High-flying ex-minister still has a story to tell

Lord Tebbit one to one
Lord Tebbit one to one

“I’m trying to finish a book, aimed at the young, teenage boys market. I don’t think I’ll rival JK Rowling except I might get rejected by more publishers than she did.”

We are an hour into conversation when Lord Tebbit drops this bombshell.

I’m supposed to believe that this former minister, most famous for telling the unemployed to ‘get on your bike and look for work’, one of Margaret Thatcher’s closest allies, is writing a story for teenagers?

It would have been more of a shock if I hadn’t just heard his life story. Despite being best-known for his time in Lady Thatcher’s government, the then Norman Tebbit wasn’t elected as an MP until the age of 49 and had lived more than most in the meantime.

Sitting in what he says he is ‘embarrassed’ to call a library – a couple of hundred books line the walls – he starts by telling me about his humble beginnings in Ponders End, North London.

Born in the 1930s, his story began in ‘a poor family, hard times’ and he praises the grammar school system which gave him and his two brothers an escape route.

In 1947, aged 16, not being able to afford university, his working life started as a junior for the Financial Times.

But it was in 1949 when he was called up for National Service that his career began in earnest. Put off by the idea of the kind of trench warfare endured by his father in World War One, he picked ‘something more comfortable’ in the Royal Air Force.

It was during this time that he became part of the auxiliary officer squadron – what he calls ‘a stroke of luck’.

“I was a teenage hooligan but I was a very lucky one. I had a pair of wings and was lucky enough to be given a single-seat jet fighter to play with – you can be a hell of a hooligan in that.”

When his service ended, Lord Tebbit first joined a publishing agency, before returning to the skies with the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC).

However, having married Margaret in 1956, it wasn’t long before he began to feel that Harold Macmillan, the Conservative Prime Minister, had ‘lost the plot’.

It was when he wrote to his local MP for Enfield West, Iain Macleod, that he started to think seriously about stepping into the political breach.

“I wrote to Iain, who I knew because I’d been on the committee that had selected him on his seat for Enfield, telling him what was wrong and what should be done to put it right.

“It was the sort of letter I’ve received countless times since, and he came back with the sort of reply I’ve now written numerous times – ‘why don’t you come and help out?’.”

It was a persuasive response and sparked a political career that would lead Lord Tebbit to a close alliance with the person who, alongside Clement Attlee, he calls the 20th century’s most important Prime Minister.

“What I found great about working with Thatcher is that she shared my view.

“If you woke up in the morning and heard that there’d been some big event in the world you didn’t have to wonder how she would react, you knew, because she had a body of principles and she didn’t have to ask anybody to take an opinion poll to find out how to react. In that way, she was a different politician.”

On the subject of Margaret Thatcher, he has little time for Meryl Streep’s recent blockbuster, The Iron Lady, which he feels portrayed the former Prime Minister as ‘hysterical’.

“I thought it was an extremely anti-feminist film. If you picture the biggest male bar-room boor you can imagine in your life, he would maintain that if you put a woman into that position, that’s how she would behave. I can only say that if she had actually behaved like that, she wouldn’t have lasted a year.”

Having carried out his National Service with distinction, the peer says he went into politics ready to serve his country again. It also meant a 50 per cent drop in wages.

He doesn’t think that too many of today’s Westminster crop would take that sort of pay cut and sees a lack of life experience in Parliament. It is the age of the career politician.

“I think one of the problems today is that too few members of the House of Commons have done anything else very much outside the Westminster Village. The sequence is from school to university, then assistant to a Member of Parliament or in a party office of some kind, backbench Member of Parliament, bag-carrier to a minister, and finally minister. And it’s true of both parties.

“Even the trade unionists in my day had all been shop floor workers of some kind who had gone into the union. These days they are guys who have left university and became a researcher in a trade union. They have never hit a lump of steel or managed a shop or driven a bus, they just talk about it.”

When it comes to local politics, Lord Tebbit says he tries to stay off people’s toes.

But he has kind words for David Ruffley after the Bury MP’s recent battle with depression.

“I think David’s a pretty good guy and has come through an absolutely appalling stage in his life.

“I think it’s fine never to have gone through anything like that, but to have fallen into that pit and come out is a mark of very considerable courage and character.”

Lord Tebbit is no stranger to dark times himself and, despite happy memories of his time in government, the IRA’s bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the 1984 Conservative Party conference casts a shadow.

His wife Margaret was left permanently disabled by the attack and he was also injured. Indeed, when he did quit the House of Commons in 1992, it was partly motivated by a desire to devote more time to his wife.

It was also a state of affairs that led him to Bury St Edmunds, a town he has grown fond of since moving here three years ago from Sussex.

He says his most regular haunts are Waitrose and Marks & Spencers (‘for good quality bread’) but that most of his time is spent writing or fitting in visits to the House of Lords.

“It’s a very agreeable town. We were living in a village in Sussex and I realised that this was not good for my wife because she couldn’t go anywhere without somebody taking her in a car so she was losing independence.

“The really nice thing about Bury is that a lot of people live in the centre of town and there are a lot of nice houses that haven’t been taken over by estate agents and bookmakers which means it has a life.”

As I get ready to leave, he makes a point of showing me a copy of his cookery book, The Game Cook, published three years ago.

Inspired by a conversation with his butcher and a love for game shooting, the book is another unexpected string to Lord Tebbit’s bow.

Although his next book occupies a different genre, he knows how to approach it.

“In a good story, which has an element of fantasy, you ask your readers to accept one unlikely proposition, but not totally improbable, and after that everything has to be perfectly logical.”

He laughs when I suggest that it sounds a lot like politics to me.