Lord Pym: The Times obituary
Cabinet minister who was dismissed as Foreign Secretary by Margaret Thatcher and became one of her severest critics
Francis Pym was a connoisseur’s politician. In so many respects like his political mentor, William Whitelaw, Pym also held two of the same jobs. He was Conservative Chief Whip for a large part of the life of the Edward Heath Government, between 1970 and 1974, and he was - albeit for a short time - Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
After a period, while the Conservatives were in opposition, as a Shadow spokesman on various subjects, he returned to the Cabinet with the election victory of the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher in 1979. But it soon became apparent that he was not in tune with the robust right-wing complexion of the new Government and he soon became known as one of the “wets” in the Thatcher Cabinet - a name given to those who hankered after a less confrontational relationship with the trade unions and a return to the consensus politics of the Tory governments of the 1950s.
In rapid succession during Mrs Thatcher’s first Government, he was Secretary of State for Defence, Leader of the House of Commons and Foreign Secretary. From the last post he was abruptly - some said unfairly - dismissed in 1983, though he could scarcely have expected anything else from his party leader after openly casting doubts, during the general election campaign of that year, on the desirability of her securing a large majority in Parliament. Thereafter, along with other Tory “wets” from the Heath era, he became a thorn in the side of the Government, as a constant critic of its economic policy. But the impact of the parliamentary splinter group he set up to oppose the Government in the mid-1980s was relatively short-lived, and he retired from Parliament in 1987.
Francis Leslie Pym was born in 1922 into an old landed family. His father, Leslie, sat for Parliament as a Conservative, holding what amounted to a family seat. Francis, educated at Eton and Magdalene College, Cambridge (of which he became an honorary Fellow in 1979), spent his early adult years - as he put it himself - “pottering about”.
He found himself when he was commissioned into the 9th Lancers, and he used to remark in later years that this was the formative period in his life. He served during the Second World War from 1942 in North Africa, and subsequently in the Italian campaign. He was mentioned in dispatches in 1944 and in 1945 was awarded the Military Cross. To the end he remained something of a soldier, and when the Conservative Government was elected in 1970 he exclaimed with pride that Edward Heath had appointed the most military Cabinet for a generation.
Pym left the Army in 1946 and returned to Cambridge to complete his studies. Like Whitelaw, he would later explain that it was his military experience that had turned him in the direction of politics. Both men believed that Westminster was the place to fight the postwar battles of reconstruction. Unlike Whitelaw, however, Pym devoted himself first to business affairs and to the care of a family estate. It was not until 1959 that he felt free to seek a Conservative nomination. He thus missed some of the excitement and challenge of the postwar re-examination of Tory policy. It was a lack he said he felt deeply in later years.
Pym was unsuccessful in the Labour stronghold of Rhondda West in 1959, and did not enter Parliament until a by-election in Cambridgeshire in 1961. A year later he became an unpaid deputy government whip. He had but brief experience of that post before the Tories lost the 1964 election.
Pym remained a whip in opposition. In 1966 Edward Heath, the new Leader of the Opposition, appointed William Whitelaw as Chief Whip, a post for which he had no relevant previous experience. Pym was invaluable to him, the two became friends and in 1967 Pym became Deputy Chief Whip. He observed with satisfaction that, since he and his chief had farming interests, and since Heath had himself been Chief Whip, the Tory front bench was now dominated by whips and farmers.
Later, in 1970, when Pym himself became Chief Whip and James Prior, also a farmer, became Secretary of State for Agriculture, Pym reiterated his analysis, arguing that the sociologists who were busily examining the emergence of a new kind of bourgeois Conservative, replacing the old aristocracy symbolised by Sir Alec Douglas-Home, had entirely missed the point. Douglas-Home, Foreign Secretary in the Heath Government, was, Pym would announce with his characteristic high-pitched laugh, also a farmer.
