A fearless original who always did it his way: Charles Powell looks back with affection on the life and beliefs of Nicholas Ridley

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TO A CIVIL servant in a unique position to observe the Conservative cabinets of the 1980s at close quarters, Nick Ridley stood out a mile. He fitted none of the pigeonholes of politics. He was an original. One wondered sometimes whether he was not a ghost of cabinets past, who had lingered unseen in No 10 to re-emerge a couple of centuries later. A patrician, a countryman, a man of wide intellectual interests and artistic talent, he seemed to belong more to an 18th century than a 20th century cabinet.

There was clearly much more to his life than politics or office. This allowed him a cavalier attitude towards his own political fortunes, which was ultimately his undoing. But it made him a much more interesting and independent figure than the simple office-seekers.

No one would claim, least of all Nick himself, that he had the popular touch. He must have been the despair of departmental press officers. I confess that we viewed him with trepidation as well as affection from No Ten, as an unexploded bomb likely to go off at any moment. He hated blandness and soothing cliches. He relished baiting the House of Commons and biting the ankles of television pundits. Yet he was fearless in bringing difficult issues into the open. And his corrosively witty attacks on the lunacies of left-wing councils exposed a problem as damaging to people's lives as over-weening trade union power in the Sixties and Seventies.

Nick was visibly an uncomfortable colleague for many in the cabinet. His mind was as angular as his body, his thinking rigorous, his logic remorseless. He was the intellectual flail that many a time goaded the Government to stay true to its principles rather than slide into comfortable fudges. Not a recipe for popularity but a vital role in a radical government. The other side of the coin was his creativity. As a mathematician and engineer, he was one of the few practical men in government and he relished solving problems, great and small.

After No Ten had reached impasse with the artistic thought police over the design of the gates for the end of Downing Street, he simply took a piece of paper and designed them himself. On a bigger scale, he was the moving spirit behind privatisation, itself one of the most creative and copied policies of the Thatcher era.

Indeed, alongside Keith Joseph, he was one of the main inspirations of Thatcherism as well as one of her most loyal supporters in implementing it. If she wished to restock her arguments and rekindle her determination in some bruising Whitehall policy debate, there was no better way than an hour with Nick Ridley.

His own account of those years in My Style of Government is, to my mind, the most lucid explanation to date of the philosophy of Mrs Thatcher's governments.

Nick's resignation over publication of unguarded comments on Germany still seems an awful waste. He had broken the rules of diplomatic good conduct. But that is hardly a hanging offence. The real reason lay less in German dudgeon than in the mounting polarisation over Europe within the Conservative Party. In their battle, he was a knight who had to be sacrificed to protect the queen. But there is no doubt that his departure knocked away one of the main pillars of Mrs Thatcher's support in the cabinet, as damaging for her position as the loss of Willie Whitelaw.

There were many contradictions to Nick's career. He knew more about the countryside and its pursuits than almost anyone, yet was routinely reviled by the so-called Greens.

He was capable of irritating his cabinet colleagues beyond reason, yet attracted enormous loyalty from all his junior ministers, above all by trusting them to get on with the job in hand and supporting them to the hilt when they needed it.

He was determined to reduce government intervention and the role of Whitehall - witness his comment when appointed Secretary of State for Trade and Industry - 'Damn all to do and 20,000 civil servants to help me do it' - yet was liked and admired by his officials.

An artistic, sensitive and courteous man, he became the hate object of the politically correct and the trendy left - and relished the role.

The pain which he endured over the last two years is known only to those closest to him, above all Judy, whose love and devotion helped him to endure it. It did not blunt his wonderfully clear and sharp mind or diminish the vigour with which he pushed the campaign against the ERM and Maastricht.

But it finally wore him down. Last Tuesday, he wrote his last article, tidied away his papers and said with simple finality: 'I can do no more'. That's something you are only entitled to say when you have done as much as Nick did.

Sir Charles Powell was private secretary to the Prime Minister, 1984-91

(Photograph omitted)