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Profile: John Gummer: Not as daft as he acts

He can charm and he's lucky, so what holds him back?
IT IS typical of the publicity which has surrounded John Gummer's long political career that, at a time of water shortage, the Secretary of State for the Environment should become embroiled in a controversy over the colour of his washing-up bowl.

As the nation sweltered and moaned about hosepipe bans, Mr Gummer was at first quoted on his family's habit of saving water by washing their faces in a bowl. Then the minister attempted to clarify his comments, insisting that, like everyone else, he scrubs his face in a basin - the bowl referred to was for doing the washing-up. When the Sunday Times probed further it provoked a mini-ministerial explosion: "I have no idea of the colour of my washing-up bowl. What a question! It's a perfectly normal washing-up bowl like everybody else's. Of a plastic variety."

Throughout his two-and-a-half decades in British politics Mr Gummer has had little difficulty making headlines. He is, for example, remembered for the hamburger he fed to his daughter during the mad cow scare, for the row over the "freebie" pond built in his back garden and his opposition to women priests.

It is true that, as one admirer puts it, he "connects with the public as a bit of a cheeky chappie". But if the punters have a good idea who he is, few seem to know what he does. His friends tell the story of how, on a recent regional tour, an aide eavesdropped on two shoppers who had spotted the minister, "Don't you recognise him," said one, "he's the chap from Antiques Road Show."

A one-time Lotus driver, Mr Gummer is a unique blend of conservativism, piety and Sixties flamboyance. He is not a little star struck. His best friend is Andrew Lloyd Webber, and the minister talks happily of dinners with celebrities such as Stephen Fry. Not all of this is popular with colleagues who moan of him leaving his government driver waiting until the small hours outside Annabel's or missing a vote because of a first night with Mr Lloyd Webber. Civil servants recount stories of the minister playing the piano in the early hours of the morning at residential conferences, singing the hit songs of the Thirties and Forties. He reads history and is quite an expert on Victorian architecture. Strangely, in the age of the professional politician, Mr Gummer is known for almost everything except his politics.

JOHN SELWYN GUMMER was born into a church family in Stockport in 1939. His father, Canon Selwyn Gummer (the sons were given his Christian name), was a vicar there, later becoming Canon of Rochester Cathedral. They remain close: Canon Gummer lives with the Gummers and invariably appears in the Commons to hear environment questions. A younger brother, Peter, is now chairman of Shandwick, one of the world's largest public relations firms and a paid-up member of the Tory great and good.

Young John joined the Conservative Party at the age of 17. At Cambridge he became chairman of the University Conservative Association and president of the Union. He also made some important friends. Cambridge in the Fifties was a cockpit of nascent Toryism.

In one of the Gummer bathrooms hangs a picture of Kenneth Clarke's wedding. John Gummer is best man and the ushers include Michael Howard and Leon Brittan. Norman Lamont and Norman Fowler were also friends.

After Cambridge and a brief spell teaching religious education, Mr Gummer edited a business publication, worked as an executive for BPC and then for Shandwick. He contested his first seat in 1964 and (sporting a beard) won Lewisham West in 1970 at the age of 30.

Seven years later he married Penny Gardner, a former personal assistant to Ted Heath, who still works part-time for the Government whips' office. With their two sons and two daughters they divide their time between a large house in Ealing and a Gothic former vicarage in Suffolk.

Some of the defining features of Gummer politics have probably not advanced his career. He is a moralist who once said his career was a toss-up between politics and the church. His membership of the Synod, his opposition to women priests and his eventual conversion to Roman Catholicism are well-known. Gummer himself has said that the British voter treats public figures who talk about religion rather like single men who make conversation in railway carriages.

In private he takes pains not to be preachy, reserving his moral pronouncements for specific occasions. His conversation is wittier and less stuffy than many colleagues. He is, after all, the man who once surprised the world by telling of the Gummer "his and hers" pillows, one reading "sex, sex, sex", the other "yes, yes, yes".

Those close to him describe a rather old-fashioned sense of politics as a public duty. When his eldest son talked about following in his father's footsteps, Gummer tried to dissuade him, then felt guilty about doing so since, he said, if good people are discouraged from entering politics, the public will suffer.

This moral world view informs his job. Allies say his openness to green lobby groups and enthusiasm for sustainable development arises not from poring over scientific studies, but "because he believes he is bequeathing his children a worse planet than the one he inherited, and genuinely worries about that".

Another hallmark of the Gummer career is loyalty to the party leader. Critics see this as part of an unerring ability to charm and flatter the right people at the right time. And it is true that, although originally a Heathite, Mr Gummer transferred his loyalty to Margaret Thatcher, and then swiftly in 1990 to John Major, with whom he is on very good terms.

But he does believe in loyalty, and is angry about the behaviour of the Eurosceptics and its harmful effect on John Major's authority. He tells close friends that he is passionately anti-abortion yet accepts the party commitment to the status quo. The sceptics, he believes, should do the same.

The disdain for the Eurosceptics is fuelled by an unfashionable enthusiasm for Brussels. Like Kenneth Clarke and Leon Brittan, John Gummer supports the EU. He backed the Clarke/Heseltine resistance to a referendum on a single currency, hinting that it might be a resigning issue.

Ideology has been the exception rather than the rule in a highly pragmatic career, much of which was spent at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food - one of government's less glamorous outposts. Between 1985-88 he was Minister of State, and in the Cabinet from 1989-93. Then, to the amazement of most at Westminster, came promotion to Environment. The appointment was predicted to be a disaster, but his record has surprised and impressed many colleagues. Critics may point to a certain ineffectuality in Cabinet, but civil servants have come to regard him as an astute politician.

While most cabinet members have had their share of disasters over the past two years, Mr Gummer has enhanced his reputation and avoided taking the blame for local government budget cuts, for the crisis in the housing market, for the reduction in home-building and for poor Conservative local government election results. Meanwhile the Government looks slightly greener, the Council Tax has been implemented with the minimum of fuss and the troublesome local government reorganisation has been smoothed over.

Is it true, then, as John Major is reputed to have said, that "Gum Gum" would be considered one of the best politicians of his generation, if only he were one stone heavier, one foot taller and his voice one octave lower?

He is certainly a survivor and has had his share of luck - as one Tory MP put it: "If the garden pond row had happened now, in the current climate of sleaze, he would have been out of the Cabinet."

But he also has good instincts. In the current row over water Mr Gummer has seen the elephant trap in his path: that by defending privatisation he will be seen to side with the water bosses against consumers. Last week, hoping to provoke a broader discussion over the merits of privatisation, he ordered a review from the National Rivers Authority into the nation's water resources.

Yet, whatever the outcome, Mr Gummer is destined never to be a cabinet big beast, partly because of his demeanour and partly because of laziness. As one colleague put it: "He relies on his considerable native wit to get him through."

There is no better example of this than public speaking, an area in which Mr Gummer excels. Aides marvel at his ability to speak passionately, for example, to representatives of the packaging industry off the cuff. He enjoys winging it.

At the last Conservative Central Council the minister spent the night before his speech out on the town rather than producing a draft. The final version was still being fed into the autocue as he rose to speak.

That counts as detailed preparation compared with the year before. Then Mr Gummer arrived at the conference hall 10 minutes after he was due on the platform and asked an aide if a speech had been prepared. On learning that it was not Mr Gummer asked what he should tell the audience. "Say the Conservatives are good, Labour are bad," came the response. A beaming Mr Gummer strode on to the platform and performed.

Inside story, pages 16 and 17