The toff in the middle

profile Michael Ancram Stephen Castle reports on the Scottish Catholic who will be the first British minister to talk to Sinn Fein
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THE scene is the St Patrick's night reception in the ornate ballroom of the Irish embassy, and the tall, patrician figure of Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, stands stiffly, glass in hand, as a bacchanalian tableau unfolds before him. By contrast, a stocky, less smartly-dressed character is glad-handing his way around the party, chatting and joking merrily with all and sundry. This is Michael Ancram, minister for political development at the Northern Ireland Office, the man who will shortly be sitting down with Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, and other former enemies of the British state.

To call Michael Ancram blue-blooded is an understatement. He is the Earl of Ancram, son of the Marquess of Lothian, and his wife is Lady Jane Fitzalan-Howard, daughter of the 16th Duke of Norfolk. He is a toff, quite literally, down to his cotton socks; one colleague who shared a hotel room with him on a trip many years ago insists that he was wearing monogrammed underpants.

Yet he seems to embody the charm of the British aristocracy, without its snobbishness or aloofness. Outside the Unionist right, few colleagues have a bad word to say about him. Only one can remember an occasion when his title was used to pull rank. It was in 1974 at Kennedy airport in New York when he needed to get home on time and the plane was full. British Airways crumbled, a seat was found and Lord Ancram was on his way back to London while fellow MPs languished in the departure lounge. Posh, charming - but with a touch of ruthlessness, too.

MICHAEL ANCRAM was born in July 1945 to Lord Lothian, a whip in Alec Douglas-Home's government and a junior minister in Ted Heath's Foreign Office. His mother, Antonella, Lady Lothian, according to one fellow Scot, "is a real Tory matriarch, class and style oozing from every pore who, in another era, would have been a cabinet minister in her own right". Their seats include an imposing pile at Monteviot, Jedburgh, in the Borders, and Melbourne Hall in Melbourne, Derbyshire.

The family is Roman Catholic, Lady Lothian devoutly so. According to one friend, Michael is also a practising Catholic, but a pragmatic one; "not a nutter or a bore about it".

He never uses his title. "There are plenty of people who think we've got a lot to live down," he was quoted as saying at the age of 23, "and I'm inclined to agree with them ... The title is worth very little as far as I am concerned." His usage of the earldom as a surname is unusual and technically incorrect. A rather deaf butler once announced him as "Mr Norman Crumb". The name stuck; political friends still refer to him as "Crumb". He went to Ampleforth, the Catholic equivalent of Eton, Christ Church, Oxford, and then to Edinburgh, where he studied law. Here were the first signs of political ambition when, in 1967, along with Malcolm Rifkind (now the Secretary of State for Defence) and Peter Fraser (now Minister of State at the Scottish Office), he founded the Thistle Group. The politics were Conservative and firmly in the one-nation camp.

He started work as an advocate in Edinburgh, preparing for a political career. But for a Scottish Tory who was also a Catholic there was no easy route. When he contested West Lothian against Tam Dalyell in 1970, the local Orange Lodge told him that it could not offer its traditional loyal support for the Conservative candidate. Over the next two decades, he was in and out of Parliament: elected for Berwick and East Lothian (as Scotland's first Catholic Tory MP) in February 1974, out in October 1974, back for Edinburgh South in 1979, out again in 1987. It was only with his departure south, to the traditional Tory pastures of Devizes, that a safe seat was secured, ready for his "third coming" in 1992.

He has a powerful network of contacts on the centre-left of the party. Mr Ancram was a founder member of the influential "Blue Chip" dining group, which still meets from time to time in the home in Catherine Place, Westminster, of Tristan Garel-Jones, the former deputy chief whip and Foreign Office minister. Other members included Chris Patten, John Patten, Richard Needham, William Waldegrave, Peter Fraser, Ian Lang and Robert Atkins.

But the 1980s were hard times for one-nation wets like Mr Ancram, who had been a supporter of Shelter. When he became Scottish party chairman and, later, a Scottish Office minister, his liberal friends hoped that he would blunt the worst ravages of Thatcherism. But with the exception of a plea to save Ravenscraig steel works, they were disappointed. "He sold out and became just another Tory minister," one Liberal Democrat said.

