Sir Trevor Lloyd-Hughes: Harold Wilson's press secretary who believed passionately in the impartiality of the job

Trevor Lloyd-Hughes was the Prime Minister's influential press secretary from 1964 to 1969. He once recounted to me how he got the job, and the circumstances speak volumes. He had been the lobby correspondent of the Liverpool Daily Post for 14 years, and had written political columns for the Sunday Express anonymously, and had also, under his own name, established himself as a writer on wines – he was later to become a driving force in the Circle of Wine Writers.

As a lobby correspondent, one of his parliamentary flock was the member for Huyton, the young Harold Wilson, Attlee's President of the Board of Trade. In the summer of 1964, Wilson asked Lloyd-Hughes if he would come to lunch with him. A little perplexed, because it was unusual for MPs to ask lobby correspondents to lunch – it was always a delicate relationship – he accepted. Out of the blue, Wilson said that he expected to become Prime Minister. In which case, would Lloyd-Hughes be his press secretary?

Lloyd-Hughes's initial reaction was, "Why me? I am not a Labour Party member." Wilson said that he knew that he was not a Labour Party member, but thought that, like him, Lloyd-Hughes believed in good governance. Like him, he was a Yorkshireman. Like him, he was a nonconformist. Like him, he had studied history at Jesus College, Oxford, and, like him, had had the distinguished supervisor, Goronway Edwards. Wilson ended by quoting Churchill: "Come with me, and together we will make history." Lloyd-Hughes succumbed.

Trevor Lloyd-Hughes was born at Idle, near Appleby Bridge on the River Aire between Leeds and Bradford – the same place as Vic Feather, later to be the general secretary of the TUC at the height of the Wilson government's industrial problems. At the age of 10, Lloyd-Hughes was one of four boys from the local Greengage Primary School who won scholarships to Woodhouse Grove School, a minor public school originally set up for the sons of Methodist ministers. It helped that Lloyd-Hughes's paternal grandfather was a Methodist minister in north Wales, because his father was a rather impecunious bank clerk.

His maternal grandmother was a farmer, at Esholt, whose land was requisitioned for a pittance to make way for the City of Bradford sewage works, then the most modern in Europe.

When war came Lloyd-Hughes volunteered for the Army and was allocated to the 75th Shropshire Yeomanry Medium Regiment of the Royal Artillery. He served in the force commanded successively by General Wavell, Field Marshall Sir Claude Auchinleck, whom he admired from afar, and Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, whom he admired from afar rather less. Lloyd-Hughes judged people by what they did rather than what they said or how they said it.

He landed up as welfare officer of the Army in Trieste – lucky, he thought, to be alive after spending his 21st birthday at sea outside Durban, having survived U-boats, and then going through the hell of Monte Cassino. Two of his memories included using his pistol to take a German paratroop sergeant a prisoner of war; and going, as second in command to Lord Acton, in a jeep up the Appian Way to see the Pope in Rome. When he pressed his senior officer as to what he was going to say to the Pope, it emerged that it was simply to apologise on behalf of the British for killing Benedictine monks in the Great Monastery.

Taking up his place at Oxford after the war he was active in music, playing Papageno in The Magic Flute, and he formed a friendship with Derek Mitchell, who in 1964 was to welcome him to the Downing Street inner sanctum when he was foreign policy advisor to the Prime Minister, as he had been to Sir Alec Douglas-Home. He was also welcomed by Sir Oliver Wright, another contemporary, who would be pivotal in the Downing Street machine and was later ambassador in Washington.

Leaving Jesus College, Lloyd-Hughes joined the Inland Revenue as an assistant inspector of taxes. He quickly became bored and thought it was not the life for him, so he became a freelance journalist and within months had secured a staff job on the Liverpool Daily Post, from which, in 1950, he became the political correspondent of the Liverpool Echo, returning to the Daily Post in 1951.

Almost uniquely, he was a political correspondent when Winston Churchill became Prime Minister for the second time and when the Labour government won in 1964. He loved telling the story of how Churchill stumped to the small Vote Office window to collect a parliamentary paper. An unanswered question of topical interest at the time was whether he would stand again as a parliamentary candidate at the general election.

