Fixer to the Establishment: John Wakeham

Saturday 05 August 2000 00:00

It has been a good week for the Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, Lord Wakeham. After a tiresome attempted ban on photos of the christening of baby Leo, newspaper editors were to be denied the customary photocall of the prime-ministerial clan on holiday in Tuscany. Tempers in Fleet Street were frayed. Downing Street was being stubborn.

It has been a good week for the Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, Lord Wakeham. After a tiresome attempted ban on photos of the christening of baby Leo, newspaper editors were to be denied the customary photocall of the prime-ministerial clan on holiday in Tuscany. Tempers in Fleet Street were frayed. Downing Street was being stubborn.

There was but one man for the job and, true to form, Lord Wakeham cooked up one of his celebrated deals. For a man who had lived and breathed almost every political crisis during the turbulent Thatcher-Major era, it must have been child's play. After all, he had, in the Autumn of 1997, steered the press through post-Diana crisis, when a large section of the British public believed that the media had violated, hunted and then killed their Queen of Hearts.

In hands less safe, the little local difficulty over the snaps of the Blairs on vacation could easily, as in so many cases in the past, have spiralled out of control. Instead, Lord Wakeham was asked for "guidance", which was duly given. His verdict was as follows: "We hope that after the photocall has taken place, the family will be able to complete its holiday in private. I know editors will be happy to respect that wish."

It was a typical Wakeham job. Trusted by both sides, he used the fact that agreement was in the interest of all the parties as leverage to settle seemingly irreconcilable demands. No agonising, no talk about the last-chance saloon, no shooting his mouth off on the Today programme, just another smoothly executed, practical, done deal. Fixed. The editor of The Mirror, Piers Morgan, calls Wakeham "magnificent": "I couldn't imagine anyone better for the job." True, and it comes as no surprise to Wakeham-watchers.

It was Margaret Thatcher who famously said of the formidable William Whitelaw, that "every prime minister needs a Willie", meaning a wise and experienced reliable deputy. But on the record of his public service over the last 20 years, it seems that three prime ministers, and the odd prince and newspaper editor, all needed their Wakeham as well.

Thatcher wrote in her memoirs that: "John would probably not dissent from his reputation as a fixer. He had a manner which exuded self-confidence, a good deal of which was deserved. These talents made him a highly effective party manager." Major said that he was "subtle, reflective, a fixer, fascinated by why something happened rather than simply what had happened".

He fixed for Mrs T at almost every turn. The Westland affair? Wakeham tried to cut a deal with Heseltine, and when that failed, helped compose Thatcher's ultimatum to him that provoked his resignation. Reshuffles? The arch-fixer vetoed Cecil Parkinson's return to Cabinet for years and assiduously promoted the cause of protégés like John Major and Tristan Garel-Jones whom he had recruited into his whips office. Watching out for the wets? He knew what they were up to almost before they did.

In the nicest possible way, Wakeham ran his whips like a secret police, but a force that knew its limits. At the time, Wakeham said: "Whips have to be more intelligent and articulate people, both because of the complexity of the issues and because of better-informed backbenchers who require a rational explanation and won't respond just to a 'loyalty to the regiment' plea."

According to John Major, Wakeham "played Mrs Thatcher like a master- fisherman landing a prize salmon". The Chief Whip would often nip round to Downing Street where the premier would kick off her shoes and, over a whisky or two, Wakeham would tell her "who was doing what to whom" in the parliamentary Conservative Party, intelligence garnered from a network of a dozen whips patrolling the tea-rooms, bars, corridors and even toilets of the Palace of Westminster. For a man addicted to intrigue, being Chief Whip under the courtly Thatcher was nirvana.

He had his critics. According to Alan Clark's diaries: "Wakeham was ... the biggest leaker known to man - he'd even brief journalists IN THE STREET on the way back from Cabinet." Others suspected him of manufacturing artificial "crises" which would then be "fixed" for a grateful prime minister and quietly publicised to garner his own reputation.

But, far more serious, some regard him as having done for his political mistress in the regicide that removed her from office in November 1990, an event that has left its scars. It was Wakeham who advised Thatcher to see the Cabinet one by one to ask them if they would support her, an episode that she was later to characterise as "treachery with a smile on its face". The charge is that Wakeham played the role of undertaker rather than cheerleader for Thatcher, and that he believed that she had to be forcibly shown that she was a liability. Or, as the columnist Michael Brown, then a backbencher puts it: "He completely stitched her up." But if Thatcher was already finished, was it not better to find, as an old friend and colleague, the best means of putting her political career peacefully to sleep? At all events, Thatcher herself didn't hold anything against him and they remained friends.

Wakeham's status and relationship with Thatcher was strengthened by their shared experience at the hands of the IRA - the attempt by the Provos to assassinate the Cabinet in the Brighton bombing of 1984. They succeeded in murdering Wakeham's wife, Roberta, and Wakeham took months to recover from the injuries to his legs, as he learned to walk again. It is, understandably, an episode that Wakeham has said little about since. It is worth mentioning that in 1999, no-one bothered to tell him that his would-be killer, Patrick Magee, had been released early (Norman Tebbit, who, with his wife, was also injured, was sent advance notice, by fax).

