Obituray: Sir Kenneth Lewis

Had Parliamentary Question Time been televised during the 28 years, 1959-87, that Kenneth Lewis was a Member of the House of Commons, I do not doubt that he would have established a national reputation as a "character". He was always direct, usually provocative, sometimes witty, and, it has to be said, occasionally utterly ridiculous. And, as the prospect for ministerial office for which he craved waned, he became more and more irreverent towards his front bench.

Perhaps the first question that I heard him ask encapsulated his difficulty. Hansard for 17 July 1962 records it. Mr K. Lewis asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies how many colonies or protectorates having populations of 25,000 or less came within the control of his department; and how many were in size less than 151 square miles? The minister, the formidable and lugubrious Duncan Sandys, answered coldly: "The answers to the two parts of the question are seven and 13 respectively."

Cheekily, Kenneth Lewis:

Is my Right Hon Friend aware that I find it quite interesting that there should be so many countries for which his departmemt is responsible none of which is larger than Rutland? Since we have a local inquiry this week to consider the independence of that county will my Right Hon Friend bear in mind, and persuade his colleagues to bear in mind, that if there is a threat to the independence of Rutland we shall put up as big a fight as the colonies put up when they seek their independence?

Mr Speaker (Sir Harry Hylton-Foster QC) rose:

Despite the present duties of the minister I do not think that they cover that field.

Cryogenically, Sandys:

I do not think it is any use comparing an English county with a Pacific island.

Such a style did not enchant the powers that were in the Conservative Party. Lewis never let his fellow Members forget, "When I am in the middle of my constituency I am naturally surrounded by it. But when I am in this House, I am also surrounded by my constituency, for this building is made of Clipsham stone." He over-egged the Rutland pudding and damaged himself in the process by giving his colleagues food for ribaldry. That he never became a minister was, however, an ill-conceived grievance.

Lewis ascribed his fate, probably correctly, to the fact that he was very much a self-made man; as he would put it, "out of the wrong stable". He once told me that he felt more at home in the company of Labour MPs than that of many of his Conservative colleagues.

My first proper conversation with him was in July 1962 when he had famously and publicly complained that there were too many Old Etonians in the Tory Cabinet after "The Night of the Long Knives" - when Harold Macmillan sacked half his Cabinet but, Harold Wilson memorably put it, "the wrong half".

Lewis observed shrewdly to me that it was much more difficult to be a working-class Tory, like himself or Ray Mawby in the Tory Party, than to be, like me, an Old Etonian in the Labour Party. I found this to be profoundly true.

Kenneth Lewis was born in Jarrow, the son of a Labour-supporting Tyneside shipfitter and a Tory-supporting mother. After council school in Jarrow he went to Edinburgh University and gained a certificate in Industrial Law and Labour Management, which in turn gained him a job as a labour manager in the engineering firm of Hawthorne Leslie from 1939 to 1941. A formative influence was the secretaryship in 1932 and the chairmanship in 1935 of Jarrow Young Conservatives, which gave him a cautious approach to industrial relations and caused him to challenge the distinction between manual workers who were paid cash and office workers who were paid by cheque.

He joined the Royal Air Force and from 1942 to 1946 was flying with Pathfinders as an air gunner. He ended up the Second World War as a Flight Lieutenant. Later he was to tell the Commons that as an aircraftman he often had to queue up on pay parade and "I never thought that the bullion we received quite justified the `bull' that was involved in getting it". He entered the travel business, contesting in uniform the Newton-le-Willows constituency in 1945.

In 1950 he returned to Newton-le-Willows to be beaten by the future Labour cabinet minister Fred Lee and in the following year he fell in Ashton-under-Lyne to Harvey Rhodes.

To the surprise of many, in 1967 he was selected to succeed Sir Roger Conant, Eton and the Guards and a former Comptroller of the Household, in Rutland and Stamford. At the 1959 election he defeated Christopher Attlee, a nephew of the former Labour prime minister, by 4,941 votes.

Making his maiden speech on 28 January 1960, Lewis told the House that he hadn't always had a connection with the broad acres of Rutland. He knew well the confined areas of the industrial North and the "grimed environment" to be found there:

Like many, I have for some years picked up my wages in cash. I remember that when I first began to get them I was rather puzzled because they were split into wages or offtakes and it often occurred to me that if they paid me the offtakes and kept the wages I would be much better off.

His experience as a Middlesex county councillor since May 1949 was put to good use in the many discussions of the time on local government. However, Lewis espoused a number of liberal causes which were less than popular in the Conservative Party, urging the freeing of Jomo Kenyatta and the independence of Kenya in June 1961. He abstained from supporting Harold Macmillan on the Profumo scandal of June 1963, but was one of the most vociferous in opposing Sydney Silverman's anti-hanging Bill of December 1964. He backed Harold Wilson in sanctions against Rhodesia in 1965.

In 1973 he warned Ted Heath that he would have to change his leadership style and told the 1922 Committee that Heath's leadership was a "leasehold" and not a "freehold". He was one of Mrs Thatcher's strongest supporters at her election in January 1975.

After he retired Lewis continued to urge the cause of men and women entering Parliament who had had lives other than politics. He deplored the change that has taken place in recent years by which too many politicians have become professionals.

Those who selected parliamentary candidates, he thought, should consider how best they could provide the House of Commons with MPs of experience, maturity and achievement wider than a university campus or that of being a political researcher. The nation needed in Parliament a broad cross- section of men and women involved in the various activities which make up our national life. Replacement candidates for the Conservative Party in the safer seats seemed to him to be somewhat identikit male Oxbridge barristers, former advisers to ministers or Downing Street with not much sign of a cross-section or knowledge and experience of business and industry on which the country, Lewis thought, depended.

I will always think of him as a man of independent mind, who in his last parliamentary term abstained against the union ban at GCHQ and urged his government to understand the aspirations of working people.

In the opinion of a number of his contemporaries the House of Commons was the poorer without him.

Kenneth Lewis, politician: born Jarrow 1 July 1916; MP (Conservative) for Rutland and Stamford 1959-83, for Stamford and Spalding 1983-87; Kt 1983; married 1948 Jane Pearson (died 1991; one son, one daughter); died Oakham, Rutland 2 July 1997.

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