At Margaret Thatcher's bidding, Mr Ancram took the Bill for the poll tax in Scotland through the Commons, provoking personal unpopularity and reaping little political reward. One ally said last week that, in his years in Scotland, the minister had "been to hell and back".

But while others might have been deterred, Mr Ancram survived (he had not, after all, made any unforgivable mistakes) and learnt from the experience. An Irish source said: "As a Scottish Catholic MP he was both inside and outside the political establishment. He knows what it is like to be unpopular, to have to face the rough and tumble, to be in government but in a political minority."

IN 1993, after only a year back in the Commons - some MPs think the old Blue Chip contacts helped - Mr Ancram returned to ministerial office. And, as Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Northern Ireland, he found himself thrown into one of the biggest issues of his generation.

The relaxed Ancram style went down well with the political parties with whom he was negotiating. He was a hit, too, in Ireland, not only because of his Catholicism (by tradition the Northern Ireland Office always has one Catholic minister) but because many could relate to a slightly folksy aspect of his character. As well as his more upmarket hobbies (skiing and fly-fishing), Mr Ancram is a keen folk-singer and owner of a 12-string Martin acoustic guitar, a birthday present from his wife. The repertoire is said to range from Jacobite ballads to rock 'n' roll.

At the Northern Ireland Office, civil servants were impressed with his lawyer's ability to master a detailed brief very quickly. A good listener, and skilled negotiator, he at first enjoyed cordial relations with the Ulster Unionists and their leader, James Molyneaux.

Then the peace process took off. It was Mr Ancram, rather than Sir Patrick Mayhew, who did most of the day-to-day drafting of the Anglo-Irish Joint Declaration of December 1993. When Jeremy Hanley left to go to Central Office in 1994, Mr Ancram went up another rung to Minister of State level, and Irish officials noticed him appearing at more and more important meetings.

In the lobbies of the Commons, Tory whips talk of the minister as Cabinet material. Allies argue that he is not clever in the way that his friends Chris Patten and William Waldegrave are, but is "shrewd and thorough". Even churlish colleagues, who point out that he was in the right place at the right time, concede that he is in a job which stretches him and he is enjoying it. One senior source added: "He has the advantage of considerable wealth which means he does not have to worry too much about political failure."

But the Unionist camp's views have changed somewhat since February's framework document. Mr Molyneaux feels that Mr Ancram and Sir Patrick let him in on the drafts of the document at too late a stage and that he was misled over how far advanced it was. David Trimble, MP for Upper Bann, is openly hostile and even moderate Unionist MPs barely refrain from claiming the minister lied to them. Robert Cranbourne, the Cabinet's arch Unionist and an old Blue Chip, is said to be less than flattering in private. Unionist MPs feel they have been outmanoeuvred by an ambitious politician prepared to push them to the limit.

Then there are doubts about his attitude to the Union. In the 1970s, he backed devolution and proportional representation, an embarrassment for a minister in a party now bitterly opposed to Labour's plans for a Scottish parliament. According to one source, he was the author of the 1974 Tory manifesto commitment on devolution which Tony Blair has used to attack the Conservatives' present position.

He has since recanted but the inconsistency, argue vigorous Tory supporters of the Union, shows his ability to switch sides. It also highlights the contradictions in a party that is opposed to devolution for Scotland but anxious to impose it in Northern Ireland. Perhaps this misunderstands the nature of Ancram Unionism which, like the rest of his politics, is tinged with pragmatism. He is, says a friend, a Unionist by tradition whose family owns a country mansion south of the border, too ("a foot in both camps").

MR ANCRAM has shown flexibility and imagination in helping the peace process to its current state. But can he stand up to the likes of Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, and keep the Unionists on side? One disappointed Unionist MP described him last week as a "bit of a fuddy-duddy country gentleman set well apart from the reality of the gunmen of the IRA and the UVF".

That seems an overly harsh judgment, and friends point to evidence of inner toughness. Few politicians could have survived a battering in Scotland and the loss of two parliamentary seats, and returned to fight another day. We can be sure he will not give up negotiations easily. And, adds one Tory MP: "I suspect the IRA rather like the idea of dealing with the son of a marquess." Geraldine Bedell is on maternity leave