The Cabinet Reshuffle: Peer's role to keep Tory rebels at bay: Viscount Cranborne is set to be powerbroker in the Lords, Patricia Wynn Davies reports

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The Independent Online
THE NEW Lord Privy Seal, or Leader of the Lords, is a friend of John Major but as the heir to a marquessate is hardly an archetypal member of the Prime Minister's 'classless' society.

Yet the promotion of the Viscount Cranborne - official title Lord Cecil of Essenden - is not without rhyme or reason.

For the 1992 post-election reshuffle, Mr Major thought enough of him to issue a Writ in Acceleration calling him up in his father's barony to sit in the Lords as if his father, the 6th Marquess of Salisbury, had already died.

The short-cut procedure - invoked only three times in the past 300 years, once in relation to his grandfather - would not have been open to a peer of lesser rank. Viscount Cranborne is a courtesy title for the barony, created in 1603.

Mr Major made him a junior defence minister. One of his most recent tasks was to visit Malaysia to help heal the Pergau dam trade rift, while his most embarrassing was handling flak over the D-Day anniversary debacle.

Links between the two men had been forged several years earlier.

Robert Gascoigne-Cecil, or Cranborne, was a founder member of the 'wet' Blue Chip dining club in 1979. Fortunately for Mr Major, he was not invited to join until 1985 when it had ceased to be a focus for anti-Thatcherism.

Critics of the entire apparatus of the upper House might dub the 47-year-old baron a blue-blooded queue jumper, but the new job is not meant to be a soft option.

Admittedly shorn of the outgoing Lord Wakeham's chairmanships of Cabinet committees now passed to David Hunt in his new 'fixer' role, the viscount will be ultimately responsible for ensuring there is no re-run of embarrassing government defeats on the scale of those dished out by Conservative rebels in recent times.

Viscount Cranborne's grandfather, likewise propelled into service by a Writ of Acceleration, went on to become a renowned Conservative powerbroker in the Lords.

John Major doubtless has similar intentions in relation to the grandson.

In Viscount Cranborne's case, however, the rigmarole requiring the Queen's approval would not have been needed had he not resigned as MP for Dorset South in 1987 because of his opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

With the late Ian Gow, he founded Friends of the Union to press the cause of Northern Ireland Unionists.

Eton and Oxford educated, he and his wife Hannah live at the 15th century Cranborne Manor, in Dorset. They have two sons and three daughters.

(Photograph omitted)