Peter Thurnham: Tory turned Lib Dem MP

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Peter Thurnham had that combination of a social conscience with free market instincts which characterised an important strand of 20th-century Conservatism, but which could be found also in parts of the Liberal Party. It can be no great surprise, therefore, that he found himself able to join the Liberal Democrats in 1996 when he decided that the Conservative Party lacked decency; and there were many who shared his dismay over the activities which led to the Scott and Nolan reports and which seemed to be exemplified in the Neil Hamilton affair.

But his defection came about in controversial circumstances that led many of his supporters in Bolton North East to doubt Thurnham's own integrity. He had already told them in 1994 that he did not intend to contest his highly marginal seat at the next election, believing that boundary changes had made it unwinnable: it then became known that he had applied for the much safer prospect of Westmorland and Lonsdale in Cumbria and had not even been accorded an interview.

Both Thurnham and his wife were bitter about this apparent contempt for their record of service to the party, suspecting that the selection had been rigged to ensure that the seat passed to Tim Collins, the party's former Director of Communications. Thurnham indicated in January 1996 that the party could no longer rely on his support. The Thurnhams were bidden to No 10 to discuss the situation with the Prime Minister, John Major.

But whatever was said at No 10, it made no difference to Thurnham's decision to resign the whip. Within months, he was asking the electors to choose Liberal Democrat councillors to represent them, and the Bolton Evening News echoed the demand of the Conservative Association that he should resign his seat. Instead, he joined the Liberal Democrats and became their social affairs spokesman for the remaining months of his parliamentary career.

Peter Thurnham was born at Staines in 1938, the son of a tea planter. Peter spent his early years in India, returning home to attend Eversley Preparatory School and Oundle School. He read Engineering at Peterhouse, Cambridge, and went on to take a Diploma in Advanced Engineering at the Cranfield Institute of Technology in 1967 and an MBA at Harvard Business School in 1969.

By profession a mechanical engineer, he designed turbines for C.A. Parsons & Co at Newcastle until 1966 and then served as the Divisional Director of British Steam Specialities, 1967-72. He started his own business in Leicester and was the founder, Chairman and Controlling Shareholder of Wathes Holdings.

It was concern for the unemployed that took him into politics, initially as a member of the South Lakeland Council in 1982. Shortly afterwards, at his first attempt, he was selected to fight the Labour-held marginal of Bolton North East, which he won. In Parliament he strongly supported measures that fostered small enterprises and launched Conservative Action to Revive Employment in 1985. But he was also concerned to help the elderly, sick and needy to secure their rights and his adoption of Stephen, a child with cerebral palsy, in 1975 gave him an insight into the problems of disabled children.

He was a staunch supporter of the 1967 Abortion Act and a vigorous opponent of Enoch Powell's Unborn Children (Protection) Bill in 1985. Over the next few years he worked closely with Mary Warnock helping to create a climate of opinion in Parliament that enabled Kenneth Clarke to bring in the Human Fertility and Embryology Bill and turn it into law. The pamphlet written with his wife, When Nature Fails – Why Handicap? (1986), which strongly supported the proposals made by Baroness Warnock was particularly influential.

Although he was usually a loyal backbencher, the whips could never be entirely sure of Thurnham's vote and he often carried his opposition into the lobby, usually in support of even more economically liberal measures. His ability was eventually recognised with his appointment as Norman Fowler's PPS 1987-90 and a brief period as PPS to both Eric Forth and Robert Jackson 1991-92. His final, rather disappointing appointment as a PPS was to Michael Howard, his contemporary at Peterhouse, as Secretary of State for the Environment, 1992-93. Their relationship was not close.

Tall, dark and good-looking, with a very attractive smile, Thurnham was an assiduous constituency MP and a thoroughly decent man. That no doubt played a large part in his ability to retain Bolton North East not only in 1987, when his majority was reduced to 815, but also in 1992, when his majority fell to a Houdini-like 125. While he was in the House the running of his companies gradually passed to his wife and after he stood down in 1997, they agreed to split the business. Their marriage broke up in the following year.

He had also developed his farming interests, moving from Hollin Hall, his home in Cumbria, to Crane Farm near Cirencester, but after his retirement he lived on a grouse moor on the Lancashire/Yorkshire border with his new partner, Carole Emery (they were married only a few hours before his death).

John Barnes

Peter Giles Thurnham, politician and engineer: born Staines, Middlesex 21 August 1938; Design Engineer, NEI Parsons 1957-66; Divisional Director, British Steam Specialties 1967-72; chairman, Wathes Holdings (later WR Group Holdings) 1972-2002; MP (Conservative) for Bolton North East 1983-96, Independent 1996, Liberal Democrat 1996-97; Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Employment 1987-90, to the Secretary of State for the Environment 1992-93; married 1963 Sarah Stroude (one son, three daughters, and one adopted son; marriage dissolved 2004), 2008 Carole Emery; died Lancaster 10 May 2008.