Sarah has asked me to talk briefly about how I remember John.
I first met him in the 1980s, so many of you will have known him longer than me and we are all aware of his remarkable achievements.
My first impression was how unfailingly courteous he was. Whenever we met he would ask with genuine interest “How is Rose? How are the children?” And “how are the cats?” John was very sound on cats.
His natural politeness was combined with real kindness towards other people. Added to his conscientiousness and capacity for hard work, he was a phenomenally effective local MP. I remember visiting a modest house in Whitchurch during one election campaign. Its front was heavily decorated with John Biffen posters. A friendly lady came to the door and as soon as she heard that I supported John, launched into an immensely detailed description of how he had battled away for many months to get her daughter specialist medical treatment. Like many others who never voted or who were not natural Conservatives, she was determined to vote for him.
His natural diffidence was most clearly on view during elections. In 1987, I spent three weeks driving him around. He made it quite clear on the first day of the campaign that knocking on someone’s door without warning and asking their political views was a gross impertinence. Instead we discussed the weather, the height of the cow parsley which makes it difficult to see down the lanes and that hardy Shropshire perennial, was it the responsibility of the County or the District/Borough Council to cut it?
His innate modesty was also reflected in his refusal to use the loudspeaker at any time as it intruded on the privacy of the electorate. He was also suspicious of technology: I had had a mobile phone fitted in my car – a frightfully exciting innovation at the time – thinking it would keep the campaign team in instant communication with the nerve centre as we hissed down the wet lanes. John flatly refused to use it unless the car was stationary.
His total lack of pomposity could be seen at social or political events. It was inconceivable that he should do anything so brash as “working a room.” Instead, John would always be seen in a corner with a glass of beer chatting to an old friend or two. Yet if anyone wanted a word, he was always available and they knew it.
His dress showed that he was one of the least vain people I have ever met. I am told that Sarah did for a number of amazing old suits and ensured that socks were of the same colour. But he was still proud of an interesting pair of burgundy cords with a slight flair ending two inches above the ankle. These and a shapeless jersey were the clothes I remember him being most at ease in.
All this, combined with his sagacity, his impartiality on local matters and his readiness to work for the good of North Shropshire and the County with all parties made him immensely popular. He was the MP for 35 years, he won 9 general elections on the trot, having won the by- election of 1961. His last majority of 16,211 in 1992 was the largest ever for this seat, yet he never took North Shropshire for granted. Driving to the Association AGM one year, he apologised for not wanting to chat. He was polishing his speech, which he described as “the most important speech of my year.”
He was an extraordinarily fluent speaker. Armed with a few points jotted on a card, his diffidence would fall away, he would almost go into a trance, leaning backwards and slightly sideways, jigging up and down as he got into his stride, he would explain the most complex subjects in the clearest English.
His articles were equally lucid, revealing a great intellect and a strong sense of history. He was exceptionally clever and he read widely. Yet it was typical of John that his maiden speeches in both the Commons and the Lords were made many months after he was introduced, so that he got a feel of each place first. In both Houses, he was respected on all sides for the knowledge and the wisdom that he expressed.
His political beliefs sprang from his deep knowledge of this constituency and county. They were also strongly influenced by Enoch Powell’s Conservatism. When these robust views were not in favour, John turned down offers of advancement.
He then put his brilliant mind to the service of his country, when, as a member of Margaret Thatcher’s inner circle in the 1970s, he helped rethink and develop policies which led to 18 years of Conservative Government and the transformation of Great Britain.
He was enormously respected and liked by both friends and opponents as Leader of the House. He handled the House with a deft touch and with his unique disarming humour. I got a glimpse of this when a meeting arranged with him in the Commons had to be cut short because the Labour Party was upset about some Government announcement. Peter Shore, John’s Shadow, appeared in a state of some agitation. I slipped away, but saw how John was beginning to charm him and reassure him that the Opposition would get their say. There was complete trust between them.
The obituaries made much of the manner in which he left the Government. However, John should have the last word. Soon after Christopher Gill was selected John arranged to meet him at the Mytton and Mermaid for a chat. Bizarrely there was a bikers’ rally going on and surrounded by beery leather-clad bikers, he asked John the real reason for his defenestration from Margaret Thatcher’s Government. In a classic Biffen phrase, John replied with a twinkle, “I just told her on one too many occasions that her slip was showing.”
He was brave and independent-minded, never afraid to part company with the party line if he believed it to be wrong. So he also opposed the wretched Maastricht Treaty, being a staunch believer that the House of Commons should be sovereign.
He had great affection for the House of Commons, telling me once that “it only gets better and better.” He admired people like Dave Nellist, a flame haired Militant whose views were a mile from John’s but who, in a favourite expression, “used the place” by employing every Parliamentary trick to make life miserable for both the Government and Neil Kinnock.
North Shropshire was very lucky to have John as its MP for 35 years. Radio Shropshire was inundated with calls last week. One of their most experienced journalists said to me “They really loved him and they were right.”
Many people owe a lot to John, none more than me. I would never have succeeded him without his help, advice and encouragement.
I would like to pay tribute to Sarah and his stepchildren Nicholas and Lucy, who all made him so happy at home. Sarah’s support contributed enormously to his success. In recent years, knowing that however good the medical expertise, the dialysis treatment could only postpone the inevitable, her unstinting care for him has been an example to us all.
I leave the final word to that little old lady in Whitchurch. “I’ll always support Mr Biffen; he’s a good man.”
21st August 2007 Llanyblodwell