Member of the Thatcher Cabinet who found himself increasingly at odds with his leader's imperious leadership style
Jonathan Player/The Times)
Although never more than a politician of the second rank, Lord John Biffen enjoyed an enviable reputation with members of almost all parties. Widely regarded as the most popular and successful Leader of the House of Commons since the war, he was recognised as an independent-minded, radical Tory of great charm and modesty.
He was first returned to Parliament in November 1961, after the previous MP for Oswestry, David Ormsby-Gore , was appointed by Harold Macmillan to be British Ambassador in Washington. At the selection conference in the constituency which the future Lord Harlech had represented for a dozen years, the young Biffen — who had been a lance-corporal during his National Service — defeated the notorious Major James Friend (the toast of the League of Empire Loyalists) and a brace of Tory colonels. In the Conservative Party of those days, that was no mean achievement. Biffen, a member of the Bow Group, entered the Commons at the age of 31.
But there was an even greater irony in his being chosen for this primarily agricultural seat. At the selection conference he was the only one of the four contenders to fully endorse the Macmillan Government’s pending application to join the European Economic Community. It was not long, however, before he changed into one of the strongest Tory Eurosceptics.
Biffen — with, as a friend once put it, “his head in the clouds and his feet very much in the mud of North Shropshire” — insisted on remaining his own man throughout his long parliamentary career. His love of the soil he probably derived from Stanley Baldwin but his support for an old-fashioned form of nationalism was inspired by Enoch Powell , for whom his admiration bordered on idolatry.
A Cabinet Minister for the first eight years of the Thatcher Government, Biffen was sacked in 1987 from his post as Leader of the House in a particularly chilly interview with Mrs Thatcher, who had earlier resorted to insult at second-hand by encouraging her press secretary, Bernard Ingham , to describe him publicly as “semi-detached”. There was, though, some truth in the charge. Biffen had long since tired of Margaret Thatcher’s imperious ways and, upon his discharge, made his disapproval evident: “I am not in business to make life easy for Mrs Thatcher,” he once said. He also described her regime as ‘Stalinist’.
Such an outburst from so normally cool a character came as a surprise. (Later, with similar hyperbole, he was to describe Ingham as “the sewer not the sewage”.) But this kind of invective, however sharp the provocation, was unworthy of Biffen, who was a man of sweet nature, generous to his friends and invariably courteous to his political opponents. He had largely won his reputation as a House of Commons man par excellence by his humour and unfailing good manners.
William John Biffen was born near Bridgwater in Somerset, the only child of William Victor Biffen, tenant farmer of 300 acres near the village of Combwich. His mother, who had come to the farm as a maid and then married her employer, had a great influence upon her son. Biffen once described her as combining “a strong sympathy for the poor” with “a strong sense of property”. She died, an old lady, in the early 1990s. It was said that his father and mother played cribbage every day of their married lives.
The young Biffen had an untypical upbringing for a future Tory Cabinet Minister. He went to the Combwich Village School (“He were clever,” was the oft-expressed view of a local fisherman), and then on to Dr Morgan’s Grammar School in Bridgwater, where he was encouraged to study history by an inspired schoolmaster, Jack Lawrence. Although hopeless at games, he was made head boy.
He then won an open scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he took a first in both parts of the history tripos. He was elected chairman of the Cambridge University Conservative Association, though unlike members of the later generation of the Cambridge Tory mafia, such as Kenneth Clarke and Michael Howard , he failed to become president of the Union. On finishing at Cambridge, he was offered graduate places at Yale and Cornell but could not raise the funds to take advantage of them. In 1953 he became, instead, a graduate trainee with Tube Investments in Birmingham.
He rented a flat in Erdington, which he shared with several of his friends. He used to delight in peeling potatoes for supper as soon as he arrived back from work. He would do so in his overcoat — a garment from which he derived a good deal of comfort in sub-Arctic conditions. Later he moved into a similar establishment in the Fulham Road (he was then working for the Economist Intelligence Unit), a flat which became a place of refuge for many “visiting firemen” who slept in his ‘dormitory’. He continued to peel potatoes, and to devote his leisure time to reading The Economist and Playboy.
His first foray into politics was not at Oswestry but at the general election of 1959 when he fought Richard Crossman at Coventry East. Crossman thought him the most formidable opponent he had ever had, but that did not save Biffen him from losing handsomely. Once he had been elected in 1961 for Oswestry, a somewhat dull railway town surrounded by lovely countryside, Biffen, always his own man, remained stranded on the backbenches — with one short exception — until the election as leader of the party of Margaret Thatcher.
His espousal of ‘Powellite’ causes, stopping short only of his hero’s views on race, did not endear him either to Harold Macmillan or to Edward Heath , though Sir Alec Douglas-Home did briefly appoint him Technology spokesman under Ernest Marples in 1965. It was not a role in which he lingered long, resigning soon after Heath became leader, and pleading ill-health (though the real reason was his total temperamental incompatibility with Marples). Heath, however, thought him guilty of “a lack of moral fibre” and, significantly, Biffen remained on the back benches throughout the period of the Heath Government from 1970 to 1974.
If there had been any inclination on Heath’s part to soften his attitude towards him, it would have been destroyed by the increasing hardening in Biffen’s attitude towards Europe. In October 1971 he joined 38 other rebel Tories, led by Neil Marten , to vote in principle against British entry into Europe. After the second Tory election defeat in October 1974, Heath in extremis did offer his young critic a place on the Opposition front bench but was rewarded only with a stern insistence that the correspondence between the two of them should be published. Since it involved on Biffen’s side an open declaration that he thought the party would benefit from a new leader, the whole matter (understandably) went no further.
