Winston Churchill: Tory MP who never emerged from his grandfather's shadow

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The Independent Online

Winston Churchill, the former Conservative MP and grandson of the Second World War Prime Minister, who died yesterday after a two-year battle against cancer, was the Conservative MP for Stretford and then Davyhulme in Greater Manchester for 27 years.

Born at the Prime Minister's residence, Chequers, in October 1940, during the Battle of Britain, Churchill was the son of Randolph Churchill and the well-known socialite Pamela Digby who, as Pamela Harriman, was later the US Ambassador in Paris. His time at Chequers had a profound impact on him. There was the sound of gunfire, the flurry of official activity, and, on the other hand, there was the kindness of his grandfather. With his parents' divorce in 1946 and his subsequent minimal contact with them, his fondest childhood memories were, for the most part, with his grandfather who frequently played with him and, on one occasion, scoured London for a clockwork train set. Upon its arrival he proceeded to go down on his hands and knees to play with it.

This ended when, at the age of eight, suffering from asthma, he was prescribed a sojourn in Switzerland and then enrolled at Le Rosey, the famous private élite school where he learnt to speak fluent French and to ski well Later, his time at Eton was not so happy. He was mocked for his lingering French accent and suffering frequent beatings.

Churchill was heavily influenced by his father and by his illustrious grandfather, and it was difficult for him to tread in their footsteps. He was haunted by both his father's successes and his failures. Randolph had a good war, being part of the Special Operations Eexecutive mission to Tito's partisans in German-occupied Yugoslavia. He was, however, was less successful in politics. After standing unsuccessfully for Parliament before the war he was elected unopposed, because of the wartime party truce, as Member for Preston. He lost this seat during the Labour landslide of 1945. Undeterred, he stood against Labour's Michael Foot at Plymouth Devonport in the elections of 1950 and 1951, only to face defeat once again.

Winston followed in his father's steps, being educated at Eton and studying at Christ Church College, Oxford, although his educational career was not particularly distinguished. He, too, went on to become a journalist in the 1960s, notably as a war correspondent in Africa and in the Middle East. During the Six Day War in 1967, an account of which he published, he met and was impressed by the Israeli military leader, Moshe Dayan.

Churchill then went into politics. After an unsuccessful by-election in Manchester, Gorton in 1967 he was elected MP for the nearby constituency of Stretford in 1970, holding it until the 1983 election, when boundary changes made his seat marginal and it was lost to Labour. He transferred to the new Davyhulme constituency, which he represented until it was abolished for the 1997 general election.

Although well-known by virtue of his family name and history, he never achieved high office. The high point of his time in the Commons was as assistant shadow spokesman on defence, from 1976-78. Mrs Thatcher sacked him for defying the Tory whips in voting against the renewal of economic sanctions on Ian Smith's Rhodesia. There was some muttering in constituency associations at the time that "you can't sack a Churchill", yet she managed it with ease.

Like the earlier Churchills, he was something of a maverick. When Michael Heseltine was seeking pit closures in 1992, Churchill came out in defiance of the government, before eventually being persuaded to abstain. In May 1993 he created a storm by criticising the "relentless flow" of immigrants to Britain from the Indian subcontinent. He was publicly reprimanded by the then Home Secretary and future Conservative leader, Michael Howard.

He was also the subject of controversy in 1995 when he and his family sold a large archive of Second World War papers relating to his grandfather to Churchill College, Cambridge for £13.5m. The transaction was paid for out of National Lottery funds and critics said the sum was excessive for documents which many believed should already belong to the nation. He maintained that the papers were his family's property. The collection consisted of official and personal documents, including early drafts of some of the former PM's most celebrated wartime speeches, drafts of letters to Stalin and Roosevelt, among others, as well as cabinet papers. Official documents released in 2004 suggested the government could have bought the papers for a fraction of their ultimate price.

After leaving Parliament, Churchill was a much sought-after speaker on the lecture circuit and wrote many articles in support of the Iraq War and the fight against Islamic terrorism. He also edited a compilation of his grandfather's famous speeches entitled Never Give In.

In 2007, he acted as a spokesman, and later became president, for the pressure group UK National Defence Association, which campaigned for more support for the armed forces.

Churchill's personal life was no less tranquil. He first married in July 1964 to Mary "Minnie" Caroline d'Erlanger, daughter of the banker Sir Gerard John Regis d'Erlanger. They had four children, two boys (Randolph and John) and two girls (Jennie and Marina). However, their marriage was dissolved in 1997 due to Churchill's extra-marital relationships, notably with Soraya Khashoggi, the former wife of the arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. Later in 1997, he married Luce Engelen, a Belgian-born jewellery maker.

Martin Childs

Winston Spencer Churchill, politician: born Chequers, England 10 October 1940; Conservative MP for Stretford 1970-83, Davyhulme 1983-97; married 1964 Mary (Minnie) d'Erlanger (marriage dissolved 1997; two sons, two daughters), 1997 Luce Engelen; died London 2 March 2010.