Pym was a more disciplinarian Chief Whip than his predecessor. He showed no sympathy, for example, with Conservative rebels against the legislation affecting Britain's entry into the European Economic Community (as it then was). He was badly put out when, in the first important division on this issue - although there was no official whip - 39 Tory Members voted with the majority of Labour MPs against the principle of entry. During the often hair-raising debates on the EEC Bill Pym found that he had underestimated the strength of opposition on this issue among backbenchers.
As crises beset the Government, he was in 1973 moved - very much against his will - to Northern Ireland to succeed Whitelaw. His sojourn there was brief, and in opposition after February 1974 he became Shadow spokesman on agriculture.
Thereafter his career was a curious one “consisting entirely,” as he put it, “of switchbacks, of ups and downs.” When Margaret Thatcher succeeded Heath as leader he continued for a time at agriculture. In 1975, however, after a hernia operation, he returned for a time to the back benches to recuperate. He was, again briefly, agriculture spokesman in 1976, before being made Shadow Leader of the House, and party spokesman on devolution. This last assignment he found particularly unsatisfactory, as he shared responsibility with Teddy Taylor, an uncompromising opponent of devolution for Scotland and Wales.
It was about this time that Pym discovered himself as an orator. He found he had the capacity to make ringing and emphatic speeches, and bring an audience to its feet. It was only afterwards, when the speeches were read in print, that their subtlety became apparent. His ability to see all sides of a question could alienate more dogmatic minds, particularly in Mrs Thatcher's inner circle.
When devolution was rejected by the electorates of Scotland and Wales Pym became, again briefly, Shadow Foreign Secretary. Again, this was a profoundly unsatisfactory position, for it was widely, and correctly, believed that Mrs Thatcher intended to appoint Lord Carrington to the substantive post in the event of an election victory.
This duly happened in 1979, and Pym found himself Secretary of State for Defence. Here his growing differences with the Prime Minister on many matters of policy began to lead to estrangement between them. He put up fierce and principled resistance to cuts in the defence budget, and found himself moved to the leadership of the House. In speeches of varying ambiguity he expressed differences with the economic policies of the Government.
However, when at the outset of the Falklands conflict Lord Carrington resigned, the Prime Minister had little option but to make Pym Foreign Secretary. Although in the opinion of many he acquitted himself with distinction, some of his pronouncements seemed dangerously ambiguous to Thatcher loyalists. Finally, in 1983, his openly doubting the desirability of a large Conservative majority during the election campaign of that year took the matter of his loyalty beyond suspicion. On her return to office with just such a majority the Prime Minister dismissed him summarily from office.
Thereafter he became an increasingly strong critic of what he regarded as the intransigence of the Government’s economic and social policies. In 1985 he launched a new parliamentary pressure group called Conservative Centre Forward, which numbered more than 30 like-minded backbenchers. Its aim, based on the thesis argued in his book The Politics of Consent (1984), was to attract support in Parliament and the country for more centrist, “One Nation” policies. But it never commanded wide support.
Pym’s old friend, by now Viscount Whitelaw, begged him not to embarrass the Government by voting against it. And after such initial successes as a Commons revolt against rating proposals in January 1986 which halved the Government's majority, the movement lost its impetus. Simply, the success of the Thatcher economic model appeared effortlessly to reproach the failures of such “moderate” policies in the all-too recent past, and the appeal of what had at its outset been styled the “Pym Rebellion” was bound to be short-lived.
By May that year Pym was announcing his retirement from Parliament. He gave up his parliamentary seat (which had by then become Cambridgeshire South East) at the general election of 1987, and that year he was given a life peerage.
Francis Pym was an old-fashioned centrist Tory, and his jocose expressions of pride in his ancestry told something of his character. In retirement he took the opportunity to research this, and a second book, Sentimental Journey (1998), was a charming and engaging privately printed history of his family from 1662.
He married, in 1949, Valerie Fortune Daglish. She survives him, along with two sons and two daughters.
Lord Pym, MC, former Conservative Cabinet minister, was born on February 13, 1922. He died on March 7, 2008, aged 86