In 1975, on Thatcher’s arrival in the Opposition leadership, Biffen at last appeared to come into his own. At first he declined a frontbench role, explaining that he thought he could contribute more from the back benches. But in January 1976 he was made Opposition spokesman on Energy, moving to Industry the following autumn — a watching brief, however, that he relinquished, just three months later, on the ground of ‘overstrain’. (At the time he was suffering from clinical depression caused, it was later discovered, by a chemical imbalance.) In November 1978 he returned to the Opposition front bench in the humbler capacity of spokesman for small businesses, but it proved enough to provide him with his ticket of admission to Thatcher’s first Government.
After the Tory victory at the 1979 general election he entered the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury (the Prime Minister and Biffen were the only two grammar school pupils in that original Thatcher Cabinet). He endorsed Geoffrey Howe’s deflationary policies with gusto, promising the country “three years’ of unparalleled austerity”.
In 1981 he was promoted to Secretary of State for Trade. In this department he ran into criticism for waving through (without any reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission) Rupert Murdoch’s 1981 bid to buy The Times and The Sunday Times.
The Falklands War was a turning point in Biffen’s uncritical admiration of Thatcher. Having deserted the hard-line monetarists, along with John Nott, he was the only member of the Cabinet to warn of the dangers of the Falklands expedition — though other members, no doubt, had their private reservations.
After Thatcher’s triumph in the war, which she marked by taking the salute at a march-past in the City, Biffen was switched from a running a Department to be Leader of the Commons. It was in this post that he found his political fulfilment. Yet, despite his obvious success, his relations with Thatcher continued to deteriorate. In October 1983 (by when his seat had become Shropshire North) he was shouted down in Cabinet when he opposed Thatcher’s determination (which even Howe did not share) to crush the unions at GCHQ Cheltenham. He became alienated from the party apparatus, when he complained of Norman Tebbit’s ‘raucous’ attacks on the BBC. (He described Tebbit as ‘paranoid’.) He was also believed to have joined Peter Walker in a vain effort to block tax cuts in favour of providing money for the public services.
But his great tactical error was to call in 1986, when appearing on Brian Walden’s Sunday lunchtime programme Weekend WorldLord Whitelaw and John Wakeham spoken up for him, he would have been sacked then and there. Instead, he was progressively frozen out by Thatcher who, by her use of Bernard Ingham, may even have hoped to provoke his resignation. But he was never the man to give way to that sort of pressure. “I would sooner leave on my feet than on my knees,” he defiantly proclaimed.
He was given no part to play in Mrs Thatcher’s third, and final, election campaign and victory in June 1987 and, the moment it was over, he was summarily removed from the post he loved, an act of vengeance that was regarded by almost the entire House of Commons as petty and vindictive.
Biffen moved wholeheartedly into the role of a dissenter on the Tory benches. He attacked the Government’s policies towards Europe, opposing a further transfer of power to European institutions, even going as far as to say that he preferred Mikhail Gorbachev to Jacques Delors . His principal opposition, however, was reserved for the poll tax, the ‘flagship’ of the Thatcher fleet. Believing that it would weigh more heavily on the poor than on the rich, he welcomed Michael Heseltine’s 1991 dismantling of it, saying that “when a flagship becomes a navigational hazard, the best thing to do is to scuttle it”. But even such devastating comments were delivered in his customary low-key style, in which he generally reserved a degree of mockery for himself.
Biffen kept himself apart from the growing right-wing hostility towards John Major and his Government, which was evidenced by John Redwood’s resignation from the Cabinet and his leadership challenge of 1995. Although still hostile to Europe in general and to the Maastricht Treaty in particular (he voted against the Third Reading of the Maastricht Bill) he never joined William Cash’s band of out-and-out rebels.
After his enforced departure from the Government, Biffen devoted much of his time to writing, an activity in which his wife Sarah became (until towards the end of his Commons career he acquired a professional one) his extremely efficient literary agent. He was perhaps more fluent on his feet than on paper, although his political pieces (often published in The Guardian) never lacked originality or interest. He also did a good deal of broadcasting. Immediately after he left office, he wrote a coffee-table book Inside the House of Commons (1989).
He then entered industry, becoming a director, 1987-2000, of Glynwed International, the makers of Aga and Rayburn cookers and of J. Bibby and Sons, 1988-97, whose activities include animal feed production. He was a director of the Rockwell Group, 1988-91, and of Barlow International, 1998-2000.
Biffen, who had previously announced his intention of retiring from the Commons, was nominated to the House of Lords in Major’s list of all-party working peers issued during the 1997 general election campaign. Despite poor health — he had a grave operation in the summer of 1997 — he certainly felt at home in the relaxed atmosphere of the Upper House, teasing the inexperienced Government front bench and pointing out, as was ever his wont, that the emperor had no clothes. Despite suffering renal failure and undergoing kidney dialysis three times a week, he was as active in the Lords as his health permitted.
John Biffen married his wife Sarah, who had been his secretary, in 1979. They lived in a Georgian rectory on the Welsh borders at Llanyblodwell. There, they entertained their many friends with a generosity that belied his self-proclaimed “keen sense of meanness”. His wife survives him, with a stepdaughter and stepson.
Lord Biffen, PC, Conservative Cabinet Minister, and Leader of the House of Commons, 1982-87, was born on November 3, 1930. He died of complications from renal failure on August 14, 2007, aged 76