Obituaries : Lord Colnbrook

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When she became leader of the Conservative Party in 1975 Margaret Thatcher retained the services of Humphrey Atkins as her Chief Whip. There were two reasons for this. First, he had done an excellent job over the two years he had already been in the post. And second - contrary to the expectations of both the main camps - he had been studiously neutral in the leadership battle.

When, however, in 1979, after the murder of Airey Neave, and her general- election victory of that year, she made Atkins Secretary of State for Northern Ireland - a province with which he had but the most slender of acquaintances - the eyebrows of her entourage climbed towards their hairlines. But the memory of his attitude in 1975 persisted and, even if he were a closet Heathite, the Ulster job would keep him (as it later did Jim Prior) well away from central decision-making on government policy. Later, in 1981, he was moved to the Foreign Office, where his ministerial career came to an end in controversial and turbulent circumstances.

Humphrey Atkins was born in 1922, the son of a Kenyan farmer who had served in the Indian Army. In 1925, after his father's untimely and gruesome death (he was gored by a rhinoceros) he returned to England, where his mother had him enrolled at Wellington. In 1940 he joined the Royal Navy, serving first in the battleship Nelson, mostly on convoy protection duty: he sailed the dangerous Atlantic route, and also the less dangerous, but still threatening, route from home waters to Gibraltar.

He fell in love with a Wren, Margaret Spencer-Nairn. Like many young couples of that time, when death was never very far away, they decided to snatch as much happiness as they could, though war still raged. In 1944, therefore, Atkins married a highly political wife, and formed an alliance with her prosperous linoleum manufacturing family; the war over, Margaret's father took him into the business, and she set about fully awakening his fairly dormant Tory political instincts.

Initially, Atkins saw himself as a trainee businessman interested in politics, rather than a politician in his own right. It was in that capacity that he worked for J. Henderson Stewart in East Fife during the general election campaign of 1950. But the political bug took hold of him, and he began the usual journey of aspiring Conservative politicians: he sought to prove his mettle by contesting an unwinnable seat in 1951. This was West Lothian, and the young naval lieutenant and linoleum salesman (as he used, in later years, humorously to describe himself) made a dent in the Labour majority: this was important, demonstrating to Conservative Constituency Associations in more electorally desirable parts of the kingdom that he was good on the hustings.

For the 1955 general election he was adopted for Merton and Morden and won the seat he was to hold until boundary changes forced a shift in 1970 to Spelthorne in Surrey ("a most socially agreeable place", he used to say), which constituency he represented until his departure for the House of Lords in 1987, where he took the title Lord Colnbrook.

Initially, Atkins was diffident in the House of Commons. He took nine months to make his maiden speech, although Speakers of the House are traditionally indulgent of young members anxious to blood themselves. Once he began, however, he began to make a name for himself - particularly by his support for the retention of capital punishment. He enjoyed (if that is the right word) a period as a Parliamentary Private Secretary - the lowest form of ministerial life - but in 1967 the then Chief Whip, William Whitelaw, invited him to join the Whips' office, where he shone.

Whips are generally - and rightly - supposed to be a combination of the bully and the charmer. Some few are wholly one, or wholly the other. Edward Heath, a highly successful Chief Whip, was wholly a bully. Atkins's boss, Whitelaw, who was also highly successful, oscillated, often alarmingly, between bluff charm and bad temper. Atkins was all charm and reason, and the backbenchers whom he so often had to cajole into supporting the official party line, both liked and respected him, for they sensed the core of determination that lay beneath his agreeable suavity.

He was made Deputy Chief Whip upon the Conservative return to power in 1970, under Francis Pym, and took the top job in 1973. But his greatest moment was as Deputy in October 1971 when, for Heath's benefit, he predicted the Conservative vote on the question of British entry into the European Economic Community to within only one. "And the one I got wrong," he said later, "was an awkward bugger anyway." Since the question of entry into the EEC was to be decided, on the Conservative side, on a free vote - something whips, naturally, hate - Atkins's judgement was remarkably sound.

From thereon in, however, his career was a far less happy one. As Chief Whip between 1975 and 1979 he had to strive hard to reconcile the differences between warring factions in his party. There were, on the one hand, those enthused by Margaret Thatcher, and the storm of fresh air she brought to politics; and there were, on the other, those embittered, not only by her overthrowing of Edward Heath, but by the reversal of the policies on which the Tories had fought, unsuccessfully, both the 1974 general elections. In 1979 he thought of his accession to the Northern Ireland Office as something of a relief.

