Decision to depart aimed at pre-empting talk of sacking: Colin Brown looks at the career of a politician regarded by friends as a 'safe pair of hands'

THE TIMING of Sir Norman Fowler's statement yesterday that he was bowing out as Tory chairman avoided giving the impression that he had been sacked.

During his two years at Conservative Central Office, the Tories have been reduced to control of one county council, were heavily defeated in the local elections, lost safe Tory seats in Newbury, Christchurch and Eastleigh, and have had their seats reduced from 32 to 18 in the European elections.

Critics in the party called him 'Fowlup' and lobbied for him to be sacked for presentational failures that have contributed to the Conservatives' record low standing in the polls and a string of defeats. His friends said such criticism was extremely unfair. Sir Norman, they said, transformed the party's management and could not be blamed for the splits over Europe and the recession.

Sir Norman stood by John Major throughout the 1992 general election and proved the polls wrong - the Tories were returned with a record total of 14 million votes. After the election, a grateful Mr Major made him chairman, but he inherited a deficit of pounds 19m from his predecessor Chris Patten, now Governor of Hong Kong. He has reduced the debt to pounds 16m, by halving the staff and slashing spending on campaigns, to produce a surplus for the year of pounds 2m.

A former home affairs correspondent for the Times, Sir Norman first made his mark as transport minister (1979-81) by privatising the National Freight Corporation (NFC). He was also responsible for allowing service- station hoardings on motorways.

As Secretary of State for Social Services (1981-87), he was responsible for introducing in-line management in hospitals and far- reaching changes to pensions, including opting out of Serps. As Secretary of State for Employment (1987-90), he privatised the dock labour scheme.

He never made it to one of the top Cabinet jobs but coveted the post of Home Secretary.

He surprised colleagues by retiring from Baroness Thatcher's Cabinet before her downfall, 'to spend more time with my family'. Two years later, he came back to lead Mr Major's election campaign. This time, critics say, he is retiring to spend more time with his directorships, which include the NFC that he privatised, a quarrying group, and Midland Newspapers. He resigned last year from a directorship of Group Four, the security firm.

He leaves politics with a reputation as a safe pair of hands. Former civil servants said he had 'rat-like cunning' in avoiding pitfalls. Critics say he passed the ticking parcel to colleagues before it blew up. That view is dismissed by friends. 'He is a highly competent, professional politician,' said one party source. 'He is quite a shy man and a team player. He is not an ideologue.'

The Euro elections were the worst national defeat for the Tories since the war, but they held more seats than expected. The campaign, attacked as Euro-sceptic in tone, was largely responsible for shoring up Tory support, and for rescuing the party from a fatal bout of panic. That may be Sir Norman's lasting gift to his party.