John Wakeham

(b. 1932)

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(b. 22 June 1932)

British; chief whip 1983–7, leader of the House of Commons 1987–9 and House of Lords 1992–4; Baron (life peer) 1992 John Wakeham was an important member of Mrs Thatcher's and John Major's governments in the 1980s and 1990s. He was a successful accountant and already financially secure when he won the Malden constituency in February 1974, a seat he held until 1983 when it was redrawn as Colchester South and Malden. He remained as MP for the seat until 1992.

Wakeham proved to be a skilful chief whip (1983–7), warning Margaret Thatcher that a number of her proposals, including the Shops Bill (allowing shops to trade on Sundays) and the sale of Austin Rover cars to General Motors in 1986, could not be carried in parliament. He nearly lost his life in October 1984 when the IRA bombed the Brighton Grand Hotel at the time of the annual party conference. His wife Roberta was among those who died. After a lengthy period of convalescence he returned to politics but was in pain and walked with some difficulty for the remainder of his life.

In the 1987 parliament Wakeham entered the Cabinet as Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons. He managed to pilot through a number of controversial measures, including education reforms, the poll tax, and water privatization. He became Secretary of State for Energy in July 1989 and for the first time ran his own department. In this post he handled the privatization of electricity supply and distribution.

When Mrs Thatcher failed to win the party leadership on the first ballot in 1990 it was Wakeham's initiative for her to consult individually with Cabinet ministers. Some of her supporters subsequently blamed him for arranging the meeting that finally persuaded her to step down. In the next round of the leadership election he supported John Major and remained at Energy in John Major's first government. He retired from the Commons in 1992.

In the new parliament Wakeham entered the House of Lords and remained in the Cabinet as Lord Privy Seal and leader of the Lords. He chaired a number of key Cabinet committees. He left the government in 1994 and was chairman of the Press Complaints Commission (1995–2001). He stood down at the time of the collapse of the energy company Enron, of which he was a non-executive director, as ‘a matter of honour’. In 1999 he was appointed chairman of a Royal Commission on the reform of the House of Lords. Its recommendations in 2001 for a partly elected chamber were not acted upon and in 2009 there still was no clear consensus on how the House of Lords should be reformed.

Wakeham was widely regarded as a skilled political fixer, operating behind the scenes. He was good at bringing people together and striking compromises between people of different viewpoints.

Subjects: Politics.

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