Obituary: Lord Carr, moderate Conservative who tried to limit the power of the unions in the 1970s

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Born: 11 November, 1916, in London. Died: 17 February, 2012, in Hertfordshire, aged 95.

Robert Carr was, for one momentous week in 1975, the leader of the Conservative Party. After Edward Heath’s unexpected first-round defeat in the leadership election Heath nominated Carr as acting leader pending a second ballot. Mrs Thatcher won that convincingly against Willie Whitelaw and made it abundantly clear that she would sack Carr if he chose to remain. Carr resigned. Significantly, Mrs Thatcher does not even mention Carr in her autobiography.

In fact Carr was a moderate and a One Nation Tory who was identified with the Liberal wing of the party (or the “Wets” as Mrs Thatcher termed them). When he introduced the Industrial Relations Act in 1974 he was placed in an unenviable situation. The act sought to outlaw wildcat strikes and curb abuses by the unions, but Carr, a conscientious and understanding politician, tried to co-operate with all sides of industry. The act, however, created lasting discord and animosity within the Tory Party.

Leonard Robert Carr was the son of a north London businessman, attended Westminster School and read law, economics and natural science at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. He then joined the family engineering company – the experience proved valuable in his political career as he was one of the few MPs with industrial experience.

In 1950 Carr won Mitcham for the Tories and gained the support of the shadow foreign secretary Anthony Eden who, in 1955, appointed him parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Labour under Iain Macleod.

In 1958 trouble at the family firm necessitated his returning to business. Carr remained an MP but stood down from the government. In 1963 the prime minister Harold Macmillan made Carr secretary for technical co-operation – a post he retained under Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Labour’s victory at the 1964 general election curbed Carr’s political advance but he held high posts in opposition. The most significant was as shadow minister of labour when he wrote Fair Deal at Work (1968), which proposed a radical rethinking of industrial relations law. Carr termed it “a charter for the responsible against the irresponsible”.

When Heath entered Downing Street in 1970 he appointed Carr employment secretary with the brief to put into action Fair Deal at Work. The unrest throughout industry caused numerous crippling strikes and demonstrators marched with banners declaring ‘Kill the Bill’.

However the Industrial Relations Court passed into law with powers to imprison disruptive union officials. Within the year Carr had to make a U-turn on other matters when he introduced less rigid financial controls and increased funds available for ailing industries.

Carr, who never sought confrontation with the unions, was left fighting a losing battle and, although he was moved to the Home Office, the strife with the unions led to a miners’ work-to-rule and the Three Day Week. Heath called a general election in 1974 asking the voters “Who runs Britain?” The loss of the two elections that year heralded in Margaret Thatcher and effectively ended Carr’s political career.

His domestic life was disrupted in 1971 when he escaped injury after the Angry Brigade bombed his Georgian mansion in Barnet, north London. Carr and his family were unhurt and 30 years later a member of the group issued a public apology to Carr and sent him a Christmas card.

The Industrial Relations Act was well intentioned legislation that proved unworkable – certainly in a hectic explosive era of such industrial unrest. In a Radio 4 interview in 1993 Carr admitted as much. “It failed in all its purposes,” he said, “and certainly poisoned the wells in the relationship between the TUC and the government.”

Heath made Carr shadow chancellor in 1973 when he came off second best in skirmishes with Denis Healey. But after the loss of the second general election of 1974 Carr loyally supported Heath for the leadership. Carr was made a life peer, becoming a spokesman on home affairs and industry in the Lords. He was never of the Right but Carr diplomatically refused to criticise Mrs Thatcher. He supported much of her industrial legislation but remained a committed European and published articles supporting proportional voting.

Away from active politics Carr held several directorships – notably with Prudential Assurance and Scottish Union and National Insurance – and served on the council of the Confederation of British Industry (1976 to 1987).

He spent much time playing tennis and had, for many years, acted as a line judge at Wimbledon. He was president of Surrey County Cricket Club and often attended the opera, but confessed to a “gross prejudice” against Wagner.

He married, in 1943, Joan Kathleen Twining, who survives him with their two daughters; their son died in a road accident in 1965.