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Obituary: Sir Nicholas Baker

The West Country is normally thought of by political commentators as a Liberal (or, nowadays, Liberal Democrat) stronghold. But there was a time, not long ago, when the Conservative Party could boast of a heartland within the stronghold. That was when three Tory MPs held adjoining constituencies and were, besides, close personal friends. The three were Nicholas Baker, Robert (Viscount) Cranborne and James (now Sir James) Spicer.

They were an unlikely trio of musketeers. Cranborne and Spicer are outgoing and - some might say - flamboyant characters. Baker was a much more reserved man. He and his wife, Carol, were evangelical Christians. Cranborne resigned his parliamentary seat in 1987, only to come, at the behest of John Major, to the House of Lords as a senior minister. Spicer is not standing again for Parliament. And, on Saturday, Sir Nicholas Baker (he was named in the New Year's honours list and knighted last month) died after a protracted struggle with cancer. Thus has the heartland been broken.

Nicholas Baker was the son of a distinguished soldier. He, himself, served in the King's African Rifles, after he had graduated from Exeter College, Oxford. He was always a somewhat ascetic man; and one of the meeting points between himself and James Spicer was their shared liking for physical exercise. Spicer founded the gymnasium in the House of Commons. Baker was an enthusiastic participant: after all, he did swim 93 lengths of the RAC pool. He was also an enthusiastic squash player, and competed regularly with Jeffrey Archer.

Baker trained as a solicitor. Having been editor of Oxford Tory in 1960, he set his eyes, like many of his ilk, on Conservative parliamentary preferment. Shortly after entering the House of Commons - at the general election of 1979 - he secured appointment as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the then Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Peter Blaker, and later as PPS to the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, Geoffrey Pattie, the Minister of State for Defence, Michael Heseltine, and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Lord Young.

His most significant job, however, was as junior minister in the Home Office from 1994 to 1995. In that position he was charged with responsibility for policy on immigration. Unlike many other ministers - of either party - he undertook personally to review every single application of right of residence in the United Kingdom. It was also true that, as minister, he was hostile to a generous immigration policy, particularly from the Commonwealth, but his meticulous attention to decency meant that any application for residency would be carefully considered by the man in charge.

Baker held several posts in government, though none of them was senior. But, in his party, he did serve, for some time, as the main pairing whip: a pairing whip's job is to ensure that when a Member of any party either wants to be away from the House of Commons or is obliged by illness or dis-tress to be away, that Member has made arrangements for a Member of an opposing party not to vote. Baker was renowned for his consideration for the problems of Members, either on his own side of the House or the other: it is as a kind, gentle, man that he will be remembered.

As Sir James Spicer, one of that West Country triumvirate, said yesterday, "He was the straightest man I have ever met in politics."

Patrick Cosgrave

Nicholas Brian Baker, solicitor and politician: born 23 November 1938; partner, Frere Cholmeley (Frere Cholmeley Bischoff) 1973-94; MP (Conservative) for North Dorset 1979-97; PPS to Minister of State for the Armed Forces 1981-83, to Minister of State for Defence Procurement 1983-84, to Secretary of State for Defence 1984-86, to Secretary of State for Trade and Industry 1987-88; an Assistant Government Whip 1989-90; a Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury (Government Whip) 1990-94; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office 1994-95; Kt 1997; married 1970 Carol d'Abo (one son, one daughter); died 25 April 1997.