Profile: And for his next trick . . .: John MacGregor - The Transport Secretary will need more than his magician's skill to make a success of rail privatisation

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The Independent Online
THERE IS no worse job in British politics at present than Secretary of State for Transport. The publication on Friday of the rail privatisation Bill has set John MacGregor on a course that Lord Ridley, the high priest of privatisation, has warned cannot work. Even Margaret Thatcher shrank from British Rail privatisation because of its potential unpopularity.

Some would add a further handicap. Mr MacGregor is not the most ebullient or charismatic of ministers, not a man to rouse or excite the Tory benches when Labour is on the offensive. A 'safe pair of hands' his admirers call him. One of his Whitehall critics quotes the famous slight on Chamberlain: 'Everything in its place and nothing worth more than sixpence.'

The stolid industriousness and appetite for detail certainly made him a formidable Chief Secretary to the Treasury when Nigel Lawson was Chancellor. 'He combined a social liberalism,' wrote Lawson in his memoirs, 'with a Scottish determination (all too rare in today's Scottish establishment) to keep a firm rein on the public purse.' When MacGregor became Secretary of State for Education in July 1989, with the daunting task of sorting out the turmoil created by Kenneth Baker's Education Reform Act, one commentator wrote: 'A really boring minister, devoid of charisma, short on vision . . . is just what education needs at the moment.'

To the public, the least boring thing about him is his passion for magic, which started when he was given a conjuring set at the age of 11. He is a member of the Magic Circle, and has an annual spot on an Anglia Television show in aid of needy children. Even the brightest Treasury brains cannot explain his mind-reading tricks with cards when he does the occasional turn in Whitehall.

He rarely brings a magician's flourish to his job, though, and many think it a conjuring trick that he should be listed as one of the leading candidates to succeed Norman Lamont as Chancellor. One reason is that MacGregor, who is 56 next month, was such a success as Chief Secretary. 'Quiet and undemonstrative,' Nigel Lawson wrote in his memoirs, 'it is easy to underestimate him.' High praise from a man who dismisses two other Chief Secretaries with 'not a successful appointment' and 'the no-frills hard grind was not his cup of tea'.

JOHN Roddick Russell MacGregor is a child of the Labour heartlands. He was brought up in the North Lanarkshire mining village of Shotts, where more than 90 per cent of homes were council-owned. His conscientious and apolitical father was a local GP.

One of Dr MacGregor's patients was Peggy Herbison, the local Labour MP. When John won a primary school prize, Mrs Herbison - 'a delightful person', he says - presented him with a book on the Houses of Parliament, which fed his nascent interest in politics.

He won a scholarship to Merchiston Castle, the Edinburgh public school. His ambition - Mrs Herbison had taken him to tea with a former Lord Advocate - was to become a Scottish advocate. He would do an undergraduate degree at St Andrews, followed by a law degree. But, MacGregor says, 'St Andrews changed all that'. Majoring in history, he chose economics as one of his subsidiaries. 'That changed my life . . . The course at St Andrews had a heavy emphasis on politics and the subject fitted naturally into my psyche.'

This was a generation before St Andrews became a centre for radical right Tory economics, producing such future MPs and ministers as Michael Fallon and Michael Forsyth. But the syllabus included Adam Smith, and there were some Tory-inclined dons. By his final year, he was active in Tory student politics. 'It's an appalling thought but I suppose I am really the grandfather of all those St Andrews Tories.'

He decided he wanted a wider stage than the Scottish Bar and after gaining a first at St Andrews, went to King's College, London, for his LLB. Involvement in the Bow Group brought him into contact with Edward Heath, then Chief Whip, and, more importantly, with his future wife, Jean, who was Heath's secretary. They have been happily married for 30 years, and have three children.

By his final year at King's (1961-62), convinced that he no longer wanted to practice at the Bar, he did one of the few really extraordinary things of his life and took a full-time administrative job at London University. 'I didn't see why my father should go on paying for me any longer. Also I wanted to marry Jean and I had this Scottish pride that I wasn't going to live off her.'

