What does she think?

High Tory, not highbrow: Paul Routledge on the woman shaping policy for the right; profile; Tessa Keswick

Saturday 09 September 1995 23:02 BST

ON THE face of it, her appointment begs a serious question. Why give the job of executive director of the Conservatives' most cerebral think-tank to a candidate who didn't go to university and has one thin pamphlet to her credit?

Tessa Keswick, named last week as the executive director of the Centre for Policy Studies, has stunned the brainy right of the Tory party. Her coup in being appointed intellectual heir to Sir Keith Joseph was unexpected, particularly since she had only recently given up the post of political adviser to Chancellor Kenneth Clarke, the long-standing "wet" bete noire of Conservative hardliners.

What is she bringing to the party? Her backers want the CPS, Baroness Thatcher's ideological offspring, to regain its leading and guiding role in the development of Conservative political thinking. Most of all, they want to see its ideas reflected in John Major's manifesto for the general election. It is a tall order. In that most rigorous of free markets - for radical concepts to satisfy Tory appetites - the competition is fierce. And the punishment for failure is oblivion.

Lord Griffiths of Forest Ffach, who headed the Downing Street policy unit and now chairs the CPS, was instrumental in giving Mrs Keswick the job. Naturally, he defends his board's choice. "She is a very able person," he insists. "She is full of ideas. She has had a lot of experience behind the scenes in developing policy. She is very articulate on paper. I just think she is very competent."

He has known her "for ages", but is hard pressed to remember why. "I think I read pieces by her in the Spectator and the Telegraph and so on."

Others on the Tory right are less charitable. They exhibit, or feign well, surprise that the standard bearer of the party's most influential think-tank should now be a ministerial fixer whose one pamphlet was written in the early Seventies on the not-so-burning issue of childcare. "It is an amazing choice," said one hard-hat thinker. "The CPS is the ideological nerve centre of the Thatcher revolution. It seems rather odd to entrust it to Clarke's closest confidante."

Mrs Keswick takes over on 1 October, a week before the Tory party conference in Blackpool that will start the countdown to the election. In 18 months, at most, she must revive the flagging fortunes of the Centre for Policy Studies just when the radical right is showing signs of the fissiparous tendencies usually associated with the barmy left. John Redwood, latter- day Keith Joseph and unsuccessful candidate for the party leadership, has started up his own think-tank. The Adam Smith Institute is braying on all cylinders and the Institute for Economic Affairs is pushing its agenda.

Into this cut-throat marketplace of ideas steps a daughter of the Scottish aristocracy who cheerfully admits that she only became political in her early thirties, when striking miners turned off the lights in her home.

THE Honourable Annabel Therese Fraser, daughter of war hero Lord Lovat, was born in 1942, and educated bilingually by a French governess and at convent schools in London, Paris and Madrid. Her mother was the only daughter of Sir Jock Delves Broughton, who was acquitted in a famous pre-war trial in Nairobi of the murder of Lord Erroll, his wife's lover. The scandal, celebrated in the film White Mischief, was hushed up at home. "It was never discussed in our family when I was young," she recalled later. "We all thought he was innocent." Unwished-for drama has dogged the family since. Two years ago, her brother Lord Lovat was killed by a buffalo during an African safari, and months later her brother Simon died after falling off his horse while drag hunting.

At 15, Therese gained an A-level in French, and two years later another in English literature, but she declined to try for university because she wanted to see the world. She did various jobs in swinging Sixties London, including selling adverts for the Spectator. In 1964, she married Lord Reay, head of the Clan Mackay. They had three children, but the marriage did not work out and was dissolved in 1978.

The shock of separation brought out her individuality. Living in the capital as a single parent forced the society belle to look for work, and she is intensely proud of having made her way in the tough-nosed world of finance. She worked first as London editor of an American oil magazine. Then, using her contacts, she introduced City money to Algy Cluff, when he was forming a North Sea oil consortium. Her reward was a shareholding "for which I didn't pay. Luckily they struck oil the first time!" In the Eighties, she worked for Cluff Investments as trading executive in the emergent market in China.

