Courtiers down the centuries

Profile Robert Cranborne: His ancestor brokered the succession of James l now he's in charge of no 10.
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The Independent Online
The last time John Major confronted political nemesis, on the sunny summer afternoon of the leadership contest in 1995, two Tory toffs were on call to steady his nerves. In the Prime Minister's House of Commons room Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, insisted that even if more than 100 Conservative MPs withheld their support, Mr Major must simply go out and claim victory. The message was reinforced by the other, even grander confidante, Lord Cranborne, who then performed a practical service - gently reminding the Prime Minister that he had only 30 minutes left to cast his own vote.

Robert Cranborne will hardly have been overawed by the occasion. His family, the Cecils, has been represented at many of the nation's historical occasions, often of a rather grander order than this. A Cecil, for example, brokered the succession from Elizabeth I of James I (conducting the talks while the queen was still alive); another Cecil, the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, was prime minister three times and the last man to lead the country from the House of Lords, and a Cecil (the 5th Marquess) was the "kingmaker" at the heart of the "magic circle" which chose the Conservative Party leader in the 1950s.

At least for a few weeks more, a Cecil is in a position the family knows well: very close to the seat of power. It may be a slight exaggeration to say that he is running the government, but Lord Cranborne, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the Lords, is spending the election as chief of staff at No 10 Downing Street. The peer, who has emerged as something of an icon to the Conservative right, is not only the link between Central Office and No 10, but has day-to-day responsibility for the latter.

Mr Major, who famously set out to create a classless society, sees his friendship with Lord Cranborne as a symbol of the Conservative Party's ability to straddle social divides. Less charitable colleagues place on it a different gloss. As one (well-bred) Tory puts it: "Robert has a remarkably close relationship with the Prime Minister. He is an engaging figure with considerable charm. People rather like glimpsing into his solid, English, aristo world of which they are not a part. They find it rather intoxicating. The truth is that they all fall for the toffs - even Thatcher fell for Ridley."

The upbringing of Robert Cecil could hardly be further removed from the Coldharbour Lane of Mr Major's Brixton youth. Cranborne Manor in Dorset is smaller than the magnificent family seat - Hatfield House in Hertfordshire - but parts of it are actually older dating back to the 12th century. His education was from the top drawer: Eton, Christ Church, Oxford, then the Grenadier Guards. Contemporaries remember him as a "solid middle ranker" at school or university, although there was a considerable glamour attached to the family name. Robert lived up to it; his 21st birthday party at Hatfield House is still remembered by many of the several hundred guests.

There was no obvious political drive, none of the Oxford Union politicking of would-be MPs, but there was a strong relationship with his grandfather, "Bobbety" - the legendary kingmaker of the Tory party. In honour of him he abandoned his first name, James, in favour of Robert, which had been a second name.

After the Guards it was the City and in 1970 he married, causing a family crisis because his bride, Hannah Stirling (daughter of the founder of the SAS), was a Roman Catholic. The Cecils take the defence of Protestantism and the Church of England seriously and Robert's mother, Mollie, took time to be reconciled. A compromise was reached and the two sons (the "heir and the spare") were brought up as Anglicans, the three daughters as Roman Catholics.

In 1978 domestic calm was shattered when Lord Cranborne's brother Richard was killed by guerrillas while filming in Rhodesia. The family were strong supporters of the white settlers - the name of the country's capital, Salisbury (after the 3rd Marquess), giving away the connection. Robert went to Africa to try to find out how his brother died. His brother's death seems only to have reinforced his public support for the whites. During the 1980s he helped organise a secret meeting between Ian Smith and Tory MPs, and backed sporting links with apartheid South Africa.

For a decade Lord Cranborne had a habit of turning up in war zones, places he found intriguing, according to friends, because of his fascination with military history. Often visits were combined with business trips. He is thought to have done well financially during the 1970s although, as one observer remarks, "it's almost impossible to know with that family who's inherited and who's made money". Friends see him as a sort of 19th- century Romantic figure, popping up in support of the mujahedin's opposition to Soviet expansionism or to back Polish dissidents.

Next, and partly by chance, came the House of Commons. Lord Cranborne did not go courting far-off constituency associations, let alone fight a hopeless seat to blood himself. But the South Dorset nomination fell vacant and he won it, entering the Commons in 1979 at the age of 32.

