Thursday, 24 June 2010

Peter Walker

The death of Peter Walker announced yesterday reminded me of a couple of incidents that happened round about 1980. I happened to get in the lift at the Department of Trade and Industry building in Victoria Street at the same time as the 'mad monk' Sir Keith Joseph. As we ascended to the top floor, Sir Keith stared at me all the time as I was something that the cat had brought in.

In the old MAFF building in Whitehall Place, I got in the lift with Peter Walker. 'How are you. How's everything going?' he asked. He didn't know me, but clearly thought I was a relatively junior civil servant.

Peter Walker came from a skilled working class background in London (something we share). By the age of 30 he was self-made millionaire. As chairman of the Young Conservatives, he bagged what was then a safe seat at Worcester (Worcester Woman delivered it to New Labour in 1997 and it has only just returned to the Cameroonies).

Walker got over his antipathy to the common market and hitched himself to Ted Heath's bandwagon, running his successful leadership election campaign in 1965. His managerial approach fitted in with Heath's modernising style and he headed up the new Environment department in 1970 before going to Trade and Industry.

However, he lacked that extra something that singled out a future party leader and in any case his brand of Conservatism was going out of favour. He could certainly spot an emerging issue as in the case of the 1972 Deposit of Poisonous Wastes Act which presaged later environmental legislation (and about which I wrote a case study in our book on the CBI). However, it is arguable that he botched the reform of local government and also took a 'courageous' decision to invest heavily in the steel industry just when it was going into decline.

Mrs Thatcher, whom he had turned down as a minister of state, put him into the relative backwater of the Ministry of Agriculture. Here he bought into the productivist agenda, producing a white paper called 'Food From Our Own Resources'. He wasn't too pleased to be shifted to Energy but was then in charge of defeating the miners' strike, as well as privatising British Gas and laying the groundwork for electricity privatisation (arguably not well done).

Before the 1987 election he was so much on the edge of the platform that he was in danger of falling off at an election launch event involving the Cabinet. However, he outlived all the other 'wets' in the Cabinet like Sir Ian Gilmour and Jim Prior. This was exemplified in the title of his memoir 'Staying Power'.

Mrs Thatcher made him Secretary of State for Wales and gave him a free hand to pursue interventionist policies in the principality where he went down well. 'Just look at what Peter Walker is doing in Wales,' Ian Gilmour once said to me.

Peter Walker had a happy family life. He stayed married to Tessa and had five children. He had few interests outside business and politics, but he pursued those interests to the full.

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