Obituary: : Lord Rippon of Hexham

It was an irony of Geoffrey Rippon's life that, while he took up law in order to provide himself with a secure base for a political career, he achieved more at the Bar than he did in politics. He became the head of his chambers; but every moment of his political life was spent under the shadow of others, more gifted, more lucky and, eventually, more powerful than himself. In 1981 he thought seriously about challenging Margaret Thatcher for the leadership of the Conservative Party: she had compelled her Chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, to introduce an extraordinarily tough budget, and was unpopular in consequence. Rippon, on reflection, decided that his moment in politics was past.

Rippon rose quickly as a lawyer. He had honed his ability for argument at Oxford as Secretary of the Union, as Chairman of the University Conservative Association and as Chairman of the Federation of Conservative University Associations. He had a special gift for grasping the general thrust of any case, but never cared to concern himself with detail: his nine years as a member of the London County Council from 1952 were thus regarded by him as a rather tiresome apprenticeship to the serious business of a political career.

On the other hand, at the Bar, his generalising talent was much appreciated by his juniors. He never failed to credit them for their help in his commercial cases, and did everything he could to advance their careers, even as he was advancing his own. To the end of his days, he enjoyed enormous popularity with his legal colleagues, particularly because of his unfailing loyalty to anybody who worked with him. A generous personality not always - nor even often - evident to his colleagues in politics manifested itself in full to his legal associates.

After two failures, in 1950 and 1951, Rippon finally won a seat in the House of Commons for Norwich South in 1955. The following year he began the often difficult - and to him tedious - ascent up the ministerial ladder. He was principally an expert in local government, but he also had a considerable interest in defence matters, and thus served apprenticeships as a junior minister in the old Ministry of Aviation, in the eventual Ministry of Defence (built out of an amalgamation of the existing Service ministries). He entered the Cabinet as Minister of Public Buildings and Works in 1963. The following year the Conservative government of Sir Alec Douglas-Home lost a general election, and Rippon lost his seat.

He returned to the Bar ("to be able", as he put it, "to earn a crust and go on drinking decent claret"). But, successful though his legal career was, his real love was still politics. In 1966 the Labour government swept to power, and Harold Wilson was returned to office with a 100-seat majority. The previous year Edward Heath had replaced Alec Douglas-Home as Tory leader, but there was no disposition in the party to blame Heath for a shattering defeat; he had not been in his post long enough to have had a decent chance to expound, either to Conservatives or to the nation, the bright new policies he would, one day, put before the electorate.

But the fact of the matter was that a long period of opposition had to be faced. Heath was not as displeased as he might have been, for he now saw the chance of setting up the umpteen study groups and policy committees which would, eventually, produce a modern manifesto of the kind which he favoured. And the great thing for Rippon was that, in the face of a Labour tide, he had won Hexham for the Tory cause, and could, therefore, bring his agile brain to bear on the policy areas on which the party Leader wanted to concentrate. First, he was given frontbench responsibility for Housing and Local Government and then, in 1968, for Defence. But he had a more important string to his bow.

Heath was content to leave the development of economic policy, under his own general supervision, to the Shadow Chancellor, the redoubtable Iain Macleod. But there was one cause about which Heath was passionate, and from the pursuit of which he never varied. That was the achievement of British entry into what was then the European Economic Community. He himself had been the Macmillan government's negotiator with the European powers on this matter, and had been bitterly disappointed when General de Gaulle issued the first of his vetoes (just as, later, he was bitterly angry with the Labour Party's prevarications on the issue). He had many Conservative allies on his side, but among the most important were Rippon and Anthony (now Lord) Barber. Between 1968 and 1970 Rippon was the chairman of the Conservative delegation both to the Council of Europe and to the Western European Union.

He thus had every reason to hope that, should Heath succeed in winning a general election, he would become the United Kingdom's chief negotiator with the EEC. When, however, against all odds, against all opinion polls, and against nearly all journalistic opinion, Heath won the general election of 1970, the negotiating job went to Barber. Rippon became Minister of Technology, head of a ragbag department dreamt up by Harold Wilson.

