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British Conservative Politician
Born 1930 Died 2007

John Biffen was the Member of Parliament for Oswestry, later Shropshire North, between the years 1961 and 1997, and served as a member of Margaret Thatcher's government from 1979 until 1987 most notably as the Leader of the House of Commons

Early life

William John Biffen was born at Combwich in Somerset, on the 3rd November 1930, the son of Victor William Biffen, a tenant farmer of some three hundred acres in the vicinity of Combwich. John, as he became known as, was educated at the local Combwich village school and at Dr Morgan's School, a grammar school in Bridgwater. From there he won a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he read History. His studies were temporarily interrupted by his period of National Service, spent as a clerk in the Royal Engineers, before he graduated with a First in 1953.

Although John was offered graduate places at both Yale and Cornell universities he didn't possess the money to take advantage of such academic opportunities and instead took a position as a graduate management trainee with Tube Investments in Birmingham. There he remained until moving to the Economist Intelligence Unit in 1960.

Early political career

Whilst at university John had been the chairman of the Cambridge University Conservative Association and vice-chairman of the Federation of University Conservative and Unionist Associations; he thereafter remained active in Conservative politics where, as a member of the Bow Group, he was regarded at the time as being on the left of the party.

He first contested Coventry East at the General Election of 1959, where he faced Richard Crossman who was later to describe him as the most formidable opponent he had ever faced, although this made little difference to the result in this solidly safe Labour seat. A better prospect appeared some two years later in 1961 when John put his name forward for the vacancy at Oswestry, where the sitting member David Ormsby Gore had just been appointed as the British Ambassador in Washington by Harold Macmillan. There he faced competition from Major James Friend of the League of Empire Loyalists as well as a "brace of Tory colonels" but nevertheless emerged as the constituency party's choice. His rather unexpected selection has been explained by him being the only one of the four short-listed candidates to support Macmillan’s intention to apply to join the European Economic Community (EEC). However it has been said, on the authority of a Mrs Bridget O'Reilly, who chaired the constituency women's committee, that they unanimously supported Biffen on the grounds that he was an eligible bachelor, and that therefore one of the local Tory women might find herself a decent husband.

At the by-election held on the 9th November 1961 he was returned with a comfortable majority of 3,781, and he continued to represent the seat which became (with redrafted boundaries) Shropshire North in 1983 until his retirement from the House of Commons in 1997. In many ways this was somewhat ironical since Oswestry was primarily an agricultural seat, and despite his farming background, John Biffen positively hated farming himself.

His Parliamentary career

Once in Parliament John Biffen became a close friend of Enoch Powell and made his name as one of the more enthusiastic supporters of 'Powellite' causes, so much so that he became known as Powell's 'John the Baptist'. Such views did not endear him to Harold Macmillan, (who found Powell rather unsettling both on a personal and political level) although Macmillan's successor, Alec Douglas-Home appointed him as the opposition spokesman on Technology in 1965. His time on the opposition front bench proved short lived however, as he resigned soon after Edward Heath became leader, ostensibly on the grounds of ill-health, in reality because he couldn't stand his immediate boss Ernest Marple.

After this brief flirtation with the front bench John resolutely remained a backbencher for the next ten years and although Edward Heath offered him a position on the Conservative front bench both before and after the 1970 election, he refused on the grounds that he didn't agree with Heath's approach to the management of the economy or indeed his European policy since he had now become an opponent of British entry into the EEC. Indeed such was the scale of his opposition that in October 1971 he became one of the group of thirty-eight Conservative rebels led by Neil Marten, who voted against British membership of the EEC. However this act of rebellion did not prevent Heath from again offering him a front bench position after both the successive election defeats in February and October 1974. Again John declined on the quite understandable grounds that he was of the opinion that someone else other than the Heath should now be leading the party.

In due course a challenger duly arose in the form of one Margaret Thatcher, who now promoted domestic policies very much in line with the ideas of her Powellite predecessors. John voted for her in the leadership election and was later happy to serve under her, and accepted the post of Shadow Secretary of State for Energy in July 1975. He subsequently became the Shadow Secretary of State for Industry in October 1976, only to resign three months later; officially the reason was "overstrain" although there was all kinds of speculationas to the 'real' reason. The truth was that John had begun to suffer from bouts of lethargy, and was diagnosed as suffering from clinical depression and therefore simply felt obliged to resign. It wasn't until sometime later that it was established that he was suffering from a minor and treatable blood disorder which affected his nervous system. He was therefore able to return to the Opposition front bench in November 1978, albeit in the slightly less important position of the spokesman for small businesses.

