Commentary (The Times)

Obituary: Channon [Paul] (1935-2007) [Trade & Industry Secretary 1986-89]

Document type: Press
Source: The Times , 30 January 2007
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 1,296 words
Themes: Arts & entertainment, Executive, Conservative Party (organization), Industry, Privatized & state industries, Trade, Transport

Paul Channon (Lord Kelvedon)

Son of ‘Chips’ Channon, who became an MP at 23 and went on to ministerial posts under Margaret Thatcher

An early start in politics has always been useful, and his private wealth and family connection helped Paul Channon to become an MP at the age of 23. Tall, courtly and with a cherubic, smooth face he began with most of life’s glittering prizes. He was also shrewd, hardworking and charming. Although he reached the Cabinet, perhaps his political career did not live up to his early promise.

After Eton and National Service in the Royal Horse Guards, 1955-56, Henry Paul Guinness Channon was a second-year undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford, when he was elected Conservative MP for Southend West in January 1959. He abandoned university immediately to take up his seat. Southend West was virtually a family fiefdom. He succeeded his father Sir Henry “Chips” Channon, who took over from his mother-in-law, Lady Iveagh, who in turn had followed her husband, the 2nd Earl of Iveagh.

Channon’s mother was Lady Honor Guinness, eldest daughter of the 2nd Earl, and the Guinness wealth made him a millionaire. The family connection with the seat led to it being referred to as “Guinness on Sea”. His grandmother memo-rably dismissed charges that his selection was an example of nepotism — “I think you have done the right thing by backing a colt when you know the stable he was trained in.”

When Paul Channon retired from the Commons in 1997 the family had continuously represented Southend for all but 15 years of the 20th century. He had entered the Commons as the youngest MP and had sat alongside the oldest, Sir Winston Churchill.

“Chips” Channon was a US-born Conservative MP who achieved fame with his brilliant Diaries — indiscreet, perceptive and snobby. They were the most famous political diaries of the century and unrivalled until Richard Crossman and later Alan Clark published theirs.

The diaries reveal that the young Paul was exposed to a world of high political and social networking and gossip, conspicuous consumption and upper class idleness. Remarkably, he grew up unspoilt from the heady experiences: unlike his more famous father he became a competent minister.

He was at home in the Conservative Party of Harold Macmillan and Sir Alec Douglas Home. Many of his senior colleagues were also men of great, often inherited, wealth and had large country houses.

In the 1959 House of Commons, 105 Conservative MPs had been to Eton (like Channon), Harrow or Winchester. Today the figure is 16. Between 1961 and 1964 he was PPS to one of the party’s great men, R. A. Butler, who was Home Secretary and then Foreign Secretary. “Chips” had at one time held the same post — the hereditary principle at work again. Highly regarded by his fellow Conservative MPs he was elected to the executive of the 1922 Committee in 1965.

In Edward Heath’s 1970-74 Government he had stints at Education, Housing and Northern Ireland. (It was his Chelsea house at which, notoriously, an armed Sean MacStiofain held talks with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw.) He returned to Housing in 1972 as Minister of State. His progress was more steady than spectacular and he had already acquired the reputation of being a safe pair of hands. He joined Heath’s short-lived Shadow Cabinet in June 1974 as spokesman on the Environment. But when Margaret Thatcher captured the leadership in February 1975 there was no place for Channon.

In 1979 in the first Thatcher Government he was Minister of State at the Civil Service Department. He effectively ran the department while Sir Christopher Soames was absent, engaged in negotiating the transfer of power in Zimbabwe. Indeed, “filling in” and working in accident-prone departments was to become something of a career path for Channon.

Thatcher abolished the Civil Service Department in 1981 and, having sacked Norman St John Stevas as Leader of the House of Commons and Minister of the Arts, she offered the latter to Channon in early January 1981. When No 10 tried to contact him with the news he had to be called in from swimming in the sea at his villa in Mustique. He genuinely liked the arts, was a keen opera-goer and drafted a scheme for Public Lending Right.

Channon served Mrs Thatcher’s entire second term at Trade and Industry, another department she did not care for. As Minister of State in October 1983 he stood in briefly when the Secretary of State, Cecil Parkinson, resigned. Twelve months later he deputised for Norman Tebbit when the latter required a lengthy recuperation from the injuries he suffered in the IRA bombing of the Brighton Grand Hotel.

By the end of 1985 Channon felt slighted that he had become the longest-serving Minister of State, and could go no higher. Other ministers pressed his case, emphasising his loyalty and reliability and he finally entered the Cabinet in January 1986 as Trade and Industry Secretary when Leon Brittan resigned after the Westland affair. The ministerial turnover at the DTI was notorious and Channon was the fourth Secretary of State in 30 months. Officials admired his diligent, unflappable approach to problems.

Within weeks, however, he was in the front line and on the front pages as it was revealed that his department was secretly negotiating the sale of British Leyland to General Motors in the United States. Conservatives backbenchers, worried over the threat to jobs in the West Midlands and already nervy after Westland, were furious. The negotiations eventually foundered and the sale of Austin Rover to Ford also failed. His Guinness family connection meant that he had to stand aside during the department’s consideration of a Guinness takeover bid.

His two-year stint at Transport, starting in June 1987, was no smoother, not least because of the Prime Minister’s animus against the nationalised railway system. The department was under attack because of disasters: the King’s Cross fire in which 31 died in November 1987; the Clapham Junction rail crash in December 1988; and the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie on December 21, in which 270 were killed. His diffidence, fair-mindedness and inability to project himself forcefully made him easy prey in the Commons for a boisterous John Prescott, Labour’s transport spokesman.

Prescott blamed the train disasters on economies in safety standards forced by niggardly government funding. He also accused the minister of showing a lack of feeling for the families of the Lockerbie victims by taking a Christmas holiday in Mustique. Conservative MPs were depressed by Channon’s limp performance in the debate.

It was no surprise that when Mrs Thatcher decided to refresh her Cabinet in July 1989 he was a casualty. She replaced him with Cecil Parkinson. Transport had become an issue of public concern and she felt that she needed a stronger minister. Channon was only 54 when his ministerial career came to an end. His self-confi-dence and standing in the party had taken a knock. More disappointment followed when his hopes of being elected Speaker were dashed: he numbered four Speakers among his ancestors.

In 1995 he informed his association that he would retire at the next general election and in 1997 the family’s connection with the seat ended. He took a life peerage as Lord Kelvedon after his Essex country mansion, Kelvedon Hall. In his latter years he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

In 1986 Channon had been shaken by the death of his student daughter Olivia at an Oxford college party from a mixture of drugs and drink. His wife, Ingrid, whom he married in 1963, and a son and a daughter survive him.

Lord Kelvedon, former Conservative Minister, was born on October 9, 1935. He died on January 27, 2007, aged 71