His Commons career was not a success. Being a Cecil he approached life in a rather different way to his ambitious colleagues. As one Conservative contemporary explains: "He has a rather different pulse rate from your average, ambitious MP and was not someone the whips could easily deal with. The normal inducements of foreign travel, promotion did not apply."

Ironically, for someone now seen as a champion of the right, he did not prosper under Margaret Thatcher, perhaps because his Toryism is of a more "trad right" hue. The issue that brought matters to a head was Northern Ireland. Inevitably there was history here: the 3rd Marquess, for example, lead the Tories in opposition to Gladstone's Home Rule Bill. Lord Cranborne (who had gravitated towards pro-Unionist figures such as Ian Gow) decided he could not stomach Jim Prior's rolling devolution proposals and resigned after just a year as a parliamentary private secretary to Douglas Hurd. Mrs Thatcher never promoted him again and, bored by backbench life and disillusioned by the Anglo-Irish Agreement, he decided not to stand in 1987.

But eight years in the Commons had not been wasted. For one thing Lord Cranborne had become good friends with a Conservative MP of more humble origins who was to go on to become the Prime Minister. The connection was the "Blue Chip" dining group, a collection of rather toffish, slightly leftish Conservatives who met at Tristan Garel-Jones's home in Catherine Place every second Thursday. Mr Major joined later in the 1979 parliament and got on well with Lord Cranborne who, far from patronising the young MP, invited him to Cranborne for the weekend. As one colleague says: "Aristos don't have to be snobs because they are at the top. Robert certainly does not put on airs." This fact has not completely obliterated the sensitivity about his background for which the Prime Minister is, perhaps understandably, renowned. Inviting Lord Cranborne to his Downing Street flat, Mr Major has more than once apologised for bringing a man used to inhabiting the great houses of England to such humble surroundings.

When John Major won the last election he speeded Lord Cranborne into the House of Lords and, after a mere two years as a defence minister in the Lords (salvaging the VE-Day span-fritters fiasco), he was catapulted into the Cabinet with a direct line to the premier. Mr Major relies on him for advice, knowing that, unlike most of the other ministers around him, Lord Cranborne, who will never be party leader, is not a threat. He has thrown himself with enthusiasm into the job of leading the Lords. His defence of the institution as a bastion of democracy last year startled a few but in private he has pushed for evolutionary reform of the upper chamber. Meanwhile, his political salon at Cranborne Manor, and in London, attracts many of the most colourful right-wing thinkers, with a sprinkling of hard-line Unionists from the organisation he helped to found, the Friends of the Union. Many colleagues admire his determination to get close to the top of the political tree. As one says: "If you have, on paper, everything people might aspire to in terms of houses and kit, then you can either loll about or bring yourself to be useful. He chose the latter course, he takes his position both seriously and as an obligation."

It has not, however, gone unnoticed on the right of the party that, while being seen as a champion of many of their causes, Lord Cranborne has remained closer than most to the prime minister they vilify. One or two critics are given to quoting Lord David Cecil's verdict that people respect the Cecils but they are not influenced by them. A member of the Northern Ireland Cabinet committee, Lord Cranborne considered resigning over the Joint Framework Document proposing a new relationship between north and south, but - so the rumour goes - was talked out of it by the Chief Whip, Lord Strathclyde. Although the Irish government suspected him of leaking some of the document to the Times, that was not the case; the draft that went astray had not been sent to him. He is a fierce Eurosceptic, who, despite speaking excellent French, sincerely prefers Dorset to the Dordogne. Yet he has not actively engaged with the parliamentary sceptics; as one ally puts it: "Cranborne is viscerally of the right in the traditional sense of the word, but if they think he is going to sit up late at night with Bill Cash making some list of Brussels derogations, they'd better think again."

Cranborne dinners centre on good conversation and are convened for those ends, rather than for reaching a political objective. If he is a plotter, it is as a courtier rather than a politician. He practises politics only in the rather detached manner of someone who knows that his historical duties have been fulfilled and that he can always return to cultivate a rather substantial garden. "His agenda," says a close friend, "is rather different from the normal one. It looks 100 years ahead." If, as is likely, Lord Cranborne finds himself consoling the Prime Minister in the early hours of 2 May, a sense of historical perspective may come in handy.

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