Richard Alexander: Staunchly Thatcherite Conservative MP for Newark

Richard Alexander quite unexpectedly won Newark for the Conservative Party in 1979 and 18 years later lost the seat, almost equally unexpectedly, to Fiona Jones.

For a while, it looked as if Jones would be unseated for falsification of her election expenses, following her conviction by a jury in Nottingham Crown Court in March 1999. A by-election seemed imminent and Alexander was picked to fight it. However, the Court of Appeal overturned the conviction a month later and ruled that Jones could reclaim her seat. By the time of the 2001 election, Newark had a new Conservative candidate in Patrick Mercer, who recaptured the seat.

Although Alexander was a staunch supporter of Margaret Thatcher in matters of defence and foreign policy and backed her to the last, his views were not always predictable and he was a notable rebel where the interests of the coal industry were concerned. Elected a fellow of the Industry and Parliament Trust in 1983, he exercised his fellowship with the National Coal Board. He had urged a "new plan for coal" in 1981 and voted half a dozen times against pit closures.

Later, when Michael Heseltine announced 31 pit closures in 1992, Alexander spoke of a "wave of anger sweeping across North Nottinghamshire" and he accused ministers of going back on undertakings they had given to the Union of Democratic Mineworkers who had kept the Nottinghamshire pits working during the miners' strike.

Alexander was a Scot by birth, but he was brought up in Eastbourne, where he attended Eastbourne Grammar School. His father was a local government architect, who ended his career as the City Architect of Lincoln, and when the family first moved north, Richard attended Dewsbury Grammar School and the Wheelwright School before reading Law at University College London. He completed his education at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies. He was articled to Sir Francis Hill at Andrew & Co in London and then spent four years in Scunthorpe with McKinnell, Irvine & Holmes before becoming Principal and Senior Partner of a Retford firm, Jones, Alexander & Co, 1964-85.

But although he was well regarded as a solicitor, his heart lay in politics. He had joined the Young Conservatives in 1957 and from 1961 served on the National Advisory Committee. His first elections were fought unsuccessfully in 1962 and 1963 as he sought to be elected to Scunthorpe Council, but in 1965 he was elected to Retford Borough Council. He was chosen to fight Lincoln in the 1966 general election, losing to Labour in a straight fight, and four years later, although he cut Dick Taverne's majority, he was comfortably beaten. He did not fight the subsequent by-election when Taverne abandoned the Labour Party.

Alexander was more successful in his local government career, securing election to Nottinghamshire County Council in 1967, serving until 1974. He was also a member of the East Midland Regional Economic Planning Council. In 1975 he became a district councillor in Bassetlaw and he served as Mayor of Retford in 1977-78.

Chosen to fight Newark, which Labour had held since 1950, he narrowly beat the sitting Labour MP in the 1979 general election and when boundary changes were carried through before the 1983 election found himself sitting on a 14,283 majority. Nevertheless he was attentive in his services to his constituents and tenacious in his opposition to local job losses in mining and the tobacco industry.

A supporter of the breakaway Union of Democratic Mineworkers, he campaigned against the importation of coal for local power stations through the Humber ports and he was also a critic of the dumping of nuclear waste. A company director himself, he was a champion of small business, urging the abolition of wages councils because of the damaging effect they had on small firms.

Although an avowed right winger, he was for a time a staunch supporter of the Tory group campaigning for homosexual equality, resigning only when it made the suggestion that if the Prince of Wales embraced Prince Edward it would further the gay cause. He identified a number of issues that have continued to haunt welfare politics, mixed sex wards for example, and proposed the Residential Homes (Amendment) Act in 1980 to protect residents in private homes from possible abuse. He also urged that NHS drugs should be prescribed for private patients.

There were some unpredictable moments, as when he appeared to espouse a social credit system or called for civil servants to lose their automatic right to honours, and he upset colleagues when in 1989 he advertised himself in The House Magazine as "a hard-working Tory MP of 10 years' standing seeking consultancy work". Although he had acted as a consultant with Rindalbourne, a company developing trade with Ceausescu's Romania, his sole listed remuneration at that point was as Parliamentary Adviser to the Ancient Order of Foresters.

Alexander had suffered a considerable financial loss when his law firm was criticised in 1989 by Mr Justice Douglas for mishandling the case of a Mrs Katherine Dickinson. Condemned for being "ignorant of current basic law and practice on matrimonial finance", the firm was ordered to pay her £425,000 in damages. When it turned out that the firm was under-insured, Alexander, who had remained a consultant after standing down as principal, had to foot some of the bill. In a piquant sequel, the wife from whom he had been separated in 1979 and divorced in 1985 subsequently married Mrs Dickinson's husband, John. Alexander himself had remarried in 1987.

From the time of his election in 1979 Alexander put his legal talents to good use as a member of the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments. After the 1983 election he served on the Environment Select Committee and chaired the East Midlands Group of Conservative MPs. From 1985 he served on the Agriculture Select Committee and his harrying of Edwina Currie over her remarks about salmonella in British eggs was a formidable performance.

After his defeat in 1997 he returned to local politics, serving on the Newark and Sherwood District Council.

John Barnes

Richard Thain Alexander, politician and solicitor: born Aberdeen 29 June 1934; MP (Conservative) for Newark 1979-97; married 1966 Valerie Ann Winn (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1985), 1987 Pat Hanson; died Newark, Nottinghamshire 20 April 2008.

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