of Pym's work in opposition when he was party spokesman on constitutional affairs.

A severe stroke in 1998 greatly reduced the quality of Pym's last years. Just before the stroke he fulfilled a lifelong ambition by privately publishing Sentimental Journey, a handsome history of his family and the Hazells estate.

Dennis Kavanagh

Francis Leslie Pym, politician: born 13 February 1922; MC 1945; MP (Conservative) for Cambridgeshire 1961-83, for Cambridgeshire South East 1983-87; Assistant Government Whip 1962-64; PC 1970; Government Chief Whip 1970-73; Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 1973-74; Secretary of State for Defence 1979-81; Leader of the House of Commons 1981-82; Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Paymaster General 1981; Lord President of the Council 1981-82; Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 1982-83; created 1987 Baron Pym; Chairman, English Speaking Union 1987-92; married 1949 Valerie Daglish (two sons, two daughters); died Sandy, Bedfordshire 7 March 2008.

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