Obituary: Lord McAlpine, former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party

Lord McAlpine: Former deputy chairman of the Tory party who was a devoted confidant to Thatcher. Picture: PA
Lord McAlpine: Former deputy chairman of the Tory party who was a devoted confidant to Thatcher. Picture: PA
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Born: 14 May, 1942, in London. Died: 17 January, 2014, in Puglia, Italy, aged 71

ALISTAIR McAlpine, the Baron McAlpine of West Green and a member of the McAlpine construction family from Lanarkshire, was a colourful confidant, adviser and “soul-mate” to Margaret Thatcher, to whom he was absolutely devoted. He served as deputy chairman of the Conservative Party and as its most-successful treasurer ever, raising £100 million for the party during the Thatcher years. Himself a multi-millionaire – born in London’s posh Dorchester Hotel, no less – he raised funds for the lady he called “Margaret the Most Magnificent” – by wining and dining fellow-wealthy people in the best restaurants and clubs of London and charming them into sending healthy cheques to the party. It was a time, friends said, of CCL – Champagne, caviar and lobster. Although he was never a politician per se, he was very much a political player, who would have fitted well into the TV series Yes, Prime Minister, perhaps plotting with Sir Humphrey over a digestif in their gentleman’s club.

He survived the 1984 IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where he was in a suite above Mrs Thatcher’s, and his home, West Green in Hampshire was also blown up by the IRA while he was not there. He also came through two major heart bypass operations, the second of which, in 1999 left him in a coma on a life-support machine for a month and ultimately, after pulling through, led him to convert to Catholicism. Having been brought up in the Church of England, and a school in which that Church was the backbone, he said of his new-found Catholicism: “It makes me feel more casual about life.”

In the last few years of his life, he faced allegations of paedophilia – further fuelled by backward tweeters – which proved totally unfounded, but hurt him deeply. “The anger gets into your soul,” he once said. He did receive compensation from the BBC, ITV and several of those tweeters who later admitted they wouldn’t have had the knowledge or vocabulary to maintain a real-life conversation with him.

As a result of the false McAlpine allegations, the BBC’s then director-general, George Entwistle, himself a novice in the job, resigned. Lord McAlpine bore no grudges against Entwistle, nor any specific BBC, ITV or other staff, but those close to him said he was never the same since. Though vindicated legally and morally, as a former political adviser, he knew that lies stick far longer than truth.

Alistair McAlpine was the great-grandson of Sir Robert “Concrete Bob” McAlpine of Newarthill near Motherwell, a self-made man who was forced into the coal mines at the age of seven, became an apprentice brickie, borrowed £11 from his local butcher and went on to build the construction empire that still bears his name.

“Concrete Bob” also built the West Highland Railway and, several generations later, the family firm would later build the 2012 Olympic Stadium in east London.

In line with his great- grandfather’s experience, and subsequent family history, young Alistair started at the bottom: he began as a timekeeper on a McAlpine’s building site on the south bank of the river Thames. With his inherited fortune, he could have showered off his dust and gone to any society party or ball in town, but he preferred to walk across Waterloo Bridge to Soho in his overalls and drink pints of Guinness with his fellow workers, mostly Irish navvies whom he always said throughout his life – notably after his time in politics – were among the few people he could trust. To those of us who have been there, the timekeeper was the man you loved to hate but needed to love. That envelope, with a wee strip of perforated paper in it, was the Holy Grail.

Robert Alistair McAlpine, always known as Alistair, was born by Caesarean section in a family suite in that famous hotel, the Dorchester, on London’s Park Lane on 14 May, 1942. It helped that his family had built and owned the hotel at the time. It is said that he received his first baby’s bottle from room service. His father was Edwin, Lord McAlpine of Moffat, his mother Ella Garnett (known as Molly) a cigar-smoking lady who knew that the key to education was not O-levels but travel. Alistair attended the famous Stowe public school in Buckinghamshire, making him an “Old Stoic” when he left aged 16 (with three O-levels), a term that would help him immensely during his career, not far off being an “Old Etonian”. His lack of further education was put down to dyslexia, diagnosed only many years after he had left school.

In an effort to emulate his great-grandfather and prove he was his own McAlpine, Alistair, still only 22, moved to Australia, built several properties and established a holiday resort at Broome complete with a cinema, a zoo and an airport he created himself, McAlpine-style. He would eventually lose an estimated £250 million in his Australian tourism ventures but, although that was a huge chunk of his fortune, he didn’t moan. He moved on.

He had already, since he was a child, become a collector of anything that intrigued him – stuffed birds, statues, antique Turkish rugs and yastiks (cushions). He became a collector with a difference. He collected then gave away, often to museums.

He was the first to admit that he got bored with his collections, with routine, with people – even with his own women, of whom there were many. He was married thrice and the two divorces essentially stemmed from alleged infidelity.

On Mrs Thatcher’s recommendation, he was appointed a life peer in 1984, shortly before the Brighton bombing. After her political demise, whether it were for tax reasons or the fact that the IRA had threatened to strike him off its “to-do list”, he moved abroad, initially to Venice and Monaco. Such was the urgency of the IRA threat, that he left in a hurry, leaving all his possessions behind and asking the auctioneer Sotheby’s to put them up for sale.

In his latter years, along with his third wife, Athena Malpas, Lord McAlpine ran a bed-and-breakfast in a convent they had converted in Puglia (known in English as Apulia), on Italy’s Adriatic Coast. Few guests who shared aperitifs with him knew of his colourful career. But all were charmed by him.

Going back to his time at the Conservative Party, friends of his and of Mrs Thatcher’s recall that he remained loyal to her, way past her political demise. He continued to address her as “Prime Minister”, described her party opponents as “pygmies” and her party leader successor John Major as “hanging around like a pair of curtains”.

Some who knew Mr Major said that was possibly meant as a compliment. When Lord McAlpine went further and compared Mr Major’s cabinet to “pig farmers on an Irish ferry”, he upset Mr Major, pig farmers, most Irish people and many other folks in the UK and beyond.

In that infamous quote about “pig farmers on an Irish ferry”, he said: “One moves to the right-hand side of the boat, they all move, then fearing the ferry will capsize, they all move back again with much the same result.”

Lord McAlpine is survived by his third wife Athena Malpas and by his three daughters from his two previous marriages.