Obituary: Barry Porter

Politicians of all parties are natural Cavaliers or Roundheads. There was a time when the Conservative Party was emphatically of the Cavalier rather than the Puritan persuasion, when the Labour Party also enjoyed itself, and the Smoking Room of the House of Commons, that Churchill, Bevan and John Smith so relished, was its hub. The club life of the Commons, which resulted in some very unexpected friendships, was one of its most attractive features. The harsh asperities of politics were in those days subsumed and softened by good humour and companionship.

All that has sadly changed. Politics are now war, and fraternising with the enemy is a capital offence. The Smoking Room is now deserted, and the ghastly Tea Room is regarded as the hub of Parliamentary life.

Barry Porter belonged emphatically to the Cavalier Party. He forged deep friendships with colleagues whose politics he abhorred, including Eric Heffer and Terry Patchett, both from the far Left of the Labour Party. But, as in their cases, conviviality was matched by deep seriousness and real political courage and conviction.

Although Barry Porter was by profession a solicitor, his dominant ambitions had always been political. Born in 1939, and educated at Birkenhead School and University College, Oxford, he became a Conservative Councillor in Birkenhead and Wirral in his twenties, and contested in the Conservative cause the safe Labour seat of Liverpool Scotland Exchange at a by-election in April 1971. He fought, again without success, Newton in the February 1974 general election (Labour majority 16,472) and Chorley (Labour majority 2,713) in the October one. When he was adopted for Bebington and Ellesmere Port this seemed another hopeless cause, the popular Alf Bates, a Labour Government Whip, having a majority of 6,491.

This was not a seat that the Conservatives expected to win, nor Labour to lose. But Porter's dogged persistence and determination to reach the House of Commons finally paid off, and he was elected with a majority of 486. As a result of boundary changes he profited while others suffered, and in 1983 was returned for Wirral South with a very different kind of majority.

Before 1979 he had hoped to be adopted for the safe Morecambe and Lonsdale seat, where he was shortlisted against Mark Lennox-Boyd. But when he was asked "do you do much huntin', Mr Porter?" he realised that his chances of selection were slim.

His achievement was ill- rewarded. But his understandable disappointment at receiving no preferment never embittered him. He was one of those old-fashioned Members of Parliament who deemed it a privilege to be an MP and was determined to enjoy what had been a hard-fought ambition.

Porter's commitment to the Ulster Unionist cause was deeply felt, and deeply respected, and not least because on at least one occasion - when he received a parcel bomb after he had denounced the IRA and Sinn Fein at a meeting in the Commons that I also attended - it nearly cost him his life. But these very real threats never deflected him from his dedication to the Unionist cause, although his comments on certain Ulster Unionist MPs - and he was a superb mimic - could be less than reverent.

He was supposed to be on the Right of the Tory Party. In fact he was fiercly independent-minded, and never a docile recipient of the party Whip. He was the first Conservative MP to state openly in 1990 that Margaret Thatcher should step down, using both cricket and footballing metaphors about great players who had had the sense to retire gracefully.

In doing so he said publicly what so many Conservative Ministers, MPs, and party workers were saying privately. The resultant storm in his constituency association was intense, but he would not retract his sincerely held belief that the Thatcher of 1990 was not the Thatcher even of 1987, and that there must be a change of leadership.

He told me that he was convinced that he would be deselected if he voted against Thatcher in November 1990. As his membership of the House of Commons meant so much to him, and the pressures upon him were so intense, I would not have blamed him if he had succumbed.

But he did not.

On the morning of 20 November 1990, the day of the first ballot in the leadership election, I happened to run into him in the corridor outside the Smoking Room. "If I am to commit political suicide I need a drink first," he said. To my considerable surprise - it was only 11 o'clock - he ordered a large Scotch. Barry was definitely not a teetotaller, but this was quite exceptional. He then went upstairs to vote for Michael Heseltine, convinced that he had signed his political death warrant.

As it happened, he survived the attempts to deselect him - and justly so. He took his reponsibilities to his country, his Wirral constituency, Parliament, and party far more seriously than casual observers appreciated. He had guts, compassion, and courage as well as conviviality - in the best Cavalier tradition.

Unhappily, his marriage was to be a casualty of his political career, but his devotion to his family, that was fully returned, never wavered.

In the last speech he made that I heard, in July, apparently in fine physical form, he roundly denounced the dreary and ambition-obsessed Puritans who had taken over his beloved House of Commons, and had some splendidly offensive things to say about the sort of Member who hung conspiratorially around the Tea Room and lunched in the awful Cafeteria.

Last Wednesday I went to see him in his London flat, having telephoned two days before to enquire whether this was alright. I was told that he would be delighted to see me.

But, when I arrived I found him deeply unconscious, a shadow of the man I had last seen in July. Three of his daughters were there. I held his hand for some time, giving him the latest political gossip, chatted about nothing in particular, and then said goodbye. I thought I detected a flicker of recognition, and he certainly grasped my hand firmly. But perhaps this was my imagination.

And thus, sadly, I bade farewell to my dear, witty, brave, warm-hearted Cavalier friend. Saint-like he was not, but I, like Barry Porter, am bored to tears with political Saints and Puritans.

And I left him in tears.

Robert Rhodes James

George Barrington Porter, politician: born 11 June 1939; MP (Conservative) for Bebington and Ellesmere Port 1979-83, Wirral South 1983-96; married 1965 Susan James (two sons, three daughters); died London 3 November 1996.

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