However, later in the year Macleod, overcome by years of illness and disability, suddenly died, never having had the chance to deliver the budget over which he had laboured so long. Heath recalled Barber from Brussels to take the place of the dead man and Rippon, as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, was sent to Europe in his place.

The negotiations that followed, though intricate, were foreordained to success, since Heath who oversaw Rippon's work with an attention to detail which was not always welcome, was determined to achieve entry at any price and the new President of France, Georges Pompidou, being anxious to have Britain in the Community, was willing to make the small accommodations which Heath required to placate anti-European views at home. Rippon, under guidance, was a good negotiator, but he came out of the business with an enduring dislike of the Dutch: he had been told, at the outset, that the Dutch government were the strongest continental supporters of Britain (de Gaulle had once described them as "since the 17th century, England's spies in Europe"), and he found them pernickety, pedantic, and continuously obstructive. His dislike remained with him to the end of his days.

For his European efforts Rippon was rewarded with another giant department, that of the Environment, where his responsibilities were manifold. He had scarcely begun to master them all when, in 1973, the Government became involved in a series of protracted and increasingly bitter industrial disputes leading, in particular, to the three-day week. In the spring of 1974 Heath decided to appeal to the country for a new, and strengthened mandate. In a result as surprising as Harold Wilson's defeat in 1970, he lost.

Alec Douglas-Home (then Shadow Foreign Secretary) promptly announced his decision to retire from frontbench politics. Rippon became spokesman on European Affairs and, after a second electoral defeat for the Conservatives in October, Shadow Foreign Secretary.

The writing was now on the wall for the Heath leadership. The following year he was overthrown by the unfancied outsider, Margaret Thatcher. In the interests of party unity she retained the services of many who had been adherents of the fallen leader; but there way no place for Rippon whom, in any event, she disliked. She was later to throw him the small bone of the leadership of the Conservative delegation to the European Assembly (as the European Parliament was then called) but he knew perfectly well that, unless some misadventure befell her, he was unlikely to hold high office again.

He busied himself with the law, with a plethora of business activities, and membership and chairmanship of a variety of parliamentary committees, principally concerned with foreign affairs. However, Margaret Thatcher marched from triumph to triumph and, once he had come to the conclusion that it would be useless to challenge her in 1981, Rippon had only the ashes of his political dreams to contemplate. In 1987 he gave up the political ghost, and accepted a peerage.

Rippon was not a man to everybody's taste, but he had intelligence, determination, and burning ambition. In seeking the highest political job, however, he had no luck. The fall of Edward Heath and the rise of Margaret Thatcher were events beyond his control, and events the outcome of which he could not seriously influence. He was left, therefore, with the career on which he had embarked solely to provide him with the means to build a political platform. The really glittering prizes of politics eluded him.

Aubrey Geoffrey Frederick Rippon, barrister and politician: born 28 May 1924; called to the Bar, Middle Temple 1948; member (Chelsea), London County Council 1952-61, Leader of Conservative Party on LCC 1957- 59; MP (Conservative) for Norwich South 1955-64, for Hexham 1966-87; PPS, Ministry of Housing and Local Government 1956-57; PPS, Ministry of Defence 1957-59; Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Aviation 1959-61; Joint Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Housing and Local Government 1961- 62; PC 1962; Minister of Public Building and Works 1962-64 (Cabinet 1963- 64); QC 1964; chief opposition spokesman on housing, local government and land 1966-68, on defence 1968-70; Minister of Technology 1970; Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 1970-72; Secretary of State for the Environment 1972-74; chief opposition spokesman on Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 1974-75; Chairman, Parliamentary Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Committee 1979-81; created 1987 Baron Rippon of Hexham; married 1946 Ann Leyland (one son, three daughters); died Bridgwater, Somerset 28 January 1997.

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