A tribute to Lord Spicer 1943-2019

A tribute to Lord Spicer 1943-2019

It’s his politeness that I find myself longing for. Lord knows we need more of it in politics at the moment. In the thirty years that I knew him – first as his employee and later as his friend – I never saw Michael Spicer talk over people, gossip maliciously or snap at an opponent. His was not the superficial charm that many MPs learn, a charm laced with Byzantine compliments and superlatives; it was the true courtesy that comes from unfeigned interest in other people, from genuine modesty and from a constant sense of detached humour.

Most Brexiteers have no idea of the debt that they owe to (as he became) Lord Spicer. It was he who led the movement from the time of the Maastricht debates until the election of more strongly Eurosceptic Conservative intakes in 2005 and 2010. You didn’t know that? I’m not surprised. More than anyone else I have encountered in politics, Michael understood that advancing your agenda depends upon letting other people take the credit. He was always happy to pass invitations from Newsnight or the Today programme to other MPs while himself getting on with the business of establishing, funding and marshalling a Eurosceptic force in Parliament. 

It was Michael who founded the European Research Group back in 1993, hiring me, fresh out of university, as its first director. In the years that followed the passage of the Maastricht Treaty, he held together a broad coalition of anti-federalist groups, from 1975-era anti-marketeers to Bennite trade unionists. He grasped, earlier than most, the need to have the case made by industrialists and financiers, and convened the group that became Business for Sterling, then Business for Britain and finally Vote Leave. He did as much to bring about the recovery of Britain’s independence as any other politician.

Michael’s secret was that he was a radical dressed in Establishment clothing. A product of Wellington and Cambridge, he served as a minister before becoming Chairman of the 1922 Committee and a life peer. But that CV gives an utterly misleading impression. In truth, Michael was always a disruptor. When he was at school, he took so strongly against one of his headmaster’s decisions that he organised a prefects’ strike, forcing the man to back down. At Cambridge, he founded Pressure for Economic and Social Toryism (PEST) which stood for what were then considered highly liberal positions on social policy, though they are now pretty mainstream. He went on to create what was arguably the first economic modelling consultancy in the country.

As a minister, he saw his job, Gove-like, as being to curb the natural tendency of bureaucracies to work for themselves rather than for the general population. Whether at aviation, energy or housing, he sought to deregulate, decentralise and diffuse power. It was somehow apt that, uniquely among Tory MPs, his frontbench career should have begun on the day Margaret Thatcher took power and ended on the day she fell.

Michael’s Euroscepticism was based on a very simple idea. In his final speech to the House of Lords, when he was already severely ill, he explained to that Euro-zealous assembly, in a typically humble tone, why he had been such a “pain in the neck” over the years. As he put it:

“The essence of why I oppose staying in the European Union is that it seems to me that the nation-​state is the best unit for democracy.”

 Quite. And, in pursuit of that belief, he set in motion the events that would eventually lead to Brexit. 

I learned a great deal from Michael. He taught me how important it is, in politics, to know how to steer a committee. A consummate chairman, he would work out in some detail who was going to say what and then, simply by calling people in the correct order, and occasionally steering the conversation onto the next subject, get the group to do what he wanted without himself having to express a view. He grasped how valuable it is, in a world full of blabbermouths and serial leakers, to be known to be discreet. He knew, too, how important it is for a politician to keep a sphere for his family. His wife and tennis-partner, Ann, was, like him, much cleverer and much more idealistic than casual acquaintance would suggest, and he leaned on her often.

He knew that, in order to get things done in the Tory Party, it helped to fit in, at least superficially. “You have to dress like them,” he told me not long before he died. “You have to talk like them. You have to tell funny stories about when you played rugby against them at school. If you want to do anything radical, for Heaven’s sake don’t look like a radical.”

Above all, Michael taught me that you have to pick your battles. “I have a very simple rule,” he explained at the height of the Maastricht rebellion. “Only go over the top if you have some chance of success. If it’s just a futile gesture, everyone will say how tough you are, but you’ll have weakened yourself for the next time – and that’s when it might really have mattered.”

For him, Brexit was one of the times when you had to go over the top: there was a prospect, small as it seemed at first, of victory. The polarisation that has overcome both sides since, he put in the “futile gesture” category. God, how I miss him.