Sir Anthony Meyer Bt

Conservative MP who challenged Margaret Thatcher for the leadership
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The Independent Online

Anthony John Charles Meyer, politician and diplomat: born 27 October 1920; succeeded 1935 as third Bt; MP (Conservative) for Eton and Slough 1964-66, for West Flint 1970-83, for Clwyd North West 1983-92; PPS to the Secretary of State for Employment 1972-74; married 1941 Barbadee Knight (one son, three daughters); died London 24 December 2004.

In his brief but delightful memoir, Stand Up and Be Counted (1990), Anthony Meyer wrote: "Like Lord Byron, I woke up one day and found myself famous; unlike Lord Byron I had no achievement to justify that fame." The self-deprecation was characteristic,but Meyer had never lacked the courage of his convictions, and he was sufficiently well-breeched not to care too much about the consequences.

It says much for his unsquashable optimism, however, that he did not expect his move to cost him his parliamentary seat, even though he was about to challenge the Conservative Party's most formidable prime minister of modern times for the leadership of the party. He did not think he would have to carry the challenge through, believing that a more qualified candidate would appear, but Sir Ian Gilmour Bt, the most likely to step in, concluded that it was best that the vote should be seen not as the choice of a leader, but a straight vote of no confidence in Margaret Thatcher, and Meyer was content that it should be so.

Failure was inevitable, but significantly, in addition to the 33 votes he took, there were 24 spoiled ballots and only 314 votes for Thatcher. One sixth of her party had not rallied to her cause, and Meyer subsequently reflected that he had made what was once unthinkable, thinkable. A year later, in November 1990, Thatcher fell. The Conservative Party had come to agree with Meyer that she could no longer win the next general election.

That had only been one of his reasons for standing. The other was a deep- rooted dislike for her attitude to Europe. Membership of the European Community was the cause which had brought Meyer into politics 27 years earlier, and remained the focus of his activities after his enforced retirement from the House of Commons in 1992.

Anthony Meyer was the third baronet. His grandfather, Carl, born in Hamburg, had arrived in England in the late 19th century and had joined Rothschilds. The baronetcy, created in 1910, was the result of a decision to give £70,000 to the cause of a National Theatre. Carl's son, Frank, served as the Conservative MP for Great Yarmouth from 1924 to 1929, but was too involved in his business activities with De Beers to take up the offer of a safe seat in 1931.

Meyer himself, born in 1920, was an Etonian, Captain of the Oppidans and Secretary of the Political Society. While awaiting call-up, he spent a year reading History at New College, Oxford, and found himself a wife, Barbadee, an artist, who was fascinated by politics, and a tower of strength during his life first as a diplomat and then as a politician.

In July 1941 Meyer joined the Scots Guards and, by way of Brigade HQ, was posted to Divisional HQ: he was in a Sherman tank equipped for communications rather than action during the battle for Normandy in June 1944. His war was ended abruptly by a German shell that left him badly wounded. He emerged from hospital just in time to witness the VE celebrations.

His first job post-war was a temporary post at the Treasury winding up the affairs of the Polish government in exile, but after a year he took the entrance examination for the Civil Service and was persuaded that he and his wife were well fitted for the diplomatic life. After four years in the Northern Department of the Foreign Office, watching the Cold War develop, he was posted to Paris, where he took a close interest in the negotiations for the European Defence Community and Western European Union and became First Secretary at the embassy. His next posting, in 1956-58, was to Moscow, but it ended embarrassingly when he was the victim of a classic Soviet entrapment exercise. Returned to London, he served first in the Economic Relations Department and then in the Western Organisations Department.

Although not involved in the EEC negotiations, he saw enough of Edward Heath to conceive an enormous admiration for him, but his political outlook had already been formed by earlier events - an enthusiasm for Clarence Streit's 1939 book Union Now while at Eton, a detestation of socialism and nationalism born of his experiences with the Soviet Union, and a belief that European unity was essential. Believing that he should do his best to further that last ideal, he resigned from the Foreign Office in July 1962 and became Director of Research for the Common Market campaign, a job that must have lost some savour when General Charles de Gaulle vetoed British entry in January 1963.

In the autumn of 1962 Meyer had joined the Conservative Party and he began to seek a seat for the forthcoming general election. He was fortunate to find Eton and Slough, where the existing candidate had been forced to retire, and he set himself to woo the large Asian vote. In 1964, against the trend, his was one of four seats won by the Conservatives and perhaps the only one where the race card had not been played.

He ran into some trouble with his constituency association when he defied the party whip to vote in favour of oil sanctions on Rhodesia, but survived, only to find his majority of 11 easily overturned at the March 1966 election.

After a short period nursing a seat he no longer expected to win, Meyer volunteered his services to the Conservative Research Department and was asked to liaise with senior staff at the universities. Although he resigned after 18 months, aghast that the party would not find money for a research project on regenerating the inner cities, his work had led him to create a right-wing journal, Solon, which T.E. ("Peter") Utley edited. After four issues, it was clear that it was never going to be viable and his long quest for another seat seemed to have run into the sand. However, the retiring MP for West Flint decided that Meyer should be his successor and with his firm backing Meyer won the nomination and, in 1970, the seat.

His close friend Maurice Macmillan asked him to be his PPS and the period of the Heath government was perhaps Meyer's happiest time in politics. Entry into the EEC was achieved and Meyer was happy both with the Government's toughness on the trade unions and its turn to an incomes policy.

In opposition, after the Government's defeat in February 1974, Meyer was an early advocate of the proposal for a government of national unity, subsequently espoused by Heath in his ill-fated October 1974 campaign. Although he admired her courage and determination, and was largely convinced by her economic policies, Meyer disliked Margaret Thatcher's style and vision, but his first major act of rebellion was his reasoned condemnation of the use of force to regain the Falklands on 14 April 1982, an act of conspicuous courage since his constituency was about to disappear, split in two by the proposed revision of constituency boundaries.

Initially his constituency executive accepted his dissent, but a Panorama programme, which carried his views, but highlighted the far more critical stance of Tam Dalyell, bitterly offended the party and led to a battle for the nomination to Clwyd North West in which an MEP, Beata Brookes, defeated both sitting MPs, winning the executive's backing on the second ballot. Her name would be put forward for adoption. At first Meyer accepted the result, but he was then advised that, since there had been no overall winner on the first ballot, more than one name should have gone forward to a general meeting. He sued and won - and in the subsequent general meeting he won the right to be the candidate at the forthcoming election by 420 to 280 votes.

Although he was an assiduous and popular constituency MP, Meyer increasingly found himself at odds with his leader and he frequently defied the whips. By November 1985 he was urging Francis Pym to launch a challenge to Thatcher's leadership and in 1986 he called for her resignation over the Westland affair. He was particularly critical of the poll tax and of the campaign waged in the 1989 European elections, and thought Thatcher wrong to have forced Nigel Lawson to resign.

Essentially it was Thatcher's attitude to Europe that led him to challenge her. Although the move ended his parliamentary career, he was happy at the eventual outcome, even if he would have preferred to see Michael Heseltine leader of his party. His own fate was less happy. His continuing efforts to reverse his deselection were brought to an untimely end by revelations in the tabloids of a 20-year affair with Simone Washington, a West Indian model and blues singer.

Anthony Meyer was a highly intelligent man with charm and great moral courage. That extended to an honest admission that he could get things badly wrong, but there was never any doubt in his mind that he had been right to bring Margaret Thatcher down and, as Policy Director of the European Movement until 1999, he continued to campaign up and down the country for the cause of European unity, the unquestioned leitmotiv of his political life.

John Barnes