Profile: When a whip is taking a whipping: Richard Ryder

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At 43 Richard Ryder, the Government Chief Whip, is privately contemplating giving up politics in the not-too-distant future for a second career as an academic. He has told his friends that there is no other job in politics that he would want. 'Every day is like Christmas,' he has been heard to say, in the well-upholstered sanctuary of the office off the Members' Lobby where the whips do their plotting. But there was little sign of Christmas cheer this week.

'A boy in a man's job', is how some disgruntled Conservative backbenchers were describing him, before packing their bags for the long summer break. His owlish spectacles, boyish looks, and shy, slightly gauche demeanour, make it an easy insult. Even though Mr Ryder seemed relaxed at the annual drinks party with Lobby journalists at Downing Street on Thursday, to have the Chief Whip talked about in such terms by his own backbenchers is a serious matter for John Major. The Tories have a majority of only 21, and the Prime Minister faces an autumn of discontent over the Maastricht treaty and the economy.

The immediate cause of the grumbling about the Chief Whip was the maladroit sacking of Nicholas Winterton, a member of the Tory 'awkward squad', from the chairmanship of the Commons Select Committee on Health. Mr Ryder's direct involvement in the affair is open to question. Some of Mr Winterton's supporters believe that if the Chief Whip had been the author of the coup, it would have been more clinical. They see the main culprit as Sir Marcus Fox, the chairman of the 1922 Committee and the Committee of Selection. But if Sir Marcus did the deed, they suspect Mr Ryder and the whips' office of encouraging him to remove Mr Winterton, who had become a thorough nuisance to the government.

Worse, Mr Ryder was blamed for the resulting mess in which two other committee chairman, unlike Mr Winterton senior and trusted Tory MPs, lost their seats: Sir John Wheeler, chairman of the Home Affairs committee, and . The pretext in all three cases was that no-one could chair a committee for more than two parliaments. Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, mourned Sir John's loss in private without blaming Mr Ryder. But some of the old guard on the Tory backbenches were less forgiving, detecting Mr Ryder's fingerprints on these far more serious 'crimes'.

Ministers who have crossed Mr Ryder in the past say to charge him with incompetence or immaturity is unjust. One of his colleagues said: 'He's not a boy in a man's job - he's shown he can put the knee in the groin with John Browne (the disgraced former Tory MP, warned by the Chief Whip that he would never get another appointment in the party).'

'He gives you the impression that he agrees with everything you have said, without agreeing to anything. I would not trust him, but I like him,' said one minister.

'He has qualities that I don't want, but they make him ideally suited for one job in Government, and that is Chief Whip,' said another.

Mr Ryder's predecessors were all senior party figures in different ways: Lord Wakeham, Lord Waddington, and Tim Renton. That tradition has led people to question Mr Ryder's authority. Mr Ryder had served in Baroness Thatcher's office as her Political Secretary from when she won the leadership in 1975 to 1981. However, he was a leading member of the Major leadership election team, and was closer than most to the new Prime Minister. He had followed Mr Major into the whips' office, and served under him for two years at the Treasury, as Economic Secretary when he was Chancellor. He was thus a natural choice as Chief Whip when Mr Major formed his first Government in 1990, after Margaret Thatcher's downfall.

Mr Ryder and Mr Major share a similar outlook, disliking pompous Westminster ritual, and the old snobbishness of the Conservative Party.

As with Mr Major, there were few political antecedents in the Ryder household, apart from service on the local council. He was born and bred in Suffolk, the son of a farmer, still farming at 76. He knew at the age of 10 that he wanted to become a politician. Quite why, escapes him. He is inclined to disarm dinner guests by admitting that if he had his time again, he would not be a politician. Even though, as a former parliamentary private secretary to Geoffrey Howe at the Foreign Office, he has been tipped as a future Foreign Secretary, he says he would prefer to give it all up to be a historian. He is an Atlanticist, fascinated American history, from the Civil War onwards. Some politicians say they do not want a big department to run, afraid to show their cards, but unlike his predecessors, who wanted promotion, Mr Ryder seems to mean it.

