Obituary: Lord Wyatt of Weeford

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The Independent Online
Woodrow Lyle Wyatt, politician and journalist: born 4 July 1918; founder and Editor, English Story 1940-50; MP (Labour) for Aston 1945- 55, for Bosworth 1959-70; weekly columnist for Reynolds News 1949-61, Daily Mirror 1965-73, Sunday Mirror 1973-83, News of the World 1983-93; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State and Financial Secretary, War Office 1951; Chairman, Horserace Totalisator Board 1976-97; Kt 1983; created 1987 Baron Wyatt of Weeford; married 1939 Susan Cox (marriage dissolved 1944), 1948 Nora Robbins (marriage dissolved 1956), 1957 Lady Moorea Hastings (one son; marriage dissolved 1966), 1966 Veronica Banszky von Ambroz (nee Racz; one daughter); died London 7 December 1997.

Woodrow Wyatt always tried to live like a lord even when he was a Labour MP. He owned racehorses, drank on average nearly two bottles of wine a day until his doctor and his liver rebelled, and travelled politically from the soft left to the far right accompanied by a succession of beautiful women and a cloud of Havana cigar smoke. It seemed only fitting that he should end as chairman of the Tote and one of Mrs Thatcher's life peers. For more than half a century his trademark was his floppy bow tie and his most useful achievement, despite his considerable talents and early promise, was to secure the patronage of the powerful and famous.

He wanted above all to attain political success. He failed in this despite sitting in the Commons for 21 years and the Lords for 10. The only office he obtained was Under-Secretary at the old War Office and that lasted six months.

One reason for his failure was bad luck. Redistribution cost him his first seat and for long periods Labour, his original party, was not in office. But the most important reason for this lack of success was Wyatt himself. His undoubted charm was offset by a rasping personality and often his actions alienated admirers and even close friends.

His main influence was outside Parliament. He was one of the first television stars produced by the new-style current affairs programmes of the 1950s. He used his position to stop the engineers' union coming under Communist control and, more spectacularly, he played a leading part in the five- year campaign to prise the Communist grip on the electricians' union. He considered, rightly, that these provided his greatest triumphs.

He also wrote newspaper columns for the Mirror group and the Murdoch organisation. His News of the World column, deliberately and excessively populist, was somewhat improbably titled "The Voice of Reason". He believed these columns gave him power. Whether they did is arguable. Tabloid columns fascinate politicians more than voters. But what they did was to establish him to re-enter the political scene from which he had been rejected.

The Tote also gave Wyatt a role in society. To millions who did not read his articles he was the man who escorted the Queen Mother at the races and spoke on behalf of the industry. The annual Tote luncheon was an extravagant affair, attended by ministers, widely reported by the media and with invitations greatly prized. In some ways it summed up the Tote. Under Wyatt the organisation was glamorous but not dynamic. Despite bringing it into profit, his reign over its 200 betting shops had come under criticism for years. A Home Office report as long ago as 1989 called the Tote a vastly under-used asset, criticised his chairmanship and contained a barely disguised suggestion that he should step down. How then, did he retain the post for the following eight years? His critics had a cruel answer - cronyism and flattery.

Wyatt was first appointed in 1976 by, it was said, Harold Wilson. This was untrue. Wilson detested him. Wyatt was appointed by Roy Jenkins, then Home Secretary and an old friend from Gaitskellite days, who thought the job would cheer him up. Successive Conservative Home Secretaries confirmed Jenkins's choice. They may have truly believed he was the right man for the post but they could also be sure of something else: puffs in Wyatt's columns.

In 1994, for instance, Michael Howard, who was being being repeatedly mauled at the time, received three favourable columns in two months. A typical headline was "Blaming Howard is the Real Crime". Howard reappointed him the following year. The position was not advertised and no other candidate was considered. Wyatt was first past the post in a one-horse race.

Prime Ministers were not overlooked. When John Major was deep in trouble he could rely on Wyatt to call him "a remarkable statesman". Another Wyatt headline announced "Why We Must Back Major". His closest relationship, however, was with Margaret Thatcher. His feeling for her was almost idolatrous. He was said to be the only journalist who could telephone No 10, ask for the Prime Minister and be put through at once. She made him a life peer in 1987. And in 1990 one of her last acts as Prime Minister was to ensure that he kept his job for another term.

Woodrow Lyle Wyatt was born on the Fourth of July 1918. His mother, in a burst of Allied enthusiasm, named him after the American president, Woodrow Wilson. There were famous architects, painters and sculptors among his ancestors and an England Test captain, R.E.S. Wyatt, was a relation. In contrast his father was an unsuccessful and unhappy preparatory school headmaster who despised the young Woodrow for not being good at games and beat him regularly. He also made him stand behind his armchair and stroke his bald head for hours at a time. Wyatt grew to hate his father but remembered how some people liked to be stroked.

