In a way, the fall of John Wakeham symbolises the on-off, two-steps-forward, one-step-back relationship with capitalism which ministers have been conducting uneasily since 1997. The collapse of Enron, which brought about his temporary departure from the chairmanship of the Press Complaints Commission – though I shall be surprised if he resumes it – is only one of many demonstrations that the 2000s are not the same as the 1980s, the decade when the Blairites formed most of their opinions.
Though this is a perfectly legitimate way of looking at Lord Wakeham's resignation (for it was his own decision), it is not entirely accurate. It is only part of the picture. For he did not occupy the position he did in our polity because he represented international finance or the City. No doubt it helped that he was a millionaire several times over. But he had his place because he was one of those people whom governments trust to undertake jobs that are difficult, dirty or, sometimes, both.
They are usually lawyers. As a fixer, Lord Wakeham's nearest equivalent was perhaps Arnold Goodman. Before him there had been Walter Monckton, who advised Indian maharajas and English kings and was Winston Churchill's peacetime Minister of Labour. In this post Monckton was a notable conciliator, the reason Churchill had appointed him in the first place. When RA Butler, the then Chancellor, telephoned to ask on whose terms a rail strike had been settled, Churchill replied approvingly: "Theirs, of course, old cock.''
There have been other professional conciliators. Lord Radcliffe partitioned India and presided over committees of inquiry into practically everything. In the early 1970s Lord Wilberforce investigated the wages of miners as well as electricians and, adopting Wilfred Pickles's traditional principle of "Give him the money, Barney'', contributed to the demise of the Heath government. The best known chairman of the PCC's forerunner, the Press Council, was Lord Devlin, who had inquired into Central Africans and London dockers and was appointed because the infant council wanted an impressive character at its head.
They were all judges of the highest distinction. Lawyers who have been asked to investigate this or that more recently are Lord Nolan and Lord Neill. Lord Wakeham is not like any of these. He is not a lawyer but an accountant. He did not trouble our ancient universities. He attended Charterhouse as a day boy. His father owned a nearby garage in darkest Surrey. He made his reputation as Margaret Thatcher's Chief Whip and Leader of the House.
What few of those who have written about him in the past few days have chosen to mention is that his wife was killed by the Brighton bomb (he subsequently remarried) and that his own legs were virtually destroyed in that outrage. They were subsequently reconstructed through the skill of military surgeons recommended by Lady Thatcher, who was typically solicitous about his recovery. He deserves credit both for the fortitude he showed during his treatment and for resuming his public career with such enthusiasm. No one could have blamed him if, following his peerage, he had announced he would be writing his memoirs.
It is curious, by the way, that when politicians and others who had previously shown no aptitude for or interest in writing say at a certain stage of their careers that they intend to write, no one considers this ambition at all odd. It is as if I were to announce that I intended to devote my declining years to being a concert pianist or doing a spot of brain surgery on the side. Lord Wakeham, however, would certainly have had an interesting story to tell, if he had chosen to tell it.
When Lady Thatcher fell, he was Secretary of State for Energy. This is not without its importance, for in the penultimate act of the drama he was hindered in his task of organising the lady's campaign for survival. He was busy at a meeting concerned with electricity privatisation. But even if he had not been occupied at the time, it is doubtful whether he would have been able to save her. From the beginning, his heart was not really in the enterprise.
How could it have been? On the Thursday before the first ballot, which was to be held on the following Tuesday, he saw Mr John Gummer and Mr Kenneth Clarke at his room in the House. All three agreed that, unless she won the first ballot, she would have to go: she could not go on to a second ballot, even if that was allowed, as it was, by the rules of the competition. In the event, she won a majority over Mr (as he then was) Michael Heseltine but failed to win it by enough, being four votes short of the "surcharge" required by the party's rules.
Lady Thatcher nevertheless decided to go forward to a second ballot. After several false starts, she fixed on Lord Wakeham to run her campaign. He agreed without enthusiasm. But how could he conscientiously agree at all, having initially taken the view that she should not now be continuing this particular war? At all events, he soon told her that he was unable to assemble a campaign team. It was then agreed that she should see her Cabinet individually on the Wednesday evening at the House.
Last week it was written that this was Lord Wakeham's idea. He certainly agreed to it. But the original wheeze came from the late Peter Morrison, who had been Lady Thatcher's manager in the first ballot. What turned out to be the fatal procession had been intended, in Morrison's words, to "gee them up" to support the Prime Minister. This they conspicuously failed to do.
Lord Wakeham could probably not have saved her, however hard he had tried. But he had placed himself, or allowed himself to be placed, in a false position from the start. All the difficulties which he has tried to overcome at the PCC, all the dilemmas on which he has been impaled, have been as nothing compared to this. My own view is that, together with proprietors, editors, governments and politicians, he has been blamed for matters which the judges could put right tomorrow if they wanted to without the benefit of any specific Act.
This would have been so even before the passing of the Human Rights Act. We have had a law of confidentiality which has been developed by the judges over the last 40 years and followed the Duchess of Argyll's case. And yet they have stubbornly refused to develop a law of privacy, though recently there have been a few tentative steps in that direction. We should not blame Lord Wakeham for failing to do a job which is for Her Majesty's judges.Reuse content