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Tuesday, 27 March, 2001, 14:38 GMT
James Arbuthnot: Opposition Chief Whip

By BBC News Online's Ray Dunne

Conservative chief whip James Arbuthnot was once tipped as a future Tory leader by former Prime Minister John Major.

While Mr Arbuthnot, an MP since 1987, has so far failed to live up to those expectations he has played a crucial role in helping one of his colleagues into the coveted post.

Mr Arbuthnot headed William Hague's campaign to become leader after the party's disastrous 1997 general election.

He was rewarded with the post of opposition chief whip, an important link between the party leadership and backbenchers.

Ministerial career

James Arbuthnot's ministerial career only got going after the election of John Major as Tory leader and his subsequent 1992 general election victory.

He was then appointed assistant chief whip and was promoted to junior minister at the Department of Social Security two years later. By 1995, he had been moved upwards to the Ministry of Defence.

The Hampshire North East MP had politics in his blood from an early age. His father was a Conservative MP for Dover from 1950 to 1964 and Mr Arbuthnot is said to have first hit the campaign trail at the age of five.

Mr Arbuthnot is said to have first hit the campaign trail at the age of five
Mr Arbuthnot was once tipped as a future Tory leader
He became secretary of the Eton Political Society in 1968, was to become a Tory councillor for Kensington and Chelsea 10 years later and by 1987 was in the House of Commons.

Mr Arbuthnot, at that time a member for the Wanstead and Woodford constituency, was quickly noticed in Westminster.

Causing a storm

In January 1988, he caused a storm when he became the first Englishman to sit on the commons Scottish committee. It prompted a walk-out by the other members.

In March of the same year, he proclaimed Nigel Lawson's tax-cutting Budget as "the best Budget I had ever heard" and has since gained a reputation for being pro-taxation reform.

He voted for Margaret Thatcher in the 1990 Tory leadership contest and opted for John Major in the second ballot after the "Iron lady" resigned.

Hard-working MP

An assiduous parliamentarian, Mr Arbuthnot has consistently been ranked among the most hard-working members of the Commons.

As opposition chief whip he plays an important role on William Hague's front bench.

The job is clearly easier than the same role on the government benches, but that is not to downplay Mr Arbuthnot's contribution over the past few years.

Perhaps his most high-profile intervention came amid the controversy surrounding the party's announcement of "zero tolerance" against drugs, whether "soft" or "hard".

The policy was announced by shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe at the Tory conference in October 2000.

Shelved

But within weeks it had been shelved, not least because of the admission by eight members of the shadow cabinet admitted to having smoked cannabis themselves in the past.

Newspaper reports at the time suggested that Mr Arbuthnot had contacted shadow cabinet members to tell them to answer any questions about previous drug use honestly.

That intervention contributed to one of the most dramatic Tory U-turns of recent years but was seen by some liberal Tories as also having possibly saved the party from further and more damaging embarrassment later on.

If the Conservatives win the next general election, he would be among those almost certain of a similarly important post in a William Hague cabinet.

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