His Government Career

With the Conservative victory in the General Election of 1979 Thatcher appointed him Chief Secretary to the Treasury, effectively the Chancellor's deputy. There it was intended that he would be an 'axeman', hacking back the undergrowth of a bloated public sector, and John himself promised "three more years of austerity" as the axe was duly swung. It doesn't however appear that he quite lived up to expectations as he was far too inclined to see the other side of the argument and put his axe to one side for the moment. In January 1981 he was therefore appointed as the Secretary of State for Trade, a post that wasn't exactly ideal for someone who didn't particularly like travelling abroad. It was however here there that he made the historic, and to some controversial decision, not to refer Rupert Murdoch's proposed acquisition of Times Newspapers to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Once again he gave the general impression of not quite being on top of things (at least as far as the Prime Minister was concerned), and when the opportunity for another government reshuffle arose following Peter Carrington's resignation on the issue of the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982, John left the Department of Trade to take up the post of Leader of the House of Commons, which duties he combined with formally holding the office of Lord President of the Council, and then from 1983 onwards that of Lord Privy Seal.

The Leader of the House of Commons is responsible for organising the timetable and details of the government's business in the House of Commons. Thanks to his mastery of Commons affairs and his knowledge of Parliamentary procedures (later demonstrated in his books Inside the House of Commons (1989) and Inside Westminster (1996)) John Biffen was able to provide a textbook demonstration of how the job should be performed. Armed with a sense of humour he was able to charm even such opposition members as Dennis Skinner and became widely recognised as being one of the most competent and succesful Commons leaders the country had ever seen. According to The Times he was "the most popular and successful Leader of the House of Commons since the war", whilst the The Independent went one better and called him "the finest Commons Leader in the 20th century".

Although idealogically speaking he shared the same belief in the principle of the free market as espoused by the Government, he did not quite share the militant enthusiasm exhibited by Thatcherism at its most exhuberant and even went so far as to describe Thatcher's style of government as "Stalinist" at one point. It was therefore perhaps inevitable that breakdown in relations would eventually occur. The first real sign was in 1986 when John argued against the introduction of the poll tax, but the crunch came in the following year during a television interview in early 1987 when he publicly declared himself a "consolidator" and argued that the Conservative Party should present a "balanced ticket" at the forthcoming election. Such statements rather displeased the Prime Minister who felt they displayed a certain lack of commitment to the cause. As a result he was given no part to play in the election campaign of 1987, during which Bernard Ingham, the Downing Street press secretary, famously described him as being only a "semi-detached member of the Cabinet". It came therefore as no surprise to many when John found himself sacked in the post-election reshuffle of June 1987.

His Post-government career

Now cast out to the backbenches John took the opportunity to utilise his talents elsewhere and earn some money and he became a director of such companies as Glynwed International (1987–2001), J Bibby & Sons (1988–1997), and the Rockware Group (1988–1991). He also served as a trustee of the London Clinic from 1994 to 2002 and was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Shropshire in 1993.

He nevertheless remained active in the Commons however and on occasion made his views felt, most notably perhaps when Nigel Lawson presented his budget of 1988. After the announcement of tax cuts all round to general Conservative elation, it was John Biffen who rose to his feet in the Commons to remark "That's all very well, but I think I smell inflation." He also proved equally troublesome to Thatcher's successor John Major whom he criticised for his handling of Britain's membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, whilst he later emerged as one of key rebels who fought against the adoption of the Maastricht Treaty during the years 1992 to 1993.

After over a quarter of century, he decided to stand down from the Commons at the 1997 election, although he was then created a life peer as the Baron Biffen of Tanant on the 19th April 1997. Unfortunately he was never particularly active in the House of Lords as a particularly serious operation in the summer of 1997 left him in poor health. He later suffered a total kidney failure in 2000 and spent the last years of his life on dialysis, and eventually died of complications arising from his previous renal failure on the 14th August 2007 at the age of seventy-six.

He married rather late in life in 1979, his wife being one of his secretaries named Sarah Drew and became stepfather to her son and daughter from her previous marriage.


SOURCES

  • Lord Biffen, Daily Telegraph, 15/08/2007
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml? view=DETAILS&grid=&xml=/news/2007/08/15/db1502.xml
  • Edward Pearce, The Guardian, August 15, 2007
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,,2148675,00.html
  • Lord Biffen, The Times, August 15, 2007
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/obituaries/article2258531.ece?token=null&offset=12
  • Patrick Cosgrave, Lord Biffen, The Independent 15 August 2007
    news.independent.co.uk/people/obituaries/article2864160.ece

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