A 'perfect staff officer' remains dogged by controversy: Cal McCrystal on the unorthodox and unpredictable progress of Michael Mates MP
Sunday 20 June 1993
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'.
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