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Thursday, July 1, 1999 Published at 10:01 GMT 11:01 UK

UK Politics

Whitelaw: The archetypal Tory

Whitelaw: served as Ted Heath's chief whip

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Willie Whitelaw's image as a pleasant, bumbling old Tory duffer endeared him to politicians on all sides but belied a razor-sharp political sense and an ability to stitch up rivals with consummate ease.

For 10 years, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher relied on him as her deputy and, later, as Tory leader in the Lords.

She knew that Willie, having abandoned any leadership ambitions of his own, was absolutely loyal and could be relied on to tip her off about looming revolts or unforeseen political pitfalls.

His daily advice was crucial to her grip on power and he was not averse to leaning heavily on MPs to whip them into line.

Lady Thatcher once declared to MPs' delight: "Every prime minister needs a Willie."

But Lord Whitelaw's public image as the archetypal Bufton Tufton persisted and was only enhanced by a series of gaffes that he was happy to admit to.

He once famously accused Harold Wilson of going around the country "stirring up apathy".

Prison visit

A story he told against himself came out of a prison visit when he was home secretary.

As part of the tour, he was taken to the arts and crafts class where he chatted to one prisoner after another, asking the same question every time - "Hello, what are you doing?"

"Basket weaving, sir," or "Sewing mail bags, sir," came the answers. "Well done, carry on," he replied to them in turn.

By the time he came to the last in the line his concentration had obviously wandered.

"Hello, and what are you doing?" he asked again. "Twenty five years for murdering my wife" - "Well done, carry on."

Lord Whitelaw was also a hugely hospitable man, a fact which endeared him to the lobby journalists in Parliament.

He used to hold a regular Friday briefing for the press at which he would offer insights into the government's thinking.

He welcomed every journalist with a smile and a gesture towards a huge table, groaning with bottles of whisky, gin, beer and just about any other alcoholic - and some non-alcoholic - drink imaginable. "Just help yourself to a drink," he would offer.

They were the most popular and best attended briefings in parliament and they are still missed to this day.

Dirt book

He served as chief whip under Ted Heath and caused a sensation in 1995 by revealing what everyone in Westminster had always suspected - that whips kept a little black "dirt book" on their MPs to keep them in line.

"The dirt book was just a little book in which you had to write down varying things that you knew or heard about people," he told a documentary programme.

A year later he sparked another storm by joining with other Tory "grandees" - Lord Carrington, Lord Howe, Douglas Hurd and Sir Edward Heath - to urge then Prime Minister John Major not to rule out membership of the single European currency.

The move came in a letter to a newspaper warning about "little Englander" tendencies in the party.

It opened up the deep splits at the centre of the party on the issue and saw the group branded "dinosaurs not grandees" by former Chancellor Norman Lamont.

Lord Whitehall came from a wealthy Scottish family and, after serving as a tank commander inn the Second World War, he was driven into politics.

He was first elected in 1955 as MP for Penrith and the Border, which he held for 28 years. His talents to get on with all sides and as a canny political operator saw him made chief whip and then leader of the commons under Ted Heath.

In 1972 he was made the first Northern Ireland Secretary at the height of the troubles and even negotiated a truce with the IRA and negotiated the doomed power-sharing executive which collapsed in 1974.

Despite being a front-runner to succeed Mr Heath as leader, but he hesitated and was defeated by Mrs Thatcher who made him her deputy and home secretary.

He introduced the idea of the "short, sharp shock" for young criminals but maintained a liberal, anti-capital punishment attitude.

He was appointed a hereditary viscount in 1983 as a reward for his unstinting loyalty, hard work and integrity and became Tory leader in the upper house.

He suffered a stroke in 1987 which led to him cutting back on his political activity.

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