Lord Peyton of Yeovil
February 13, 1919 - November 22, 2006
Tory minister who advised Edward Heath to go like a good sport after his defeat by Margaret Thatcher
John Peyton was one of the four senior Conservatives present when Edward Heath was told the result of the first ballot for the Conservative leadership in February 1975. When asked what action Heath, unexpectedly beaten into second place by Margaret Thatcher, should take, Peyton said that, though the British had differing views about winners, they admired good losers.
When Heath withdrew, Peyton was one of those who was persuaded to enter the second ballot, a decision he regretted, since he came bottom of the poll, gaining only 11.
Although Peyton served in Margaret Thatcher’s Shadow Cabinet for four years, he was the only opposition spokesman not to become a minister in May 1979, not surprisingly as his contributions had not always been from the Thatcher hymn sheet. In January 1973, during a discussion on two policy documents, Peyton said that Conservatives should be “against appeasement and confrontation, but there had to be a third way”, a pre-echo of later Blairite sentiments.
Disappointed at his rejection, he told the whips that he intended to change his name to Cinderella and obey the Fairy Godmother’s instructions not to stay out too late.
Thereafter he concentrated on his business career, leaving the Commons at the general election of 1983, when he became a life peer. His seat at Yeovil, which he had held for 32 years, was lost to Paddy Ashdown, the future Liberal Democrat leader.
John Wynne William Peyton was born in 1919 and educated at Eton, where, as a member of the OTC, he was in the honour guard within the grounds of Windsor Castle at the state funeral of King George V in 1936.
In 1937 he went up to Trinity College, Oxford, to read law. He dabbled in university politics and spoke at the Union, then under the presidency of Edward Heath. But in the summer of 1939 he sought a commission in the l5th/l9th Hussars. Going abroad with the British Expeditionary Force, he was captured in Belgium in May 1940. (His younger brother was killed in action at St Nazaire in 1942.)
Imprisoned first at Laufen in Bavaria, he was later sent to Warburg in Westphalia. The long years were made endurable by study for his future Bar exams. In the summer of 1942 he was moved to Eichstatt in Bavaria. In the spring of 1945 a forced march to a fourth camp at Moosburg suffered casualties when Allied aircraft strafed the columns which they mistook for German formations. Soon afterwards the camp was liberated by the Americans.
He was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple and joined the chambers of Patrick Devlin. One of his first briefs was on House of Lords business, after which he was offered, but declined, the post of assistant private secretary to Lord Jowitt, the Labour Lord Chancellor.
In early 1946 he was appointed personal assistant to Walter Monckton on the eve of his tour of duty in India to prepare for the transfer of power. Peyton was at Viceroy’s House when the health of the King Emperor was drunk by Mountbatten for the last time.
On his return to England Peyton became a Lloyd’s broker and sought a Conservative candidacy. He fought the Labour stronghold of Bristol Central in the 1950 general election, and entered the Commons in October 1951 as Member for Yeovil. In 1952 he became parliamentary private secretary to Nigel Birch at the Ministry of Defence, an appropriate first step on the rung, as Westland Helicopters and the Fleet Air Arm at Yeovilton were important constituency concerns.
Seen by some as a maverick rightwinger (he was later a member of the Monday Club), Peyton was a more complex political persona than that. He was a consistent opponent of capital punishment at a time when this could lead to difficulties in Conservative constituencies.
After his spell at the Ministry of Defence, Peyton had to wait eight years for his next post, as parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Power, in 1962. After the 1964 Tory defeat, he shadowed the post in Opposition until Edward Heath’s reshuffle in the summer of 1966.
Peyton felt that his political career was now at an end, but in 1969 Heath invited him to produce a West Country strategy document for the next election, and when the Conservatives unexpectedly won power in June 1970, he was appointed Transport Minister. The post was soon subsumed into a super-ministry in October and his job description became “Minister for Transport Industries in the Department of the Environment”. He was sceptical of the value of such departmental integration, preferring to plough his own furrow.
In November 1970 Peyton had to deal with the aftermath of the collapse of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Port Board, and in January 1971 he announced the sale of British Rail’s travel agency, Thomas Cook. He did not sympathise with the 1971 Industry Bill and when the “payroll ministers” were whipped to ensure victory over dissident backbenchers, Peyton’s room at the House was the scene of a desolate picnic supper attended by three unhappy ministers.
Further controversy came with Peyton’s decision to make the wearing of helmets compulsory for motorcyclists and, later, seatbelts for motorists. The Green Paper of March 1973 on the proposed Channel Tunnel was his responsibility, and he signed the initial agreement with his French counterpart. His friendship with John Betjeman, who accompanied him on some ceremonial railway events, was a feature of this time.
Another close friend was William Walton, and he generously allowed Heath to take over the 70th birthday celebrations he had been arranging for the composer, which became a semi-state function at Downing Street in the presence of the Queen Mother. When the Heath Government encountered industrial difficulties in the autumn of 1973, Peyton was a strong advocate of a pre-Christmas election. He believed, not merely with hindsight, that the February 1974 contest was a miscalculation.
After the Conservatives’ second defeat in the general election of October 1974, Peyton, who had taken up business posts with Texas Instruments (of which he was UK chairman, 1974-90), Alcan Aluminium, and the London and Manchester Assurance Company, became Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, a post in which his humour and geniality were valuable assets at a difficult parliamentary time.
In February 1975 he was caught up in the dramatic events following the fall of Heath — but he was never a serious candidate for the leadership. His place in the leader’s consultative committee was thereafter a tenuous one, and when he was made agriculture spokesman in 1976, he regarded that as one place nearer the door, which indeed closed behind him when the Conservatives returned to office in May 1979.
After leaving the Commons and entering the Lords he resumed his business career, becoming chairman of British Alcan Aluminium in 1987. He was an energetic treasurer of the Zoological Society of London, 1984-91. In 1997, Peyton published a memoir, Without Benefit of Laundry.
Peyton married in 1947 Diana Clunch, with whom he had two sons, one of whom died in childhood, and a daughter. This marriage was dissolved in 1966, and Peyton married Mary Cobbold. There were no children of his second marriage. He is survived by his wife and by a son and daughter of his first marriage.
Lord Peyton of Yeovil, politician, was born on February 13, 1919. He died on November 22, 2006, aged 87