The maverick with 'five ideas: four good, one mad'

YOU WOULD not expect to see a former transport and Northern Ireland minister champion the cause of the road protesters and those accused of terrorism, but not all ex-ministers are like Peter Bottomley.

Last week his opposition to the proposed development at Oxleas Wood and his support for the campaign to free John Matthews were vindicated within two days. The Government announced that it would not now build a road through the ancient wood and charges against Mr Matthews over the hijacking of a taxi that exploded in London were dropped.

The successes set a pattern which may be repeated as the husband of the Secretary of State for Health, Virginia Bottomley, carves out a new role on the backbenches. As Mr Bottomley, 48, disarmingly admits: 'They say that I usually have five ideas, four of which are good and one of which is mad; the trouble is I don't know which one it is.'

Certainly he shows no sign of conforming to the stereotypical Tory ex- minister who keeps mum and waits for the knighthood. Perhaps that is because his instincts are as much liberal (small 'l') as conservative. Indeed, his introduction to the Conservative Party appears to have been almost an accident. Chided by his father-in-law for criticising politicians without any involvement himself, he wandered into Smith Square, Westminster, in the early Seventies determined to join a party.

In the event he became a member both of the Transport & General Workers' Union (which shared Transport House with Labour) and of the Conservative Party within an hour. Probably the only Tory MP in the same union as Neil Kinnock, he cheerfully defied the Whips last month to vote against a government measure to make it easier for employers to end collective pay deals.

He entered Parliament in 1975 by winning Woolwich West, and served for nine years on the backbenches championing causes such as child benefit which marked him out as a wet. When the ministerial call came unexpectedly from Mrs Thatcher, he had a pile of congratulatory letters which fell into two categories: those saying 'If you've done it there's hope for anyone' and the rest observing that his appointment proved that Mrs Thatcher did, after all, have a sense of humour.

At Employment he enthusiastically backed equal opportunities for ethnic minorities and at Transport he achieved his highest ministerial profile with a anti-drink-driving offensive.

But the backbenches suit his approach to life. In a long conversation, Mr Bottomley will regale listeners on a wide variety of interests and experiences. But his campaigning enthusiasm illustrates less his scattiness than his delight in surprising colleagues with a range of apparently perverse causes. He revels in being the one-time IRA target worried about injustice to Irish Catholics; the former Tory employment minister anxious to preserve workers' rights; the ex-transport minister alarmed about roadbuilding and the husband of a Cabinet minister willing to dispute hospital-building decisions.

Some colleagues speculate about the conversations between the maverick backbencher and the loyal Cabinet minister. But there appears to be no conflict. He is not a hardened rebel like the Maastricht opponents and has, for example, played the role of conciliator on the transport select committee.

Other Tory MPs look on him benignly although they say his 'obsessions' can get 'well, frankly rather boring'. But the democratic process would be weaker without Tory MPs who decline to toe the line. As for Mr Bottomley, he sees himself as a natural backbencher; after all, a salary worth pounds 75 a day after tax to do the things he thinks important is not, he says, a bad deal.

(Photograph omitted)

Leading article, page 22

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