Sir Peter Emery

Conservative MP who invented the Bow Group
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The Independent Online

Peter Emery served more than 40 years as an MP, achieving junior office in Edward Heath's government, but he will be principally remembered by political historians as the man who conceived the idea of the Bow Group and brought it to fruition in partnership with the future judge Bruce Griffiths.

Peter Frank Hannibal Emery, politician: born London 27 February 1926; Joint Founder, Bow Group 1951; MP (Conservative) for Reading 1959-66, for Honiton 1967-97, for Devon East 1997-2001; Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Foreign Office, War Department and Ministry of Labour 1960-64; joint honorary secretary, 1922 Committee 1964-65; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, DTI 1972-74, Department of Energy 1974; Kt 1982; PC 1993; married 1954 Elizabeth Nicholson (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1972 Elizabeth Monnington (one son, one daughter); died London 9 December 2004.

Peter Emery served more than 40 years as an MP, achieving junior office in Edward Heath's government, but he will be principally remembered by political historians as the man who conceived the idea of the Bow Group and brought it to fruition in partnership with the future judge Bruce Griffiths.

Both were serving on the committee of the Federation of University Conservative Associations, but it was Emery who observed that Conservative university graduates rarely joined or rejoined their local constituency associations and suggested establishing a club in London to "focus and centre graduate and undergraduate thought, acting as a stimulus to the Conservative Party and providing an effective counter to 'intellectual' Socialism and the Fabian Society". In the first 40 years of its existence the group more than fulfilled his ambitions for it.

Although Emery's motion was passed by the federation's annual conference at High Leigh in 1950, it was to be nine months before the organisation came into being, even though the idea had found an early welcome at Conservative Central Office. The steering committee met first in November 1950 and, unable to afford membership of the Constitutional Club, instead linked their fortunes with the Bow Conservative Club.

Emery had become Secretary of the Poplar Conservative Association and was to fight the seat in October 1951 and he found the suggestion made by his constituency chairman that their research would be better grounded on the East End than based in a West End club more than acceptable. Emery and Griffiths tossed for the chairmanship and the latter won: Emery took on the secretaryship and wrote the constitution. Although he resigned after a year, he had helped create an organisation that had an influence on the Conservative Party out of all proportion to its numbers. Many of its early members, like his close friend Geoffrey Howe, went on to serve in Cabinet or, like William Rees-Mogg, became influential journalists.

Emery's own ambitions seemed likely to be fulfilled when he defeated the well-established MP Ian Mikardo at Reading South in 1959 and clung on to the seat in 1964. With the Conservative Party relegated to opposition, he was recruited to the team which Heath deployed to good effect in savaging Callaghan's 1965 budget, but forfeited his frontbench position when defeated in the 1966 election.

Emery made a speedy recovery, securing victory in the Honiton by- election in March 1967, but he was not made a member of Heath's much- reduced frontbench team and had to wait until the government reshuffle in the spring of 1972 before he was given a place in Heath's government. When Margaret Thatcher replaced Heath as leader in 1975, Emery found himself out of favour and this time there was to be no change of fortune.

Peter Frank Hannibal Emery was the son of a small clothing manufacturer in Highgate, north London. Although it has been reported that he was evacuated to the United States at the start of the Second World War, by his own account he lived there for four years before it started and was educated at Scotch Plains, New Jersey. He supported himself by working as a labourer, sheet metal worker and arc welder.

A wartime RAF pilot, after demobilisation he flew with the Volunteer Reserve until 1950. He won a scholarship to Oriel College, Oxford, where he was active in Conservative politics and the Union. He was awarded a Fourth in PPE and, on coming down, became a salesman with the family business and was elected to the Hornsey Borough Council in 1949. His local government career culminated with the deputy Mayoralty of Hornsey in 1957-58.

While he claimed to have contested Lincoln in 1955, he was not in fact the candidate, but in October 1959 he ousted Ian Mikardo from Reading South. Thanks largely to the intervention of a Liberal, his majority was cut to only 10 votes in 1964 and his subsequent defeat in 1966 at the hands of John Lee came as little surprise. Although at times a trifle rebellious Emery made a more than promising start to his parliamentary career, acting as Lord Harlech's PPS in 1960-61 and serving Joe Godber in the same capacity 1961-64. He was elected joint Secretary of the 1922 Committee 1964-65 and appointed to the economics frontbench team when Heath became shadow Chancellor.

Emery's return to the Commons in a safe seat should have ensured his political future, but somewhere along the line he appears to have crossed Heath, for whose election as leader he had worked in 1965. Not only was he left on the back benches after his return, but, to the considerable surprise of political observers, was not given junior office when the Conservatives returned to power in 1970. His luck changed with Heath's U-turn on industrial policy and he was appointed Under-Secretary for Trade and Industry in the spring of 1972. When Howe joined the department as Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs, they worked closely together on the Fair Trading legislation.

When Heath decided to create the Department of Energy early in 1974, he transferred the Secretary of State for Industry, Peter Walker, to the new department and Walker took Emery with him. Within a matter of weeks the Government was out, defeated when it sought a mandate to take on the unions. What happened next must have been galling for a bright and energetic minister, as Emery undoubtedly was. In opposition, he was not included in Heath's frontbench team in opposition and with Margaret Thatcher's accession to the leadership after Heath's second successive election defeat, he found that his face did not fit.

He decided to concentrate on his business interests, but he seemed also to lose something of what until then had been a consistent and coherent approach to Conservative policy. Public renunciation of his former leader was accompanied by curious shifts in his political stance, including opposition to sanctions on Rhodesia and a vote against devolution in defiance of the whips.

Nor was a highly productive business career without its pitfalls. In 1980 he was twice censured by the Public Accounts Committee for making a 70 per cent profit on a government contract entered into by Shenley Trust Services (formerly Emery and Emery, of which he was chairman) to operate the Underwater Training Centre at Fort William. The controversy did not prevent Margaret Thatcher from recommending him for a knighthood in January 1982, but it led to later gibes when Emery appeared to be exploiting the public purse over space exploration.

Earlier he had attracted some criticism for negotiating a road-building contract for a British firm, in which he had an interest, while on an official parliamentary delegation to Ghana and there was a further burst of criticism in October 1983 - even though the activities of Shenley Trust Services in promoting the cause of one of South Africa's puppet states, Bophuthatswana, were a known quantity - when he wrote an article for The Times praising the South African regime without declaring an interest.

None of this affected his standing with his constituents, with the whips, or his fellow parliamentarians, while his business interests continued to go from strength to strength. He was universally liked and was not regarded as a rogue.

A man of boundless energy, sharp intelligence and brash self-confidence, Emery was not always taken at his own estimation. Florid in every sense of the word, he could get things badly wrong. His efforts to limit Sunday trading before lunch to newsagents and filling stations were received with mirthful scorn and it was not the only occasion on which he was treated by younger colleagues as no more than an "amiable blunderbuss".

But he was always his own man, whether insisting on the need for joint consultation before Cruise missiles were launched from the UK, fighting to secure amendments to the Rates Bill, warning the Thatcher government of the dangers of its indecisiveness over apartheid, opposing the merger of British Airways and British Caledonian or opposing banding of the poll tax.

He could be very effective as, when a member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, he condemned the Foreign Secretary in biting words for perpetrating a whitewash over the Sandline affair; and as founder chairman of the National Asthma campaign, he stood shoulder to shoulder with Alan Milburn against his own front bench over the Smoking Bill in 2001. In a voice by then high and wheezing, he described how he was affected by the smoke-polluted corridors of the House.

John Barnes



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