Other political journalists remained at a discreet distance, but Lloyd-Hughes decided to accost the great man, thinking that he could only refuse to talk to him.

"Good evening, Sir," said Lloyd-Hughes.

"Yes," Churchill replied, "and who are you?"

"Lloyd-Hughes, Political Correspondent of the Liverpool Daily Post. May I ask whether you intend to contest Woodford again at the next general election?"

Churchill's candid reply surprised Lloyd-Hughes. "Thank you for your courtesy in making this enquiry. I am glad the citizens of Liverpool, readers of your estimable newspaper, and people of strong spirit during the War, are interested in my intentions. So I will tell you – I shall NOT seek re-adoption as the Conservative candidate for Woodford." Lloyd-Hughes told me that Winston did speak like that, almost like a wartime radio broadcast.

Churchill continued the conversation for several minutes, asking about his wartime service and views on the political situation. Finally, Lloyd-Hughes thanked him – he had given him a useful story - and walked away.

"My Lobby colleagues and competitors crowded round and asked, 'What did he tell you?'" Lloyd-Hughes' answer, with his characteristic full-beaming smile? "Read tomorrow's Daily Post!"

I, and others in a position to know, thought that Lloyd-Hughes was a benevolent influence on the Prime Minister, being unafraid to speak truth unto power. Writing to me in 2002, Lloyd-Hughes said: "Incidentally, your old buddy Dick Crossman had a corner office bracketed within my 'empire', so we had many friendly exchanges in those days. Also, when he was briefly my 'minister' – in charge of answering in the House for co-ordination of government information service – I was mightily impressed by his intellectual grasp of the problems."

As an example of Lloyd-Hughes' influence, in 1967 he told the Prime Minister, who was genuinely distressed, on no account to go ahead with a proposed visit to Aberfan, where a colliery spoil heap had fallen on to homes and a school, killing many, because it would be seen as a photo-opportunity. Leave it, Lloyd-Hughes said, to Alf Robens [chairman of the National Coal Board] and the industrial correspondents. He also acted as something of a sheepdog to the Prime Minister, dragging him away in time for Prime Minister's Questions after lunchtime visits to organisations such as the Pipe-Man of the Year.

By 1969, Wilson was becoming far more party-political, and Lloyd-Hughes left for the rather meaningless position of chief information advisor to the government.

"I witnessed at first hand – sometimes around the Cabinet table, for Harold accorded me the right to attend certain meetings – some of the in-fighting that occurred. And I was well aware of the plots and counter-plots, endless suspicions and ultimate loss of direction. Even so, I believe Wilson could have won the 1970 general election (which, in his complacency, he thought he would, right up to the end) had it not been for two developments: his increasing reliance for advice on a close circle of special advisors, his 'kitchen cabinet', and the politicisation of his press briefings after I was appointed chief information officer in the Cabinet Office in July 1969, handing over the Press Office to my deputy, Joe Haines. The switch from my impartial, truthful, 'no-spin' guidance to Joe's party-propagandist style robbed the Prime Minister's message of credibility, and so sapped his public support."

On leaving government service, Lloyd-Hughes set up a successful consultancy on government/industry relations. Retiring in 1989, he went to live in France for eight years with his Swiss wife Marie-Jeanne. On his return he was pleased to get a handwritten note from Margaret Thatcher: "Welcome back to the country where you belong!"

Lloyd-Hughes passionately believed that it was the job of the press secretary, paid for by the taxpayer, to be party-politically impartial. It was a breed that is now extinct, and Britain is all the poorer for it.

Tam Dalyell

Trevor Denby Lloyd-Hughes, journalist and press officer: born Idle, Yorkshire 31 March 1922; political correspondent, Liverpool Daily Post, 1951-1964; press secretary to the Prime Minister, 1964-1969; chief information advisor to the Government, 1969-1970; chairman, Lloyd-Hughes Associates, 1970-1989; Kt 1970; married 1950 Ethel Ritchie (marriage dissolved 1971, one son, one daughter); 1971 Marie-Jeanne Moreillon (one son deceased, one daughter, one adopted daughter); died 15 February 2009.

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