At the 1987 election, Wakeham was, briefly, placed in charge of running the broadcasting side of the Tories' election campaign. The Chief Whip decided to nominate himself to appear on the first televised Election Call, presented by Robin Day. In a confrontation with a Northern housewife, who made no secret of her determination to vote Labour, Wakeham was beaten into an embarrassing silence. According to Nigel Lawson, "his eyes wandered all over the place and he looked unbelievably shifty". Wakeham learned his lesson and scuttled back to his more natural subterranean environment.

The episode goes a long way to explaining why, in contrast to, say, Ken Baker or, later, Peter Mandelson, Wakeham did not emerge from the shadows to play a more prominent role. If Wakeham had been as telegenic as he was cunning, he might well have made it to one of the "great offices of state".

Wakeham did his best for Major. Again, as Leader of the House of Lords, he was placed on committees to deal with the problems that Major couldn't handle. But they were so numerous that even Wakeham enjoyed only limited success. He also found the hereditary peers, independent-minded and truculent as they were, much more difficult to handle than the Commons. Trust is one key to the Wakeham approach. The other is that antagonists not only have a common interest in the resolution of disputes, but that they realise that. In the Conservative Party of the early 1990s, such a feeling of common endeavour was conspicuous by its absence. In 1994, he stepped down from the Government after an unbroken stint that began as a junior whip in 1979.

For such a natural, if limited, politician Wakeham got off to a slow start. Born in 1932, into a well-to-do family involved in the motor trade, he was educated at public school - Charterhouse - before training as a chartered accountant. (He was later to use his skill to help Mrs Thatcher understand British Leyland's "elliptical" accounts.) He was an extremely successful businessman who, by the time he wound up the bulk of his interests after entering the Commons, was a Lloyd's Name, an owner of racehorses, and on the board of 62 companies. He travelled to Tory selection meetings in a car with a driver and, tellingly, a very early car- phone. He had also picked up a very expensive Havana cigar habit. Having fought two no-hope contests, the earliest at the age of 34 against Dick Crossman in Coventry in 1966, he was elected for Maldon in Essex for the 1974 election, where he stayed until 1992. "I felt I owed it to my father to have wider ambitions than just being an accountant. I felt I had to justify myself."

He was in his element: "I was fascinated by how Westminster actually works, the interplay of all the different forces, the smoke-filled rooms, the nods and the winks. As a businessman, I found it more comprehensible than most politicians do. The driving force in my life is how you make things happen, what are the processes which make things move ahead. One thing I learned as Chief Whip is the infinite capacity of human beings to absorb flattery."

After he left office in 1994, Wakeham's skills were not under-employed for long. Wakeham was an ideal choice to run the the Press Complaints Commission, a job he came by, "through a series of coincidences". He quickly set about sorting out the mess that relations between the Palace and the tabloids had become - and resolve the issue of the treatment of Princes William and Harry. Key was the appointment of Mark Bolland, formerly of the Commission, to work at the Palace, and the close relationship that was maintained between Bolland and Wakeham's staff. So impressive was Wakeham in his new job, and so solid was his reputation as the junction-box at the centre of the hidden wiring of the British constitution, that it came as no surprise that Tony Blair alighted upon him to chair the Royal Commission into the House of Lords, which reported in January this year.

In this job, Wakeham got himself a bad press. His solution for the next stage of reform, with its minimalist approach to democracy, was condemned by almost every newspaper in the land as a Blair-inspired sham. But he remained defiant. The leader-writers, poor unworldly things, had, according to the Chairman, missed the point about the report and, more broadly, about his way of doing business: "This is the fourth attempt at reforming the House of Lords in the 20th century. The three preceding efforts failed. We did not wish to spend months compiling a report that would gather dust in a pigeon-hole."

Wakeham will be 70 in 2002. At that time, he may well decide that his fixing days are over. There are many in the Establishment who will miss his understanding ear and sympathetic manner, played out behind a cloud of blue cigar smoke on those wonderfully mobile features. No doubt he is already fixing the succession.

Born: 22 June 1932.

Family: Son of Major WJ Wakeham and Mrs ER Wakeham.

Marriages: First to Anne Roberta Bailey (murdered by the IRA, 1984) 1965 (two sons); second to Alison Ward 1985 (one son).

Education: Charterhouse school.

Business Career: Chartered accountant; non-executive director, Bristol & West 1994-, Enron Corporation 1994-; director, NM Rothschild & Sons 1995-; non-executive chairman, Kalon 1995-, Vosper Thorneycroft 1995-.

Political career: Contested (unsuccessfully) Coventry East in 1966 and Putney 1970; Tory MP for South Colchester and Maldon 1979-92; junior whip 1979-83; Government Chief Whip 1983-87; Leader of the House of Commons 1987-89; Energy Secretary 1989-92; Leader of the House of Lords 1992-94; chairman of the Carlton Club since 1995.

Quango career: Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission since 1995; chairman of the British Horseracing Board 1996-98; chairman of the Royal Commission on Reform of the Lords 1999-2000.

Hero: Admiral Nelson.

Hobbies: Fixing, farming, sailing, horseracing, owner of one race horse, and has owned about a dozen, trained by Stan Mellor, in the 1970s, the best of them Willy What.

He says: "Every time I read that I am Mr Fixit I think I must have got it wrong, because I am not trying to fix it. I am trying to find the best solution."

They say: "Shrewd, mild in manner, his contribution to keeping the ship afloat with men overboard and the captain confined to her cabin was decisive." (Julian Critchley)

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