A 'perfect staff officer' remains dogged by controversy: Cal McCrystal on the unorthodox and unpredictable progress of Michael Mates MP

A REVIEW of Michael Mates's career reveals a soldier temperamentally incapable of being downed by anyone - 'buggers' or no, to repeat the earthy terminology he had engraved on the watch he sent to Asil Nadir. He was one of Michael Heseltine's chief lieutenants in the 1990 Tory leadership battle. But John Major still made him a minister. Now, his capacity to bounce back from adversity will be tested once more as more details emerge of his links with Nadir. Yesterday, the Independent reported that he had accepted the loan of a car from one of Mr Nadir's public relations consultants.

Unlike many other politicians with a high survival rating, Mr Mates does not seem to mind taking risks. In a profession which demands that personal should need be distanced from public advocacy, he has not always behaved predictably. He campaigned for better treatment of British war widows. Then he had an affair with one, leaving his second wife, Rosellen, last year and upsetting constituents.

The most noticeable features of Mr Mates are the lush, black eyebrows that successfully wrestle for supremacy against the lines and clefts in his heavy face. With what seems a muscularity all their own, the eyebrows rise and fall, come together and part again as if to compensate for their owner's impassive countenance and subdued utterance.

Michael John Mates was born in June 1934. His parents - neither of them politically active - separated when Mr Mates was 10 years old. His talent and enthusiasm for music earned him a place at Salisbury Cathedral School and a choral scholarship to King's College, Cambridge, where he joined the Young Conservatives less from political conviction than for the opportunity to 'put your arm round a girl'. He left Cambridge in 1954 without a degree and was, he has recalled, 'dragged into (national service) by the back of my long hair'.

He remained in the Army for the next 20 years, enjoying his professional role in intelligence and planning, not least in Northern Ireland, where he advised the then-floundering Unionist government on security. Called to the Ministry of Defence in 1972, he was handed a letter addressed to the chiefs of staff by the then prime minister, Edward Heath, calling for a contingency plan against terrorism. In response, Colonel Mates set up the Cabinet Office Briefing Room (Cobra), still the Government's most important machinery for handling terrorist emergencies. The experience whetted the officer's appetite for politics.

It was, characteristically, an unorthodox entry, followed by an equally unorthodox progress. Against army regulations he used his leave to campaign, in February 1974, for a friend, General Jacky d'Avigdor-Goldsmid, Conservative MP for Lichfield. Soon afterwards, he applied for the safe Tory seat of Petersfield (now East Hampshire) and, though not even a party member, was selected. 'If you choose me, I promise I'll join,' he said. Perhaps the selection committee was intimidated by those eyebrows. He was 40 when he entered Parliament in the second general election of 1974.

Despite a forbidding appearance and often arrogant mien, Mr Mates has been described as a 'wet': he voted against the Government on charges for optical and dental tests, for example, and he was one of the few Tory MPs who campaigned steadfastly to modify the legislation that introduced the poll tax. This may be one reason why his political progress has been slow. A second reason may be his penchant for backing the wrong horses (Willie Whitelaw and Heseltine) and flogging dead ones, such as his advocacy of hanging for terrorists. A third concerns his private life; he and his first wife, Mary, produced two sons and two daughters before parting, enabling him to marry his former Commons secretary (one daughter) before the arrival of the Falklands war widow 17 years his junior. A fourth reason may be worries about his judgement.

In March 1990, when he was chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, he was accused of a conflict of interest in accepting SGL (Defence) Ltd, lobbyists on defence issues, as a client of his firm, Chelsham Consultants. A Commons select committee subsequently found him guilty of a 'clear breach' of the 'terms and spirit' of rules of disclosure of interests when he failed to tell his committee colleagues of his ties with Link-Miles, makers of flight simulators.

While the word 'flexible' has been applied to him, Mr Mates has occasionally seemed to personify the opposite: irritated by something he read in his local Hampshire newspaper, he refused for several years to be interviewed by its reporters - a rare sacrifice for a politician, even one with a 23,700 majority.

Mr Mates's CV now looks quite impressive. Once described as 'the perfect staff officer', he has chaired the select committee on defence, the Home Affairs select committee and the Anglo-Irish parliamentary group. Now he is a minister in the Northern Ireland office. Dogged by controversy, however - the Prime Minister criticised his conduct but described it as 'not a hanging offence' before the latest disclosures - some think he may have to return to being a 'committee man'. In an earlier controversy he spoke of a 'dirty tricks' campaign against him. In this one he is finding it harder to rise above the 'buggers'.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
New Articles
tvChristmas special reviewed
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all