Obituary: Ian Hay

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John Albert Hay, politician: born Brighton 24 November 1919; MP (Conservative) for Henley 1950-1974; PPS to President of Board of Trade 1951-56; Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Transport 1959-63; Civil Lord of the Admiralty 1963-64; Under-Secretary for Defence for the Royal Navy 1964; married 1947 Beryl Found (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1973), 1974 Janet Spruce; died 27 January 1998.

When you next use a parking meter, or cannot find a parking space next to one, bless, or curse, according to your inclination, John Hay.

When you next want to get to a remote destination by rail, and find that the line was probably used by your parents, you will almost certainly curse Hay; for he was the junior minister at the Department of Transport - under the flamboyant Ernest Marples - who, over four years from the Conservative general election victory of 1959, devised and introduced meters, and it was he who implemented the swingeing cuts in the rail network which Lord Beeching recommended to the government of Harold Macmillan. If you are sympathetic to so-called "green" issues, you may also blame Hay for being the executive minister who put in place the massive road-building programme visualised by Marples.

As a young man, Hay was an immensely successful politician; he was not unlike the young William Hague. He made his first - intensely dramatic - Tory Party Conference speech in 1946, at the age of 28, a then unheard- of triumph by a stripling. Hague, of course, made his first big impact at 15. But Hay was destined to decline into political obscurity or unpopularity, because of the measures he adopted; Hague has gone on to acquire at least the hope of glory.

Hay had seemed set fair for great success. At the age of 11 he worked for his father's campaign to become a member of Brighton council, thereby acquiring very early political experience. In 1947 as Chairman of the Young Conservative movement, he entertained both Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden at the YC annual conference. The two great men were sensible of the desirability of speaking to, this gathering for, at that time, the Young Conservatives were the largest voluntary youth organisation in the world. Only a few months ago, their numbers in sharp decline, and their social behaviour judged outrageous by the party establishment, they were abolished by William Hague.

Until 1970, when Edward Heath passed him over for a ministerial job, John Hay made a quite dashing impression. He was the son of a local solicitor, and went to grammar school in Brighton, but he was said to have Etonian airs. He was handsome and debonair, and he was a fine public speaker. He had high ambitions, but something, somewhere, went wrong.

Perhaps it was that Hay had too much independence of mind, and was too ready to speak that mind forcefully. In 1947, for example, he was adopted as the Conservative Party's parliamentary candidate for Brixton. Brixton was not a winnable seat but Hay, like other youngsters then and now, was expected to blood himself in a hopeless fight. Within months he resigned the candidacy, on the publicly declared grounds that the local party association was both lazy and incompetent. This demonstration of chutzpah did not, however, prevent his being adopted for Henley the next year: he entered Parliament in the 1950 general election.

The truth about Hay seems to be that, for all his soft charm, he relished outspokenness, and did not in the least mind unpopularity, which he endured in full measure during the Marples reforms. Again, when from 1968 he succeeded in turning around the fortunes of Walport - an entertainment subsidiary of Rediffusion of which he was managing director - he left many bruised egos in his wake.

Hay retired from the House of Commons in 1974, partly on grounds of health, partly, I think because he knew that he had no serious future in politics. John Hay's star, alas, was one that shimmered, but never shone.

- Patrick Cosgrave