Thus during his third year at King's he did not attend a lecture or open a law book until the week before the exams. But he still passed.

Through the Bow Group, he had met Timothy Raison, the founding editor of New Society, who gave him a job in 1962. Stephen Aris, another staff journalist, recalls MacGregor as a congenial colleague. 'He was a Tory certainly, but not doctrinaire. He didn't come in jabbering about market forces. It was the Sixties after all. If you had told me that I had the next desk to a potential Chancellor of the Exchequer I'd have fallen out of my chair; not because he wasn't clever but because his ambitions didn't seem that focused.'

So unfocused were the MacGregor ambitions that he initially turned down a job as a political adviser to Harold Macmillan. But he took it eventually and continued at Downing Street when Sir Alec Douglas-Home succeeded. When the Tories lost the 1964 election, he went to Central Office.

Like other Bow Groupers, he is a convinced European and one of the Cabinet members who favours an eventual return to the exchange rate mechanism. MacGregor argues today that his economic views have always been on the right. In the 1959 election campaign he saw large private residential estates for the first time and was struck by the contrast with Shotts, where 'you had to get permission to paint your front door and most people didn't actually think of doing it on the whole'. In 1965, he wrote a pamphlet advocating an expansion of owner-occupation.

MacGregor ran Heath's private office between 1965 and 1968, writing many of his speeches. 'Those kind of jobs are very poorly paid. I was going all over the world with him and working all hours of the day and night. It was the opposite of Galbraith's famous phrase: it was public affluence and private poverty.' Needing to make more money, see more of his young family and get some business experience, he joined Hill Samuel, the merchant bank.

He won South Norfolk, in 1974, and stuck loyally with Heath in the 1975 leadership election. He became a Tory whip in 1977 and, when the Thatcher government took power in 1979, he moved immediately into the junior ministerial ranks.

THE RISE through the ranks has been steady, with no spectacular achievements. But Lawson recalls that MacGregor was the first Chief Secretary to get his hands on the details of Ministry of Defence spending, previously obscured, supposedly for security reasons, in a 'block budget'. And many MPs are grateful for the modest reforms of Commons hours and procedures that he promoted as Leader of the House (1990-92).

His 'safe pair of hands' reputation faltered only in the winter of 1988-89. As Minister of Agriculture, he painstakingly put together new regulations to control salmonella in eggs, before leaving for General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade negotiations in Montreal. Then came Edwina Currie's outburst about the risks of salmonella poisoning. With British poultry farmers in uproar, MacGregor tried, frantically and, without access to British television, in vain, to manage the crisis from Montreal. Worse, having boldly cut agricultural subsidies, he now found himself cast as the producers' rather than the consumers' friend by determining to bale out the poultry farmers. This was not altogether fair: his pounds 3m package to rescue the industry was relatively cheap. An ugly Tory lynch mob finally ousted Mrs Currie; but the agriculture select committee complained his department had been 'sluggish' in dealing with salmonella; and MacGregor came out of the episode with an ulcer.

This suggests MacGregor is not as unflappable as he looks. 'He certainly has a shorter fuse than some ministers,' says one official. 'But then unlike some ministers he will apologise afterwards if he went over the top.' He commands loyalty from most officials. 'He works very hard and he expects his staff to. He may test them before he trusts them, but then he will be a lot more considerate than many I could mention.'

The months ahead will test his nerve. He is bullish about privatisation and convinced that both freight and passenger services will improve. He has been telling colleagues how he recently stood on a provincial station, collar turned up so no one could recognise him, and watched in horror as three BR employees steadfastly failed to tell passengers why a train had been delayed.

It is conventional wisdom that his best chance of becoming Chancellor disappeared when Major decided not to sack Lamont at Christmas. But his form at the Treasury is good and he has one great advantage over Kenneth Clarke, his most prominent opponent for the job. As one minister suggested last week: John Major could confidently use to John MacGregor the words of Charles II to his brother James: 'I am sure no man in England will take away my life to make you King.'

(Photograph omitted)