Sir Donald Thompson

Yorkshire MP with a down-to-earth style
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The Independent Online

Donald Thompson, politician and farmer: born Harrogate, North Yorkshire 13 November 1931; managing director, Armadillo Plastics 1974-79, director 1979-81; MP (Conservative) for Sowerby 1979-82, for Calder Valley 1983-97; Assistant Government Whip, then Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury 1981-86; Parliamentary Secretary, Maff 1986-89; a Governement Whip, Council of Europe and Western European Union 1990-94; Kt 1992; married 1957 Patricia Hopkins (two sons); died Leeds 14 March 2005.

Donald Thompson, the Conservative MP for the Yorkshire constituencies of Sowerby, then Calder Valley, arguably found his ideal métier as a whip: no parliamentary orator, he was a genial heavyweight of a man, remembered for his down-to-earth, bluff Yorkshire style and for the almost perpetual smile that lit up his face.

Popular with his parliamentary colleagues, once he had left the front bench Thompson was elected to serve on the executive of the 1922 Committee and in 1994 he was made a member of the Committee of Privileges. He had been rewarded for his efforts in the whips' office with a three-year spell as a junior minister at the Ministry of Agriculture, serving under John McGregor, and on one occasion when he was racing through a complex statement to European Agriculture ministers, his chief collapsed with an ulcer attack.

Thompson achieved a well-deserved reputation for the way in which he adroitly picked his way through the labyrinthine committee structure of the EEC when fighting for the interests of British agriculture and the fishing industry. One of his principal concerns was the large Spanish fishing fleet's skilled use of quota-hopping, but the Merchant Shipping Act passed in 1988 was subsequently struck down by the Factortame judgment and rulings by the European Court.

Thompson was not a great performer at the despatch box and it was not altogether a surprise therefore when he was dropped from the government in July 1989. Although he was proud of what he had achieved for the farming and fishing communities and for the improvements he had made in animal welfare, he was not bitter about his departure, telling his colleagues, "There is no iceberg here, but a shire horse unharnessed and put out to graze on the blue Conservative grass."

He had grown up in the area he represented, had served it on the county council as well as in Parliament, and had a passionate loyalty to it and his constituents. In 1987 his seat was made the focus of a Channel 4 study as a key marginal but, although his majority dropped by 2000, he held it comfortably enough. His seat featured in Pete Davies's book This England, an account of the 1997 general election, but the result was not the close finish expected, as a Conservative majority of over 5,000 was turned into a 6,000 majority for Labour.

Donald Anderson was the son of a farmer and butcher and after leaving Hipperholme Grammar School joined his father in farming, serving as a director of the local farmers' co-operative, Halifax Farmers, from 1952 to 1958. Ill-health forced him out of farming in 1960, but he had become a director of his father's contract butchers business in 1959 and remained in that position until 1974 when he became the managing director of a glass fibre manufacturing business which traded as Armadillo Plastics. Although he stood down in 1979, he retained a directorship with the firm until 1981 and was the beneficiary of royalties from one of their patents.

He had helped found the Halifax Young Conservatives in 1947, but his political career took off in 1967 with his election to the West Riding County Council in 1967. Two years later he was selected to fight the safe Labour seat of Batley and Morley, predictably going down to defeat in 1970. In the two general elections of February and October 1974, he unsuccessfully contested Sowerby. He was elected on to the new West Yorkshire County Council for its shadow year in 1973 and served until 1975.

Fighting Sowerby for the third time in 1979, he defeated Max Madden. Mid-way through the parliament he was chosen to become an Assistant Whip in 1981. After boundary revisions, he was selected for the Calder Valley seat, widely regarded as marginal, but he won it comfortably enough and held it until 1997. He replaced Peggy Fenner as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture in 1986 and served until he was replaced in 1989.

At the start of the new session in November 1989, he was elected on to the 1922 Executive, remaining a member until his unexpected defeat in the 1997 landslide, and from 1990 until 1994 he acted as Government whip on the Council of Europe and WEU Assemblies. He was knighted in 1992 and was appointed to the Commons Privileges Committee 1994-97.

He had taken up various business consultancies after leaving the front bench, which included the National Federation of Meat Traders and the British Agrochemicals Association and he also chaired the Animal Health Trust Special Appeal.

John Barnes