Obituary: Lord Newton

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The Independent Online
Peter Richard Legh, politician, born 6 April 1915, MP (Conservative) Petersfield 1951-60, PPS to Financial Secretary to the Treasury 1952-53, Assistant Government Whip 1953-55, a Lord Commissioner of the Treasury 1955-57, Vice-Chamberlain of the Household 1957-59, Treasurer of the Household 1959-60, succeeded 1960 as fourth Baron Newton, Captain Yeomen of the Guard and Government Assistant Chief Whip 1960-62, (Joint) Parliamentary Secretary Ministry of Health 1962-64, Minister of State for Education and Science 1964, married 1948 Priscilla Viscountess Wolmer (nee Egerton-Warburton; two sons), died 16 June 1992.

PETER NEWTON was one of those politicians who are natural whips. Though he held junior office both in the Department of Health and the Treasury he was most at home occupying such offices redolent of history as Lord Commissioner of the Treasury and Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard - not to mention Treasurer of the Household. All these titles are discreet, and dignified, covers for men (and, very occasionally, women) whose job it is to quell rebellion among either MPs or peers, and make sure of a maximum turnout of government (or opposition) supporters when the issue of the moment requires it. Newton, having been a Major in the Grenadier Guards in the Second World War, was admirably suited to the tasks that befell him in his later political life.

Peter Legh was the fourth baron of his line. He went to Eton and, later, to Christ Church, Oxford. He was always a steady and reliable, rather than a brilliant, performer in anything he undertook. But reliability is not, after all, a quality to be despised. When he joined the Army he rose steadily and, the war being over, entered politics. It was inconceivable that he would be other than a Conservative.

Having served in minor offices - and most notably as a whip - in the House of Commons, he succeeded his father in 1960. He had a brief moment of near glory when he became Minister of State for Education in April 1964: but the Conservative Party lost the general election in October of that year, and Newton's ministerial career was over.

Parliamentary whips are a curious political breed. The old cliche of the velvet glove and the iron fist might well have been designed for them. Most whips start young, and are eager to move on to better things, the present Prime Minister being a perfect example. A really good whip's office has men with the ability to be both persuasive and tough. Newton was of the latter disposition.

But he had other facets to his personality. He was as enthusiastic a photographer as Denis Healey. He loved to repair old clocks; and he invented Heath-Robinson-style gadgets. Like many who present a stern face to the public, Peter Newton had an endearing side to him.

British politics in general has always had an endearing whiff of eccentricity about it. This is not only true of Conservatives: one has only to think of Roy Mason's penchant for designing ties to realise that the attraction of the odd cuts across party boundaries. However, it is surely appropriate that a party whip, for whom timing is all, should have had an interest in repairing clocks.

(Photograph omitted)