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Obituary: Judith Chaplin

IN A newspaper interview some time before she challenged Edward Heath for the leadership of the Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher was asked whether she could see herself, one day, becoming prime minister, writes Patrick Cosgrave. She replied in the negative. A woman, she thought, would not be prime minister in her lifetime. Asked what, then, was her main political ambition she replied that it was to be the first female Chancellor of the Exchequer. That was an ambition that Judith Chaplin might well have achieved had untimely death not cut short her parliamentary career so soon after it had begun.

Consider her qualifications. She had been to Girton College, Cambridge, then in the top flight of Cambridge colleges. She was an accountant. She worked as director of research at the Institute of Directors. She did a stint at the Conservative Research Department. She went on to advise two chancellors. She concluded her pre-parliamentary career as head of the prime minister's political office. Nigel Lawson and John Major have very different personalities, and had very different economic policies when Chancellor, so it could be said that she had seen at close range the whole gamut of policy. Moreover, she had spent several years as headmistress of a pre-preparatory school, something which would have stood her in good stead in dealing with MPs had she lived to become a minister, for she was almost certain to have been given office.

But I do not want to portray her as some kind of ambitious harridan. The great danger for political advisers - especially when they rise high in that ambiguous hierarchy - is that they become arrogant and remote from the outside world. Neither of these accusations could be levelled against Judith Chaplin. She was more than simply approachable; she was charming. She was also highly efficient. Any politician who wanted, say, to get a message or request through to the Prime Minister knew that contact with Judith Chaplin was the way to ensure that the Prime Minister was at least given a personal opportunity to consider what was being asked.

As somebody who has dealt with No 10 Downing Street very recently said to me, once she left for Newbury, you could never be sure that anything was really being done with expedition in the political office.