Obituary: Norman St John-Stevas, Cabinet minister under two Tory prime ministers and a stout defender of the Lords

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Born: 18 May, 1929, in London. Died: 2 March, 2012 in London, aged 82.

Variously described as flamboyant, theatrical, exotic, eccentric, one-off, grandiloquent, a likeable prima donna, an under-rated peacock, “Pope Norman” or simply “wet”, Norman St John-Stevas was a Cabinet minister under Conservative prime ministers Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher.

Under Heath, he was a respected minister for education and the arts. However, soon after Thatcher appointed him not only minister for the arts but also leader of the House of Commons, a key Cabinet position, in her first government of 1979, he became a thorn in her flesh by undermining her famous free-market monetarist policies.

To her, in Conservative Party terminology, he was “a Wet”, a term taken from English public school slang for someone who was weak, feeble or soppy. Three decades on, in the throes of our Great Recession, many might consider him more liberal and visionary than wet, and wish that Thatcher, at least in economic policy, had listened a little more to him and certain others.

During less than two years as leader of the Commons, St John-Stevas did make a lasting mark by creating, in 1979, the breakthrough system of Commons select committees, a major reform which has done much to hold government to account.

Select panels of backbench MPs have since been able to interrogate Cabinet ministers and launch inquiries into government policies.

If Mrs T was impressed, she didn’t show it. She sacked him in 1981 for daring to oppose her monetarism, but not before St John-Stevas (the St John was pronounced Singein’, the way a Scot might describe an accident on the ironing board), had amused his fellow “wets” by anointing her with a few nicknames she did not appreciate quite as much as “the Iron Lady”.

Usually at a corner of the Cabinet table at Number 10, a bit like a schoolboy at the back of the class and to the giggles of his adjacent colleagues, he variously dubbed her “the Leaderene”, “She Who Must be Obeyed”, “the Blessed Margaret” and, his favourite, “Tina” (an acronym for “there is no alternative”).

When Thatcher cleared her throat, glared and asked if there was something amusing going on, St John-Stevas always had the knack of explaining the giggling by reference to something totally innocuous, according to former Tory minister Lord Heseltine, another of Lady Thatcher’s old nemeses.

Having remained a backbencher after his 1981 sacking, St John-Stevas, in his own words, “succumbed to the extinction of ermine” – in other words, accepted a life peerage as Lord St John of Fawsley – in 1987. In his ermine-trimmed red robe, he went on to become a staunch defender of the upper chamber, fighting those, such as Tony Benn, who sought to abolish hereditary peerages.

Swimming against the nationwide tide, he even suggested there should be more hereditary peerages.

Norman Antony Francis St John-Stevas was born in Kensington, London, on 18 May, 1929. He was described as a “brilliant” student at the Catholic Ratcliffe College in Leicestershire before gaining a first in law at Cambridge, an MA at Oxford and a doctorate at London University.

He was the first person to hold office in the student unions of both Oxford and Cambridge before, aged only 24, he was called to the Bar at Middle Temple.

Having stood unsuccessfully as Conservative candidate for Dagenham, East London, in 1951, he finally reached Westminster in 1964, representing Chelmsford, Essex, from then until his elevation to the Lords – a total of 23 years.

While on the Tory backbenches, and later in the Lords, he devoted himself to academia and the arts, serving as chairman of the Royal Fine Arts Commission and master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

Increasingly, having turned to writing, he edited what is considered the definitive edition of the literary works of the Victorian constitutionalist, Walter Bagehot.

Lord St John also became chairman of the judges for the Booker Prize for novels in the English language. On the lighter side, he served as a judge on the TV programme Masterchef and featured in an advert for Bananarama’s Greatest Hits album. In his Who’s Who listing, under recreations, he listed “sleeping”.

Commenting on Lord St John’s death, David Hughes, chief leader writer for the Daily Telegraph, wrote: “[He] was the most outrageously colourful politician of his era …. I once interviewed him at his Knightsbridge home and he greeted me wearing a full-length velvet dressing gown and a cardinal’s cap.”

As leader of the House of Commons, Hughes wrote: “He was rather like a prototype Peter Mandelson, though without the air of menace.”

Chris Moncrieff, veteran political writer of the Press Association, added: “He was vain and narcissistic, but a likeable prima donna, nevertheless.

He used to cox a (not the) Cambridge crew wearing a topper, white tie and tails. His manners were exquisite and his etiquette was precise down to the last velvet glove. But Lord St John was bothered that his extrovert and dandified approach would deter people from taking him seriously. ‘Because I am burdened with a capacity for wit, people have sometimes had the impression that I am not serious in my approach,’ he once lamented. ‘Nothing could be farther from the truth.’

“He looked and sounded like an engaging dilettante, but was in fact a deeply religious (Catholic) person,” Moncrieff went on. “But he will be remembered as a dandified figure, with peacocks stalking the lawn at his country home, a relic of the Edwardian era, a debater who seemed to hide a stiletto under his elegant attire, with a weakness for gaudy shirts, and being a devout, sometimes obsessively so, Christian. But he was always someone who could – and did – laugh at his own apparent eccentricity.”

Once described in the Guardian as “the thinking man’s Larry Grayson”, Lord St John never married.