Sir David Price: Politician who served under Macmillan and Douglas Home but was denied a Cabinet post by Heath

 

Had I been asked in 1962, the year I was elected to the House of Commons, who would be likely to be the Leader of the Conservative Party a decade and a half later, it would not have occurred to me to put the new Joint Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance, one Margaret Thatcher, on any shortlist. Top for me would have been the thrusting, capable, extremely confident Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade, David Price.

I well remember a Prime Minister's Questions (in an era when any PMQ not directly relevant to the responsibilities of the Prime Minister was transferred to other ministers) which ended seven minutes early. Trade questions returned. Macmillan, subsided into his seat, beamed approvingly as his young Parliamentary Secretary dealt effectively with Labour's Treasury Secretary, Douglas Jay.

Price's ministerial career thrived under Sir Alec Douglas Home, who on Reggie Maudling's recommendation made him chief Opposition spokesman on Science and Technology when the Conservatives went into opposition in 1964. On their return to power in 1970 Edward Heath, maybe on account of Price's support for Maudling, did not give him the Cabinet post, or even Minister-of-State seniority, which he understandably expected.

Price was born in London. His parents were working in Normandy but his mother made a trip back to Britain, "to make sure I was born Brit and not French," Price recalled with a chuckle. His father was a soldier who had survived the First World War only because he got trench fever. He met Price's mother when he was a staff officer in Le Havre; she was half-French, half-Scottish. She died when Price was six and he went happily to a boarding school in the west of Scotland.

Going to Eton in 1938, Price boarded at the House of Hubert H-S Hartley, a genial modern languages teacher. The influence of House Masters can be lasting, and geniality was one of Price's lifelong trademarks. However, even greater was the influence of his wife, who was omnipresent. Grizel Hartley, with her flowing golden hair and her ruddy complexion, was a "character". She believed in "feeding the boys", and did so, supplemented by her own money. She also believed they should know how to cook and took a special interest in Price, who had lost his mother. Result: he became an extremely good cook – and wine connoisseur.

While at school he became a member of the LDVs – the Local Defence Volunteers, forerunner of the Home Guard – which he told me was "even more primitive than Dad's Army." At 17, Price was chosen as a sergeant in the Home Guard inter alia organising people to work in factories in Slough, and often to cut down trees in Windsor Great Park. Thanks partly to the expert teaching of the wartime "beak", DL Graham, Price's Modern Tutor, and of CRN Routh and AK Wickham, erudite and committed scholars, Price won the Rosebery Scholarship in history to Trinity College, Cambridge.

Within three years of leaving Eton, Price was being knocked into shape by fearsome drill-sergeants, and nine months later he was with the Scots Guards fighting his way up the spine of Italy. "There were eight of us who joined the Guards the same day from school," he would sombrely recollect. "Four were killed, a fifth lost both his legs and three of us were more or less all right. It was not due to any merit of mine that I was one of the three to survive."

Price was always inhibited about MPs sitting in the Commons sending other people's son's, brothers, husbands and fathers to war in the absence of clear objectives.

In spite of the casualties, and much hardship in bitter fighting, Price acquired an abiding love and affection for Italy. He told me he saw himself as a "Renaissance Florentine." In 1945 he moved to a staff job as a captain in Trieste and was released in September 1946, just in time to take up his scholarship. He read History, played rugby, rowed, and was elected President of the Cambridge Union as a "Tory Peelite." A fellowship at Yale followed. Over a formative year Price developed lifelong friendships, and became a Roman Catholic. Perhaps this was not a huge step, as he had been brought up as an Anglo-Catholic. He told me he felt that theologically he had "come home".

Returning to Britain, he accepted a position as leader-writer on the Daily Telegraph, but threw the job up in favour of a less well-paid position with ICI, on the grounds that if he were to go into politics it was advantageous to be perceived as knowing something about industry. After a few months he was plucked out to be one of two assistants to the ICI chairman, and travelled the world with him.

In 1951 he was shortlisted for Grantham: Margaret Roberts did not make the shortlist despite the efforts of her father, Alderman Roberts. Price lost to the future Foreign Office minister, Joe Godber. Four years later he won the safe seat of Eastleigh, where for the next 37 years he was considered an excellent constituency MP. In the difficult years between 1979 and 1983, as a member of the Select Committee on Transport he was most helpful to his constituents in Eastleigh's railway industry.

After a spell as a junior minister responsible for aviation, Price left Heath's government in 1972. He did not sulk at being gently eased out; he thought it was not good for an MP to be a junior minister for too long. "There is a big difference between that and being a Cabinet minister, where you are part of the administration," he said. "Otherwise you are beavering away down the line – and there is a time limit as to how long that activity should last." As one of the honorary secretaries of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee at the time, I can say from first-hand knowledge that Price – from 1973 to 1975 and for a unique second term, from 1979-82 – was one of the best and most active chairmen the Committee ever had.

Price married in 1960. Four years later his wife had a very bad accident, and was rendered paraplegic. The abiding memory of Price for many MPs will be of him lovingly wheeling his spouse round the corridors of the Palace of Westminster, and of his becoming a champion of disabled causes, in and out of parliament.

TAM DALYELL

David Ernest Campbell Price, politician: born London 20 November 1924; MP for Eastleigh 1955-92; married 1960 Rosemary Johnston (one daughter); died 31 January 2014.

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