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Kenneth Baker

(1934)


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Edward Heath (1916—2005) prime minister

Margaret Thatcher (b. 1925) British Conservative stateswoman, Prime Minister 1979–90

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(b. Newport, 3 Nov. 1934)

British; Secretary of State for Environment 1985–6, Secretary of State for Education 1986–9, chairman of the Conservative Party 1989–90, Home Secretary 1990–2; Baron (life peer) 1997 The son of a civil servant, Baker attended Oxford and became secretary of the university Conservative Association. He entered parliament by capturing the west London seat of Acton at a by-election in 1968. It disappeared, due to reorganization, in 1970, and he then managed to win the safe seat of the City of Westminster and Marylebone in a by-election in the same year. He held it until 1983 when it disappeared in another reorganization and was then adopted for a safe seat, Mole Valley in Surrey.

In his early days Baker was a friend and political ally of Ted Heath and this probably slowed his progress under Margaret Thatcher. Following spells as Minister of Information Technology (1981–4) and Minister of State for Local Government (1984–5) he entered the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Environment in 1985. In this post he pushed through the abolition of the metropolitan counties and the Greater London Council and began work on what finally emerged as the poll tax, to replace domestic rates. He complained that had his original proposals—to phase in the tax over a number of years, and provide substantial Treasury support—been accepted, then the poll tax would have worked.

He made considerable impact as Secretary of State for Education (a post which he held for three years). His far-reaching Education Reform Act (1988) gave state schools the right to opt out of local authority control, introduced a national curriculum, extended parental rights of choice in schools, and delegated financial responsibility to head teachers. Baker also pioneered the creation of a number of City Technology Colleges, and did much to restructure and expand higher education.

By 1989 he was widely regarded as a likely successor to Margaret Thatcher as party leader. He was ‘promoted’ to party chairman in July 1989 but this ruined his prospects. The unpopular poll tax, economic recession, by-election disasters, and the resignation of a number of key ministers meant that, as party chairman, he had to explain the government's many misfortunes to the mass media. When Mrs Thatcher was challenged for the leadership by Heseltine in November 1990, Baker's fortunes were low and her decision not to fight a second ballot inevitably weakened his own standing. When she stood down, there was little support for a Baker candidacy.

John Major, in part to conciliate the Thatcherites, made Baker Home Secretary in his new government. But in this post he proved to be accident-prone and his stock continued to decline. He introduced an Asylums Act (1992) to stem the potentially large flow of refugees from Eastern Europe and the Third World, and the Dangerous Dogs Act, which followed a number of cases in which dangerous dogs had attacked people. He was also a prime mover in the establishment of the National Lottery.

There was no place for Baker in John Major's second administration, formed in April 1992. It was rumoured that he had been offered the post of Secretary of State for Wales, clearly a demotion, and had refused it. On the back benches he became a spokesman for the growing body of opinion in the party that was concerned about the increasing power of the EC to override national sovereignty. He was even talked of as a potential leadership challenger to, but not replacement for, John Major in 1995. He retired at the end of the parliament in 1997.

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Subjects: politics.


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