Profile: An impeccable player: Francis Urquhart: Is this Prime Minister a Machiavelli or a Macbeth? Andrew Davies ponders his record

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'IF EVERY nation gets the leaders it deserves, what in God's name have we done to deserve Francis Urquhart?' The words, uttered with an involuntary glance over the shoulder, were spoken by one of the Prime Minister's former cabinet colleagues, who - not unsurprisingly - was anxious not to be identified. It is indeed very difficult to find anyone who will go on the record with criticism of the Rt Hon Francis Urquhart. He has always commanded a healthy respect from friend and foe alike. Now, having solidly established his domination over both wets and dries and delivered a majority of more than 100 for his party in the 'Firm Government' election of 1995, Urquhart commands something more than respect - something that looks at times remarkably like - well, perhaps 'terror' is too strong a word, but 'awe' is hardly adequate.

Certainly he appears to have destroyed the morale of the Opposition front bench. Anyone who has been in the press gallery and watched him rise languidly to the dispatch box, smiling gently at his opponent, finds their thoughts turning to images of rabbits caught in headlights. And the headlights are those of a Rolls-Royce. There seems to be something inevitable, inexorable, about his smooth, unhurried, apparently irresistible progress. One would have to be very brave, or very foolish, to stand in the path of a man such as this.

His pedigree is impeccable, perhaps too impeccable in this day and age. Francis Ewan Urquhart was born in 1936 and is the younger son of the Earl of Bruichcladdich. His elder brother William, the present Earl, runs the vast family estate and sits (very occasionally) in the Upper House. Francis was educated at Fettes, where he is remembered as diligent and industrious rather than brilliant. He was, however, head of house there, and is remembered as having run a very tight ship indeed. (In his days as Chief Whip he was known to remark that it was 'all very much like being a school prefect - pat on the shoulder here, word in the ear there, sharp kick up the backside where indicated.')

At 18 (this was still the time of national service) he took a short service commission in the Army. He spent the bulk of his three years in Cyprus, hunting, capturing and interrogating terrorists. A fellow officer at the time remarked laconically that Francis had 'a remarkable aptitude for the work and a remarkable taste for it too'. He was commended for bravery, and a distinguished Army career seemed on the cards. But he resigned his commission - it is said in distress, when a colleague was court-martialled after the accidental death of a suspect in custody - and returned to take up a deferred place at Oxford reading History. He narrowly missed his First, but stayed on to teach and research in Renaissance Italian History. He was, and still is, an acknowledged expert on the Medicis and his monograph on Machiavelli is still required reading.

Friends say that reading is still his principal means of relaxation. He is a lover of - and expert in - Italian Renaissance poetry and Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. Webster and Tourneur are particular favourites, but the writer he quotes most frequently is Shakespeare, and the play Macbeth. He has few other interests outside politics, and though he is an expert shot, he is infrequently glimpsed on the grouse moors these days.

He entered politics relatively late, and when asked why he left a comfortable academic life, he says with characteristic modesty: 'I could see that there were things that needed to be done, and I thought I might be able to help.' Francis Urquhart has a charming line in self-deprecation. He has said on more than one occasion: 'I'd never claim to be a clever man - I should like to be thought of as a wise man, but I'm afraid the best they're likely to say about me is that I was a sound man.' Most of those who know him think be is a very clever man indeed, not least in his ability to disguise it.

He has always been a well-respected man, and rose steadily to the position of Chief Whip, where his skills were legendary. Few people saw the leadership potential in those years - he was usually described as a formidably efficient party functionary and a good man in a tight spot. If he harboured strong political views in those days, he kept them very close to his chest. 'FU worked like a tiger for Charles Collingridge (then prime minister) until poor Charlie's position was untenable, and even after that he held back. I don't think he particularly wanted to be leader really - he just realised that he was the only man who could kick the bloody country back into shape.' Thus the Rt Hon Timothy Stamper, the Prime Minister's oldest political friend, and now Chief Whip in his turn.

Charles Collingridge was once described as 'that nice man who talked about the classless society and never got anything done because he was too anxious to be liked'. One thing no one has ever said about Francis Urquhart is that he is over-anxious to be liked - it is said that he relishes the 'Eff You]' soubriquet bestowed on him by the tabloids.

Urquhart is fond of saying he is a straightforward old-fashioned no-nonsense Tory. That is true as far as it goes, but it is a gross oversimplification. He has harnessed the instinctive assumptions of the traditional Tory grandee to the ruthless logic of the radical Right, whose policies and philosophy he has pursued with such remarkable success. FU appeals to Old England, but he appeals to Essex Man just as strongly.

ESSEX Woman, too, it would seem. In a recent poll our Prime Minister was voted amongst the '10 sexiest men in Britain' and this at the age of nearly 60. This is not simply a matter of the 'aphrodisiac of power'. There is the style, the wit (prime ministers are not celebrated for their wit, and Francis Urquhart must be the wittiest premier in living memory) and also a paradoxical combination - strength with a sense of danger. Physically he is slight - almost frail - but he has a formidable constitution fuelled by a formidable will. Women are drawn to Urquhart, and he is very happy in their company. He has brought more women into the Cabinet than his predecessors ever did, and likes to and argue political philosophy with clever young women. 'My best students were always women,' he will say. 'I like the way they think - their minds are far more supple and flexible.' He has had particularly close relations with some women journalists. As Chief Whip, he encouraged them to speculate about imminent political developments. 'You may very well think that,' he would say. 'I couldn't possibly comment.'

These relationships are, of course, purely platonic meetings of minds. The Urquhart marriage is - famously - one of the most enduring and successful in British political life. In 1960 he married Elizabeth McCullough, eldest daughter of William McCullough, the whisky magnate. They have always been a close and devoted couple. There are no children, and this has been a cause of deep sadness and regret; but it has enabled Mrs Urquhart to devote her considerable talents and energies to supporting her husband's career.

Friends speak of her awe-inspiring strength and resolution, of her calmness, of a wit that matches her husband's, of her encyclopaedic knowledge of Wagner. She is given to occasional gnomic utterances: 'I used to think that with a wok one could solve any problem, but now I know otherwise.' Those not admitted to the inner circle joke uneasily about Glamis and Dunsinane. It is a very private marriage.

THERE are those who say that Francis Urquhart has been lucky, but wiser heads say that a good politician makes his own luck. Certainly he came to power just as Britain was, at last, emerging from recession, and he has profited.

But he has not ridden the recovery in a passive way. He has made choices and exercised preferences, in a way that some have found ruthlessly unacceptable. In the name of personal freedom and self-reliance, he has virtually dismantled the welfare state. Britain is a more prosperous society than it has been for some time - for those in work and able to look out for themselves - but it is also a less compassionate society. Thanks to the new Vagrancy Act, the homeless and the destitute are no longer so painfully visible in the centres of our great cities. But the poverty is there, the sickness, the callous disregard for human suffering, and we know it.

We know it and we voted for it. This is Francis Urquhart's strong government and perhaps it is the government we deserve. But now that a new King is on the throne with a new voice, a voice that questions Urquhart's vision and challenges his priorities, perhaps it is time to take a fresh look at the man himself. Is Francis Urquhart really the leader we deserve?

Andrew Davies is the screenwriter for the BBC1 drama series, 'To Play the King'. Francis Urquhart is played by Ian Richardson.

Allison Pearson, page 26

(Photograph omitted)

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