Although whips are not supposed to make speeches, Mr Ryder has taken diffidence and taciturnity to a high art. When the Prime Minister celebrated his victory in Downing Street after the election, glad-handing the public, the door to Number 12 opened and Mr Ryder emerged, blinking into the unwanted glare of publicity. Rather than share in the glory, he slipped unnoticed away from the cameras.

And yet, he had earned his place in the victory parade. From the day of his appointment, Mr Ryder had focused on winning the general election. A past leader writer for the Daily Telegraph, he chaired daily meetings with the 'four musketeers', John Wakeham, David Waddington, John MacGregor and Chris Patten, the party chairman, to co-ordinate the campaign and his 'floor show' in the Commons. His friends say he has not had a holiday in two years and has been a workaholic, contributing to bouts of ill-health, including an ulcer.

This weekend, he has finally been persuaded to take a break, and is off to Greece with a quantity of books, probably including something by John Updike, his favourite author, but precious little on politics. He is a voracious reader, reckoning to get through one book a day, but likes to shut out politics, going home relatively early to his wife, Caroline, and their nine year old daughter. They had a son, who died when a few months old. That loss has steeled him to the business of being nasty to truculent Tories. 'It's peanuts compared to that,' he has told his friends.

Mr Ryder mixes a love of grouse shooting with support for Ipswich football club. He was a regular tennis player - often losing against Simon Jenkins, editor of the Times - until a year ago when he ricked his back stooping to pick up a tennis ball. He has been in daily back pain since then. In a break from the tradition of the whips' office, where whisky used to oil the wheels of administration with the Opposition, he drinks tea or Coke.

This is all a far cry from his days as a 'hearty' at Magdalene college, Cambridge, where he studied history and had a reputation as a hell-raiser in the Sixties. He was active in the Conservative club, and was stood unsuccessfully as President of the Union. His contemporaries now at Westminster include John Watts - the Tory backbencher who was appointed chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Treasury Affairs last week, and David Mellor, the Secretary of State for National Heritage. 'Richard was quite rowdy at Cambridge,' said one of his fellows. 'But he changed in his twenties.'

After the sobering business of answering the mail in the Thatcher office, he entered Parliament in 1983 as the MP for Mid Norfolk with a reputation as a Thatcherite. He toyed with the No Turning Back group, but never consolidated his position on the right of the party. Ideologically, he remains an enigma. In his maiden speech, which lasted six minutes, he called for cash limits to be applied to GPs and the police - music to Thatcherite ears in its day, but he concluded: 'East Anglians are by nature cautious, sceptical and independent. If convinced, they can be direct. I hope those characteristics, among others, will stand me in good stead in the House.'

He was true to his word. No one who knows him can pin-point his political beliefs. 'I'm not paid to have views,' he is inclined to tell anyone who inquires. 'He is a tactician, a strategist, not an ideologue,' said one old Westminster ally.

Colleagues praise his talent for focusing on issues in ministerial meetings. 'He was at a meeting this morning and after everyone had had their say, he just changed the meeting with one line,' said one Cabinet minister.

As Chief Whip, he largely leaves the job of jollying the troops, touring the bars, to his lieutenants, and discipline to David Heathcoat-Amory, his deputy. Mr Heathcoat-Amory, Eton and Oxford, is urbane but regarded as stiff and out-of-touch with life outside Westminster by leading members of the new intake of Tory MPs. They have been grumbling loudly for months about Mr Ryder and the heavy-handed treatment they are receiving from the whips.

The whips see it differently. They believe their touch has been light, but that nevertheless the new intake is bumptious and needs to be taken down a peg or two. Mr Ryder's relaxed approach owes much to his knowledge of Tory rebels. Most toe the line when it matters. The powers of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, as he is officially known, are in patronage.

The fear that eats at the new intake is that somewhere on his walls, Mr Ryder has a list of their names, with a black mark against those who signed the early day motion on calling for a 'fresh start' on the Maastricht treaty.

In fact, his walls are decorated with lurid anti-Labour election posters given to him by Maurice Saatchi after the campaign. 'To remind me we beat the bastards,' he said.

That could be his last stand. In two years' time he will have been in politics for 20 years. He says that's probably enough - and who can say he doesn't mean it?.