Public school was no better than home. He was sent to Eastbourne which he resented for snobbish reasons. He would have preferred Eton or at least Marlborough. He got on badly with his headmaster, who beat him just as his father had done. Each term he wrote in his diary: "Never forget how much you hated it here." He never did. Oxford in contrast was paradise. He read Law at Worcester, became a dandy, wore black silk pyjamas during the day, discovered women and edited a couple of magazines. He got a respectable Second as the Second World War approached. He enlisted as a private even before it was declared.

He had a good war. By 1944 he was a major and went to France on D-Day plus one. He survived to be posted to India where he met Congress leaders and left-wingers and was considered a possible Communist by British Intelligence. He had become a Labour supporter - originally as a reaction against his father, who hated socialism - and a Labour MP, Fred Bellenger, met him and was sufficiently impressed to get him on the list of candidates. Wyatt was recalled to Britain to fight the 1945 election and to his surprise won Birmingham Aston by 5,767 votes. At the last general election in 1935 the Conservative majority had been more than 10,000.

He was then very much to the left. He wrote for Tribune and the New Statesman. In the House he joined the Keep Left group. When he returned to India as a member of the Cripps mission he led the singing of the Red Flag at a viceregal reception.

All this changed. After the Bevan-Wilson-Freeman resignations in 1951 his party split. Wyatt also split - away from his Tribune colleagues. He wrote to Attlee saying he was moved by the way he had responded to the crisis. Attlee responded, rather surprisingly, by making him Under- Secretary at the old War Office. Wyatt described his feeling at the time as "rapture". But six months later the Government fell and he never held office again.

At the 1955 election worse happened. He lost his seat. Aston's three wards were redistributed among three other constituencies and Wyatt failed to be chosen for any of them. In 1959 the only seat he could get was Tory Grantham, a hopeless proposition. But his campaigning brought him to the attention of Grace Wyndham Goldie, founding mother of BBC current affairs programmes, and she made him a star as a roving reporter on the new Panorama programme. Television fame helped him more than anything else in his quest for a winnable constituency. After several rejections he was selected as the candidate for Bosworth. By 1959 he was back in the House.

Wyatt became one of Hugh Gaitskell's intimates until his erratic views began to irritate even the right-wing Labour leader. He campaigned for relief for surtax payers, for a Lib-Lab pact and British entry into the EEC. Shortly before Gaitskell's death he exploded at Wyatt: "Why don't you stop embarrassing me?"

Harold Wilson, his successor, took the same view, particularly when Wyatt looked like halting steel nationalisation by exploiting Labour's tiny majority after the 1964 election. But the 1966 election saw Wilson coasting home and Wyatt ceased to be a danger.

He also ceased to be an MP. He lost Bosworth in 1970 and his increasingly right-wing views meant that he would never be selected for a Labour seat again. Instead, he tried to become a provincial newspaper baron, buying the Banbury Guardian, starting several new papers, and pioneering colour printing. Circulations grew but advertising did not. His papers went under and eventually he had to sell his printing plant as well.

His columns were dropped by the Mirror Group but he was taken up immediately by the Murdoch organisation, where his articles in the News of the World reflected the prejudices of his readers as well as his own. Sometimes he came perilously close to racism. And in one campaign, when he tried to discover the voting records of BBC journalists, he came close to McCarthyism too. Wyatt also wrote a column for the Times, though in a rather different style.

Yet despite his consistent progress to the right he never took the Tory whip. Indeed he would often say that he had never been a Conservative and never would be, though he was a Thatcherite. There is no doubt he was closer to Margaret Thatcher than most of her colleagues. Towards the end of her premiership he wrote: "Perhaps I am a little in love with her, platonically of course."

His many non-platonic affairs were revealed in relentless and colourful detail in his autobiography, Confessions of an Optimist (1985). He also had four wives, though only two are mentioned in Who's Who. His first wife was Susan Cox. They met at Oxford, married during the war, and were divorced so that she could marry a fellow civil servant. He next married his secretary, Alix Robbins. They remained together for five years.

Wyatt's third wife - from 1957 to 1966 - was Lady Moorea Hastings, the half- Italian daughter of the 15th Earl of Huntingdon. He was fascinated by her and she also had money, which he admitted was a help. It was helpful when she put it into his business but less helpful when she took it out. She left him for a man who, Wyatt admitted generously, was better-looking and more amiable.

His great and lasting love was his fourth wife, Veronica ("Verushka"), the Hungarian widow of a Harley Street consultant. They married in 1966 and he always said that even the thought of life without her brought on desperation. Their daughter, Petronella, followed her father into journalism. Pericles Plantagenet Wyatt, the son from his marriage to Lady Moorea, runs a bar in California and does not visit England.