Obituary: Stephen Milligan
Wednesday 09 February 1994
STEPHEN MILLIGAN had all the qualities required of a successful parliamentarian, including an unquenchable enthusiasm for the workings of politics, a serious approach to issues, fluency in broadcasting and public speaking, and the intellectual capacity to assimilate and analyse large volumes of information. And at the time of his death he had taken the first step on the path to ministerial office as PPS to Jonathan Aitken, the Minister of State for Defence Procurement.
Milligan was never lacking in ambition, but at 45 he might already have progressed much further on this path if he had not delayed his entry into the House of Commons by abandoning the Conservative Party in 1981 to join the SDP. For the next decade he feared that he had 'burnt his boats' with the Tories, as he put it, and it was not until 1992, after returning to his original political home on the Left of the Tory party, that he stood for Parliament and was elected MP for Eastleigh.
Milligan's flirtation with the SDP was one of the few false moves in a driven career in journalism and politics. His election to the House was the fulfilment of a dream he had held since being President of the Oxford Union in 1970, but it had been a delayed fulfilment. He had followed a well-trodden journalistic route to politics via the Economist, the Sunday Times and the BBC, and it was a long-awaited homecoming to find himself in the Commons with colleagues from Oxford University days including Gyles Brandreth and Edwina Currie.
Milligan was born in 1948. His father was Company Secretary of the House of Fraser Group and his mother a ballet teacher. Her death when Stephen was eight years old overshadowed the rest of his life. He was born with a squint for which he was teased as a small boy at school, where he found relief by concentrating hard on his studies. He was educated at Bradfield College, the Berkshire public school, and at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics.
At Oxford a tutor told him that with hard work he could take a First Class degree. Milligan, who had a well-organised rather than an academic mind, doubted this assessment and devoted himself to winning the presidency of the Oxford Union; his successful election was his first demonstration of aptitude for political manoeuvring. It was the end of the Sixties and Milligan was President of the Oxford University Conservative Association at a time of student unrest when university politics were dominated by the Left. He was part of a group who went ahead when political opponents wished to prevent Enoch Powell from addressing a meeting at Oxford Town Hall.
Milligan joined the Economist in 1970, fresh from university. He had a successful career at the magazine and stayed there for 13 years. One of his contemporaries at the Economist was Andrew Neil. Neil was appointed editor of the Sunday Times in 1983, and Milligan followed him there as Foreign Editor in the following year. However, he went to the United States as the paper's Washington Correspondent in 1987. He had presented The World Tonight on Radio 4 in the early Eighties, while still at the Economist, and took the decision during his time in the US to go into television, as the BBC's Europe Correspondent, as a means to getting his face known before breaking into politics.
His break, when it came, was impressive. Despite his past association with the SDP, he was adopted by Eastleigh, near Southampton, his first choice, and a safe seat. Once adopted as a candidate, he went back to the Economist for a year before winning his seat at the last election with a majority of 17,702.
In politics as in journalism Milligan made friends easily and was popular with his contemporaries. He was an ungainly but enthusiastic sportsman: he ran, rowed and played squash and had regular golfing companions. But he was ultimately a very reserved man. He was correct and thorough, he was careful with money, and had a profound sense of right and wrong. He was a creature of habit and attended his local church in London every Sunday. He described himself as being of the professional class, and there was something very English about the reassuring image he gave to voters, that of a competent but worldly-wise solicitor. Yet there was also something very un-English about his unabashed display of seriousness and political ambition.
If politicians can be divided into cavaliers and roundheads, Milligan was very much a roundhead.
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