Sir William Shelton

Loyal Thatcherite education minister

Saturday 22 February 2003 01:00
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William Jeremy Masefield Shelton, politician: born Plymouth, Devon 30 October 1929; MP (Conservative) for Clapham 1970-74, for Streatham 1974-92; PPS to the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications 1972-74; PPS to Margaret Thatcher 1975; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, DES 1981-83; chairman, GGK London 1984-86; Kt 1989; married 1960 Anne Warder (one son, one daughter); died 2 January 2003.

It is likely that William Shelton will be better remembered as Airey Neave's able and loyal second in the successful campaign to secure Margaret Thatcher the Conservative Party leadership in 1975 than for his brief career as a junior minister in her government or his service as a hard-working and popular MP. His interest in education was long-standing and he played his part in the policy revolution that put parents at the centre of Conservative education policy during their years in opposition. Although dropped from her government after the 1983 election, he remained a loyal Thatcherite and was a member of Thatcher's campaign team when Sir Anthony Meyer challenged her leadership in 1989.

William Jeremy Masefield Shelton was the son of a Guernsey Regular, Lt-Col Richard Shelton, and was educated at Radley College, in Oxfordshire, Tabor Academy in Massachusetts (on an English-Speaking Union scholarship) and Worcester College, Oxford, where he read PPE. After a year lecturing in economics at the University of Texas in Austin, Shelton joined the advertising firm Colman, Prentis and Varley in 1952 and spent some years working in South America with Corpa in Caracas and as managing director of CPV (Colombiana) Ltd in Bogota, before becoming a director of CPV (International) in 1964 and its managing director, 1967-74. From 1974 to 1981 he chaired Fletcher, Shelton, Delaney and Reynolds.

Shelton became active in politics on his return to London in 1964 and was elected to the GLC for Wandsworth in 1967. A year later, when the Conservatives took control of the Inner London Education Authority, he became Chief Whip. His association with Thatcher began when she became shadow Education Secretary. He had been adopted to fight Clapham in 1968, a seat which he captured in 1970. His defeated opponent, the West Indian Dr David Pitt, who had been brought in to replace the sitting Labour MP, was undoubtedly the victim of racial prejudice, but it was universally acknowledged that Shelton had eschewed any taint of racism in his own campaign.

He quickly proved he was very much his own man, a pragmatic supporter of the EEC as a trading entity and an informed critic of the inflationary policies upon which the Heath government embarked in 1972. Publicly silenced by his role as PPS to the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, in private he was an early exponent of monetarism, but one who acknowledged also the inflationary role of trade-union monopoly power. When the parliamentary boundaries were revised, Shelton won the nomination to succeed Duncan Sandys in Streatham, and he held what looked to be a highly marginal seat with considerable success for 18 years.

He opposed the calling of the February 1974 election as divisive and was among the first to consider that Thatcher should succeed Heath as leader. When in November malicious rumours that she was hoarding food were circulated, in an attempt to shipwreck her leadership bid, it was to Shelton that she said that they had destroyed Joseph, "but they will not destroy me".

Shelton had been asked by Thatcher's PPS, Fergus Montgomery, to organise her leadership campaign, but when Airey Neave offered to take it over and bring across those who had been working for Edward Du Cann, Shelton made no bones about becoming his second-in-command. Together they fought a remarkably effective campaign that welded on to her natural right-wing support MPs who detested Heath's style of leadership and those who wanted a change. Shelton's particular role was to organise and record the results of thorough and remarkably accurate canvassing. He told the London Evening Standard on the day of the first ballot that Heath was ahead, a false report that produced a slight surge in favour of Thatcher, ensuring her a decisive lead.

When the second ballot confirmed her victory, Shelton became her PPS. However, he stood down in the following November, preferring the freedom of the backbenches. To take the job, he had surrendered his role as Honorary Secretary, effectively the parliamentary voice, of the Conservative National Advisory Committee on Education, but had continued to be a staunch advocate of parental choice and a supporter of experimenting with education vouchers.

In 1975 he made an abortive effort to put the Parents' Charter drafted by the Conservative Party on to the statute book. Throughout these years, control of the backbench Conservative Education Committee was in dispute, Shelton becoming Vice-Chairman in 1974-5, 1976-7, 1978-9, and 1979-81, but losing the Secretaryship to Nicholas Winterton in 1975 and the Chairmanship to Bill Van Straubenzee in 1979.

Thatcher made Shelton a junior minister at Education in 1981 and in the two years he spent in office he did much to further the equipment of primary schools with computers and brought forward proposals for the Certificate of PreVocational Education to be taken by less academic students at 17+.

Bitter clashes with the left-wing leadership of the London Borough of Lambeth turned him into an increasingly vocal critic of local government. Not only did Shelton promote a Bill in 1981 to curb local government extravagance, but he opposed the poll tax, since it was designed to give local councils more independence. He was greatly irritated when Ken Livingstone talked out his anti-kerb-crawling Bill in 1990. Shelton was confident of retaining his seat in 1992, although he would have wished there had been no change of leader. In the event, he was badly beaten and remarked that afterwards he had received 5,000 letters of thanks for his work, mostly from people who had voted for his opponent.

Shelton had continued his career in advertising as chairman of Washer, Fox, Coughlin, established his own firm, Shelton Consultants, in 1983 and became a shareholder and director of Saracen Consultants in 1987. However, his fortunes went awry. In 1991 he was told that he had lost heavily in the Lloyd's débâcle and he was also a victim of the property slump. Access to Justice, a company launched in 1995 to give free legal advice to the impecunious, was wound up two years later amidst charges of financial irregularity. Shelton was subsequently given a five-year ban on serving as a company director.

John Barnes

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