Obituary: Lord Chelmer
Thursday 06 March 1997
In 1973 I was lunching with the late George Hutchinson - one of the most astute commentators on Conservative politics at the time, and a former press secretary to Harold Macmillan. While we were having a post-prandial drink Hutchinson saw Chelmer across the room. "Come," he said, "and have a drink with the second most intelligent unelected Tory in politics. After Oliver Poole, of course." I had heard of Chelmer, but, as we walked across the room I asked Hutchinson what made him so special. "He is the greatest fund-raiser in our party history, and he helped Harold make Alec Home Prime Minister."
After a suitable period of diffidence on my youthful part, I asked Chelmer what had made him so successful a fund-raiser, and so useful an ally of Macmillan in ensuring that R.A. Butler would not, in 1963, become Prime Minister, and that Alec Home would. He replied shortly. "It was the mind of a solicitor."
Chelmer had one unfulfilled ambition, to be a diplomat. But, in one of the rare moments of weakness in his life, he had agreed to become a solicitor and eventually joined his family firm. As with so many men of his generation, his life was interrupted by the Second World War: at the age of 30 he was a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Artillery, having served in that desperate fight on the beaches of France after the Allies had landed for the final onslaught of Hitler's Germany, for which he won a Military Cross.
The defeat of Churchill in the 1945 general election brought the young Eric Edwards to think seriously of politics. Both he and his father forsook the Liberal tradition of the family, and became Conservatives. This was not an altogether pleasing development for the rest of the family, with whom the Liberal tradition was still strong. But Chelmer pursued his conversion to the extent of seeking a Conservative parliamentary nomination. He failed to get the party vote in Southend but, in his determined way, went on to serve the party in many voluntary capacities. The Liberal past of his family and that of his school, Felsted, were quickly forgotten.
As he rose steadily through the ranks of the voluntary side of his party he attracted the attention of Harold Macmillan, always a brilliant spotter of talent. The Tory party was chronically short of funds, and Chelmer devised - in his capacity as deputy party chairman - a scheme by which at each party conference a list would be posted of quotas of subscription (all quotas were devised by himself and Oliver Poole, the first Lord Poole) so that it could be seen which constituencies had come up to the mark, and which had not. It was, like Chelmer himself, simple, with a certain obvious charm, and brutal. It was later to be developed into a more elaborate system of elegant intimidation by Lord Carrington when he was chairman of the party.
Important though all this was, however, Chelmer's most crucial role in politics was played out in 1963, when Harold Macmillan decided that his health would not allow him to continue as Prime Minister. Historians still dispute what, exactly, Macmillan's motives were, and what manoeuvres he undertook. Macmillan at one time or another supported Reginald Maudling, Iain Macleod and Quintin Hailsham as his successor: his one settled view was that R.A. Butler should not succeed him. His choice, finally, was for the Earl of Home. Two people, the late Margaret Shepherd, then Chairman of the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations, and Chelmer, were despatched independently to sound out opinion and come back with the right answer. Chelmer was also sent by Macmillan to see Home, and inquire about his health (he had suffered tuberculosis in the 1930s and there were still worries about his fitness): the answer was satisfactory, both to Macmillan and to Chelmer.
As Macleod was later, caustically, to observe, it was no great surprise to find that Chelmer (who had been ennobled by Macmillan) reported that Conservative peers were overwhelmingly in favour of the then Lord Home as Macmillan's successor. But it is fair to say that Chelmer, with his background as a voluntary local Conservative worker, also trawled more than noble opinion. "The fact of the matter," he said to George Hutchinson and myself, "is that Tories love a lord."
Apart from his political influence, however, Chelmer had a wide range of financial and sporting concerns. He was on the boards of many companies, and he loved sailing. Regarded by many as a prototype of Machiavelli, he was regarded by others as the essence of geniality: he was probably both.
Eric Cyril Boyd Edward, political party worker: born 9 October 1914; MC 1944; Kt 1954; Chairman, National Executive Committee of Conservative and Unionist Associations 1957-65; Joint Treasurer, Conservative Party 1965-77; created 1963 Baron Chelmer; married 1939 Enid Harvey (one son); died 3 March 1997.
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