Politics had already found her in Notting Hill Gate. The pit strike in 1974 and its attendant social dislocation infuriated the single mum trying to cook by candlelight. That year, when Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher founded the CPS to destroy the "corporatism" of the Heath era, she became active in the Tory party, winning election to Kensington council. She might have stayed there had not a pamphlet on childcare and women in the labour market attracted the attention of right-thinking Conservatives.

In 1985 she married Henry Keswick, one of Britain's richest men, whose massive fortune is based in trading interests in Hong Kong. She "beavered away" in the background for a decade, standing for a hopeless Scottish seat in the 1987 general election, until her big chance came in 1989. In January that year, she joined Kenneth Clarke as his political adviser at the Department of Health. They made an odd couple: she, the aristocrat's daughter with unrivalled City connections; he, the blokish, beer-and-cheroots football fan who would eventually run the country's finances. It was said that when Clarke's outgoing political adviser rang the Keswick household to tell her she had got the job, the call was taken by the butler. But she opened social doors for the future Chancellor, and kept a lifeline open to the Tory right which is her natural political home. "She has been Clarke's right-wing conscience," said a fellow free-marketeer.

As Clarke's biographer Andy McSmith points out, her relationship with her Secretary of State was "obviously close". She moved with him to Education, the Home Office, and then to the Treasury. "By 1994, accusing fingers were pointed at her, holding her responsible for what were perceived to be Clarke's mistakes," said McSmith. Then, in February this year, Mrs Keswick mysteriously quit. She said at the time: "It is a wrench, but after six fascinating years, it is time to move on."

And that was that, until her equally dramatic reappearance last week. The CPS said Tessa Keswick would be its executive director from 1 October. It was a very private coup. The outgoing director, Gerald Frost, is bound by a confidentiality clause that stops him talking about his departure, but it is no secret in Westminster that the Centre, once the intellectual power-house of the Tory party with an input to government policy, had slipped sharply in the influence league. The torrent of ideas had diminished, and financial support was proving harder to come by.

What more natural than to turn to a former government insider with a brilliant record of introducing money to a good home? Tessa Keswick will have little difficulty in finding the wherewithal to revive the flagging financial fortunes of the CPS. But some doubt whether she has the originality of mind required to bring forward the next generation of Tory thinking. A veteran lobby correspondent says cruelly: "She's never had an idea in her life." Her few on-the-record interviews have not been noticeable for deep policy thinking, though that would be understandable for a political adviser who is not supposed to court the limelight. She is not above repeating glib generalisations, such as "territorial disputes are always a political nightmare". A faintly-surprised egghead at a rival think-tank observed: "She will be good at talking to ministers. The question marks are on the intellectual front. We are not talking David Willetts [the formidably bright ex-CPS director, now an MP] here."

But political inventiveness will not be the yardstick by which her time at CPS will be judged. Having worked in four departments of state, she has been on the inside track at a critical time, and must know the general direction of policy within the key areas of the economy, education, health and law and order. It will be her role to mobilise other, perhaps better, minds to offer radical solutions.

She will be helped greatly by her natural vivacity. Admirers talk of a power-charmer with a "sparkling, stylish, sexy manner", who is "terribly good fun". She is 52, though she does not look anything like it. But when the Times visited the Home Office to photograph Clarke's all-female private office, she scolded the reporter who asked her age. Her dress is undemonstrative. "She tends to dress very elegantly, but in drab colours," said a woman friend. "She's very good at getting people together to talk about things. She has an 'in' to some very high-powered businessmen who do not feature in the political scene but who are 'interested'."

Civil servants who have worked with Mrs Keswick tend to support the ungallant version of her policy grasp. But they do credit her with popularising the phrase "middle England". How ironic, if aristocratic Scotland should deliver this political terrain back to the Tories.

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