Michael Alison

Hard-working Conservative minister

Although the journalist Peter Riddell described him as "universally popular", Michael Alison, Conservative MP for Selby, 1983-97, and before that for Barkston Ash, was not included in everyone's good books

Michael James Hugh Alison, politician: born Margate, Kent 27 June 1926; MP (Conservative) for Barkston Ash 1964-83, for Selby 1983-97; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, DHSS 1970-74; Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 1979-81, Department of Employment 1981-83; PC 1981; PPS to the Prime Minister 1983-87; Second Church Estates Commissioner 1987-97; married 1958 Sylvia Haigh (two sons, one daughter); died 28 May 2004.

Although the journalist Peter Riddell described him as "universally popular", Michael Alison, Conservative MP for Selby, 1983-97, and before that for Barkston Ash, was not included in everyone's good books.

Matthew Parris, for example, described him as "a cold, churchy fish". That may have been the result of Alison's evangelical views: he once told a fellow Conservative that there was no room for homosexuals in the Anglican ministry and his firmly held Christian beliefs made him the ideal choice as Second Church Commissioner, the job he held for his last decade in Parliament.

In the 1970s and 1980s he had been a hard-working, middle-ranking minister, most notably in Northern Ireland, and he spent four years from 1983 as Margaret Thatcher's Parliamentary Private Secretary, the first to be allowed to sit in on Cabinet meetings. At times almost painfully shy, he was not perhaps the ideal choice to succeed the more gregarious Ian Gow, and he took a much more restricted view of his role, but he was conscientious and in general very well-liked.

Born in 1926, Michael James Hugh Alison was the grandson of a wealthy landowner in Australia, educated at Eton and at Wadham College, Oxford, where he read PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics). He had spent four years, 1944-48, with the Coldstream Guards before going up to Oxford and when he came down in 1951, he joined Lazards. In 1953 he left to study Theology at Ridley Hall and then in 1954 became secretary of the London Municipal Society, the Conservative Party organisation which managed London elections.

From 1956 Alison was a member of the Kensington Borough Council. Moving to the Conservative Research Department in 1958, he spent the next six years working on foreign policy and serviced the Conservative members of the Western European Union and North Atlantic assemblies. He was selected to fight Barkston Ash and won the seat in the 1964 election, holding it until the constituency was redistributed in 1983. He then sat for Selby until 1997.

Immediately elected Vice-Chairman of the Conservative backbench housing committee, Alison worked alongside its chairman, the shadow Minister for Housing Sir Keith Joseph, and then became successively secretary of the parliamentary party's Power Committee, 1965-66, and Trade and Industry Committee, 1966-68.

Edward Heath appointed Alison to the front bench as part of the shadow Treasury team in 1969. He had become a member of the Commons Select Committee on Nationalised Industries in 1966 and may have expected to accompany Joseph to the Ministry of Technology when the Conservatives won the 1970 general election. Instead, they found themselves as a team at the Department of Health and Social Services, where they drove through the reorganisation of the National Health Service.

After the Heath government's defeat in February 1974, Alison served in Margaret Thatcher's shadow team, first as deputy spokesman on Home Affairs, 1975-77, and then on the Environment, 1977-79. When the Conservatives returned to power in 1979, he was appointed Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office, where he took charge of home affairs and the prisons. He worked hard, but without success, to end the hunger strike by IRA prisoners.

Alison's experience of Northern Ireland undoubtedly toughened his approach and, although in general not a retentionist, he supported capital punishment for those who killed prison officers. In 1971 Thatcher moved him to be Minister of State at the Department of Employment where he publicly expressed his scepticism about dealing successfully with the closed shop but proved an able helpmate to Norman Tebbit.

In 1983 he took a drop in salary to become Thatcher's PPS. Strangely her memoirs make little mention of him, apart from his role in adjusting the tone of her conference speech after the Brighton bombing, in itself an indication of the trust placed in him. However, he was much less assiduous than his predecessor in attending backbench committees, apart from the 1922, and, if Alan Clark is to be believed, was not always evident in the evenings. Clark was characteristically trenchant in his criticism:

Alison is useless. Saintly but useless . . . It is extraordinary how from time to time one does get people who have been through Brigade squad, taken their commission and served, seen all human depravity as only one can at Eton and in the Household, and yet go all naïve and Godwatch.

Woodrow Wyatt was another who told Thatcher that Alison was a misfit in the job:

Your present PPS may be very agreeable or good but you need as a PPS the kind of person to whom people instinctively say what they're thinking and confide in them because they like him or trust him or both.

Alison survived efforts to displace him in 1985 and a further campaign to appoint another PPS alongside him in May 1986, and continued to serve Thatcher loyally until the 1987 general election. There was a widespread belief that he was influential in persuading her to take a more public moral stand on issues like the increasing prevalence of sex and violence on television. After the 1987 election Thatcher appointed him Second Church Estates Commissioner, the spokesman for the established Church in the House of Commons.

Much of Alison's time was given to dealing with the consequences of the poll tax for the Church of England, but in 1988 he introduced the measure that enabled the Church to give priority to areas of deprivation. Together with Baroness Cox, he masterminded the insistence, written into the 1988 Education Reform Act, for religious education in schools and he campaigned vigorously against abortion, gambling, pornography and any relaxation of the age of consent for homosexual relationships. He was instrumental in persuading the Home Office to launch an inquiry into the links between pornography and violence in 1990. In his last term of office, he campaigned for the restoration of the married couples' tax allowance and for reform of the tax burdens that were placed on marriage.

In 1990 Alison co-edited a book of essays on Christianity and Conservatism and he continued to be an influential voice on Church matters. He was a strong advocate of George Carey's claims to become Archbishop of Canterbury since he was "committed to the historic orthodoxies" and, rather more surprisingly, in 1993 he carried a motion through the Commons approving the ordination of women.

His dry wit was seen to good advantage when he answered a question about women priests with the statement that the Church would welcome Margaret Thatcher if she ever decided to become a vicar on leaving politics, but his admiration for her was evident in his publicly expressed view that "no Prime Minister since Gladstone had made such an open and avowed Christian commitment" as she had done.

Alison stood down before the 1997 election, when his seat was lost to Labour.

John Barnes

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