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Donal Blaney: Personal tribute to Eric Forth

Eric_forth This week saw the untimely death of one of the heroes of the conservative movement, Rt Hon Eric Forth MP. Eric was the Vice-President of Conservative Way Forward (having been its chairman between 1997 and 2001) and a member of the Parliamentary Council of the Young Britons' Foundation since 2003. Also member of the No Turning Back Group and the 92 Group, it is pretty clear where Eric's views lay! Love him or hate him, you always knew what you would get with Eric Forth.
At the inaugural YBF conference in 2003, 70 fresh-faced conservative activists, mostly undergraduates, gathered to hear from an array of speakers over 4 days. The first speaker was Eric. He began by asking the assembled throng whether they felt that students should pay towards their higher education costs. Barely five hands were raised. Yet rather than indulging in platitudes or skirting the issue, Eric launched into a tirade that shocked and ultimately persuaded his audience. By the end of his tour de force, barely five hands were NOT raised in support of tuition fees - such was the power of his arguments, borne from his time as a Minister for Education and his wide-reading on the subject.
Eric was always available to offer advice and support. He would go into bat for his friends. When YBF was launched, it was greeted with suspicion by CCO because it was not (and indeed is not) controlled by the Party machine. Eric said that it was important to gather the names of parliamentarians as prominent supporters of YBF so that if CCO decided to pick a fight with YBF, CCO would learn that it was picking a fight with some very prominent parliamentarians too. As ever it was sound advice. No fight was ever picked.
Eric saw the writing on the wall a few years before the "modernisation agenda" was advanced by David Cameron and Michael Portillo. During the first Blair Parliament, I asked Eric whether he would sponsor me for the Candidates' List (as back then I harboured parliamentary ambitions). Eric said he was delighted to do so but he doubted his intervention would help. He also said that unless I had been keeping things quiet, I stood no chance. Slightly hurt, I asked why. Eric responded, in typically trenchant style, by saying that unless I was gay, black or female (and preferably at least two out of three) I would never get selected - and as far as he knew I ticked none of the boxes. It would be cruel irony and an insult to his memory if CCHQ imposes a minority candidate from the A-List on Bromley and Chislehurst in the by-election caused by his death.
Eric had a wonderful 19th century attitude to politics. He never held constituency surgeries although he would help his constituents with their problems if he could. He often did so in rather a direct manner - he told one constituent who was complaining about the cost of housing in his constituency "to move to a grottier part of town". Nonetheless he was an effective constituency MP.
Eric_forth_2 Eric loved America. He was proud to be in the Shadow Cabinet that voted to support the Blair government's decision to go to war. He would frequently be seen in the Commons Chamber wearing a Stars & Stripes tie. And through his happy marriage to Carroll, Eric would spend many weeks at a time in the US itself. Indeed any moment the Commons was in recess, Eric would be off to the airport. In my last conversation with Eric, he made it clear that the conservative movement needed to combat anti-Americanism with vigour and he was appalled to learn that one-third of the delegates at the second YBF conference in 2004 were supporters of John Kerry - proof, he said, of the power of the BBC and MTV and of the lack of zealous campaigning by conservatives.
No one was more shocked than Eric when he became a privy councillor under John Major. But Eric most greatly enjoyed his time as Shadow Leader of the Commons, an inspired appointment by Iain Duncan Smith. Eric simply loved the Commons. His jousts with Robin Cook were particularly memorable and often drew MPs back into the Chamber from their offices.
Eric was proud to be a Thatcherite and a Reaganite. He eschewed political correctness. He recognised the inherently undemocratic and corrupt nature of the EU. His use of parliamentary procedure to obstruct unnecessary legislation was legendary. Along with his good friend David Davis (who was, at that time, Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee), Eric did more to hold the first Blair Government to account than most of the Shadow Cabinet put together.
Two moments sum up Eric's sense of mischief. One was when he was sat next to Iain Duncan Smith during PMQs. Iain had asked a weak question that provided Blair with an easy retort and a chance to get off a particular hook. While Iain was floundering at the Despatch Box as a result of this seemingly suicidal question, Eric pointed a mock gun to his own temple and fired. The moment was captured on television, caused considerable amusement at the time and, while evidence of Eric's occasional lapses of judgment, was prescient of the impending coup that brought Michael Howard to power. Eric was very unhappy indeed that David Davis decided not to run for the Party leadership in 2003, a decision he perhaps unfairly compared to Michael Portillo's decision not to run against John Major in 1995.
The second moment was, of course, his recent heckle of Ming Campbell when the LibDem leader asked a question about pensions and, before Ming got underway, Eric hollered "Declare your interest". Campbell has still not recovered from the incident. I am sure this "intervention" will go alongside Dennis Skinner's heckle of Lady Thatcher in her final appearance as Prime Minister in 1990 ("She's going to be the Governor").
Many of us go into politics because of ideas. A few nakedly pursue power. Some become MPs because they went to the right school. Eric entered politics to advance his principles. He stood as a beacon of probity and consistency in a parliament of cynics, careerists and opportunists. He was certainly conspiratorial and frequently brusque but he was always kind, helpful and funny - and time spent in his company was always memorable. It is a tragedy for those of us who were proud to be among his circle of friends that he has been taken from us just when we need him the most.

Related links: Eric Forth MP has died, Conservative Party obituary.


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