Political death of the last great Tory aristocrat

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The Independent Online
OFTEN DESCRIBED as the last great Tory "aristo", Viscount Cranborne's demise marks the end of one of the greatest parliamentary dynasties.

The great-great -grandson of the prime minister Lord Salisbury, Lord Cranborne won widespread respect for the way in which he marshalled his troops to inflict defeat after defeat on the Government in the House of Lords.

Yet Robert Michael James Cecil, heir to the Marquesate of Salisbury, carried a sense of noblesse oblige that seems to have finally led to his sacking last night.

Lord Cranborne, "Cranbo" to his friends, became Leader of the House of Lords in 1994, and then opposition Leader after the last election.

Educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, his blue-blood tradition goes back some 400 years and was embodied in the person of Lord Salisbury. His great-great-grandfather was prime minister three times, from 1885- 6, 1886-92 and 1895-1902.

Lord Cranborne, whose full title is Viscount Cranborne and Baron Essendon in the County of Rutland, continued the political tradition of the House of Cecil (motto: "Late, but in earnest") when he was elected as MP for Dorset South in 1979.

Soon after his election he was tipped for high office, but showed little interest in being promoted and gave up his seat after eight years.

Described variously as "quixotic" and "eccentric" by his colleagues, he had achieved notoriety as an MP for offering his services to the mujahedin in Afghanistan resisting the Soviet regime.

A self-confessed right-winger, he had strong connections with Southern Africa. He backed rebel rugby tours to apartheid South Africa.

Lord Cranborne was a doughty defender of the Ulster union, a position that soured his first taste of office. In 1982, he accepted the post of parliamentary private secretary, but was told he could not vote against a Northern Ireland Assembly Bill, to which he was opposed. After a few days he realised his commitment against this measure was so great he felt he had to resign as PPS.

He tired of Parliamentary life and he was not sorry to step down in 1987 to return to Cranborne Manor in Dorset.

His old friend John Major persuaded him to re-enter Parliament in 1992. Mr Major invoked a rarely used Writ of Acceleration to allow his friend to sit in the House of Lords even though his father, the 6th Marquess of Salisbury, was alive.

It appears that Lord Cranborne's commitment to his family's parliamentary tradition finally led to his downfall. His grandfather, the 5th Marquess, gave the family name to the Salisbury Convention in the 1940s. The convention, which states that the House of Lords can only amend, not reject, the will of the House of Commons, took on a very modern relevance just last month.

When the Government lost the European Elections Bill at the end of the last session of Parliament, Lord Cranborne offered what appeared to be a truce by hinting that Tory peers would respect the Convention and not resist further attempts to introduce the legislation.

The peace offer infuriated William Hague, who reversed it the following day. When Lord Cranborne decided to offer a similar deal on Lords reform, Mr Hague decided he had no choice but to sack him.

The Exchange of Letters

This is the text of Mr Hague's letter to Lord Cranborne:

"As you know, at our meeting this afternoon I explained that following the events today I had no option but to require you to step down from your position as Leader of the Conservative Party in the House of Lords.

"It can never be acceptable for a member of the front bench to seek to bring about a change in the policy of the party without the knowledge or agreement of the party leader or the Shadow Cabinet.,

"I believe that the Government's retreat from its election manifesto commitment marks a victory for the Conservative Party's approach to the issue of constitutional reform.

"Labour's concession will make a disastrous Bill somewhat less bad but I do not accept that our party should now simply cease its principled opposition to the Government's proposals. It has always been our position that while we are willing in principle to consider the reform of the House of Lords, we object to a stage one without stage two.

"We have also always said that it is common sense for the Government to wait for its Royal Commission to report before pushing ahead with fundamental changes to Parliament without any clear idea where those changes will end.

"Labour has now abandoned any principle it ever held on the reform of the Lords. That is not a reason for us to abandon ours. As I said to the 1922 Committee this evening, I took this decision with a very heavy heart. Throughout the last 18 months, you have done a remarkable job in holding the Government to account in the Lords and in giving me wise advice and loyal support.

"I want to thank you for that work and also for your years of service to the country and to our party in Government. It is a matter of deep regret to me that today's differences should have arisen."

In his letter to Mr Hague, Lord Cranborne said: "I have enormously enjoyed my time as Leader of this House and Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords and am sorry that it has ended this way. I still believe you will make an outstanding Prime Minister and look forward to watching you repairing the damage Mr Blair is inflicting on this country from a respectful distance."