It was not to prove so. His two-year period in Ulster saw the murder of Lord Mountbatten, and the notorious IRA hunger strikes in the Maze prison. The former event had, at least, the desirable effect of making the Dublin government of the day more amenable on co-operation in matters of security. The latter provoked probably the most bitter of confrontations between the Westminster government and Irish nationalism that had yet been seen. Initially, Atkins's whip's instinct suggested to him that a compromise should be sought; but once the Prime Minister made ineluctably clear that she would in no circumstances grant political privileges to those in prison for civil offences, he rallied, and showed a will as strong as her own. Eleven deaths later, the hunger strike was called off.

Atkins's time in Belfast revealed some of his deficiencies. The social graces that endeared him to almost all quarters in Westminster found no purchase in Northern Irish political society. "We could rub along all right with Willie Whitelaw," William Craig, one of the hardest of Ulster Unionists, once said to me, "because he's a genuine squire. But this fella's only a pretend squire."

It was true that Atkins's generous, but slightly flamboyant hospitality, and his somewhat overpowering sense of good manners, cut little ice in the rough and tumble of Ulster politics. It was with relief that, in 1981, he moved to what he thought would be the tranquil pastures of the Foreign Office, where he was to be Deputy to the Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, and the office's spokesman in the House of Commons. But disaster waited in the wings.

Throughout 1981 Argentinian pressure on the Falkland Islands mounted. The Foreign Office - particularly in the person of the junior minister, Richard Luce, but with Atkins supervising - put their faith in negotiation; they simply could not believe that Argentina would mount a coup de main against the islands. Pressure was put on newspaper proprietors and editors to play down reports of an imminent military onslaught on Port Stanley. The newspapers (and particularly Tony Allen-Mills of the Daily Telegraph) resisted, and, when the invasion duly took place, a storm broke over the Foreign Office Ministers.

Atkins was particularly unfortunate (due to late briefings) because he made a statement to the House denying that an attack was imminent, hours after Argentinian troops had taken Port Stanley. He, Carrington, and Luce all resigned. Disputation has continued to this day as to whether the Prime Minister or the Foreign Office were culpable in failure to detect Argentinian intentions. I believe that the Prime Minister was unwise to have taken her eye off the Argentinian ball, because of her preoccupation with European affairs; but there is no doubt in my mind that the Foreign Office was guilty of gross carelessness in its conduct of affairs up to the crisis.

Though he was never to hold ministerial office again Atkins continued to be active in politics. He had never lost his interest in defence matters, and he became a first-class chairman of the Select Committee on Defence. There was a move to make him Speaker of the House of Commons, in spite of the shadow of the Falklands debacle.

While some demurred at the thought of a failed minister in the chair, others pointed out that Selwyn Lloyd, who had lied to the House over the Suez Canal adventure in 1956, had gone on to become an excellent Speaker. However, it was not to be, and Atkins had to content himself with his Defence Committee, and later with the Presidency of the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations, the principal job on the voluntary wing of the party.

Atkins was a nearly man. His gifts, as an orator and as a political tactician, were considerable. But misfortune and misjudgement dogged him at every turn, just when he was nearing the top of affairs. He was, however, a staunch patriot, and a loyal party man, as well as being a good friend to many people. That is not an unworthy accolade.

Humphrey Edward Gregory Atkins, politician: born Kenya 12 August 1922; MP (Conservative) for Merton and Morden, Surrey 1955- 70, Spelthorne 1970-87; PPS to Civil Lord of the Admiralty 1959-62; Hon Secretary, Conservative Parliamentary Defence Committee 1965-67; Opposition Whip 1967-70; Treasurer of HM Household and Deputy Chief Whip 1970-73; PC 1973; Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury and Government Chief Whip 1973-74; Opposition Chief Whip 1974-79; Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 1979-81; Lord Privy Seal and principal Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesman in the Commons 1981-82; KCMG 1983; Chairman, Select Committee on Defence 1984-87; created 1987 Baron Colnbrook; married 1944 Margaret Spencer-Nairn (one son, three daughters); died 4 October 1996.