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Sunday, 21 December 2014

Mellow Maclean?

THE FIGHTER: Mr Maclean addressing a Heart of Cumbria meeting over the foot and mouth crisis

He resigned from being Opposition chief whip last month when Iain Duncan Smith stood down as Party leader after losing a confidence vote but was quickly asked back by new Conservative leader Michael Howard.

“I resigned as a matter of honour thinking I should go down with the captain,” said Mr Maclean. “Luckily the ship has been resurrected.”

Mr Maclean, who lives near Hesket Newmarket, believes that at 50 years old he is just coming into his prime in some ways.

“I have more to offer than 10 years ago because I know more,” said Mr Maclean. “The decision on whether I carry on representing Penrith and the Border is for others to make but I would love to be reselected. Tory MPs don’t quit when they get a little medical problem.”

Colleagues, he says, have been very supportive since he told them he had multiple sclerosis. “But they don’t dare to try to help me too much because of my crook,” Mr Maclean joked, referring to the Lakeland shepherd’s stick he uses when walking. “I haven’t time to go to the gym but the cracking pace Michael Howard sets gives me exercise.”

Mr Maclean resumed his job as chief whip “after the shortest retirement in history” with a confidence entirely lacking when he first began his Westminster career after winning Penrith and the Border by just 553 votes in a by-election in July, 1983 called following the late Viscount Whitelaw’s elevation to the peerage.

Brought up on the Black Isle in northern Scotland, where his parents farmed, Mr Maclean set up a branch of the Young Conservatives when he was 15 at school at Fortrose Academy. Echoing William Hague’s political debut, he was the youngest speaker at the Party’s Scottish conference that year and was heavily involved in the 1970 election. But he dropped politics while studying law at Aberdeen University, serving in the Territorial Army as an officer in the 51st Highland Volunteers, and building a management career with Securicor.

Mr Maclean’s appetite for politics revived after Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 and in 1980 he joined the local Tories in Surrey where he was living. He got onto the candidates list two years later and fought – and lost – at Inverness in the 1983 General Election.

Later that year he was among 250 people vying to be Conservative candidate in the by-election for Penrith and the Border and was amazed to be short-listed. “Because I didn’t expect to be selected I was very relaxed and thought ‘I’ll give them fire and brimstone and make my mark’,” said Mr Maclean.

It was tough following such a great and well known man as William Whitelaw, said Mr Maclean, and he felt inadequate as an MP. “But Willie made it as easy as possible for me. He said he’d always be there for me but would not interfere and he was true to his word. We’d meet on the train and discuss issues but he always respected my views as being more right wing and never made life difficult.”

Others in the constituency, the largest in England, took longer to win over.

“The Earl of Lonsdale was among those in Westmorland who had been very upset with the boundary changes made to Penrith and the Border and I had no relationship with him for the first year,” said Mr Maclean. Then the MP turned up at a forestry meeting, telling Lord Lonsdale he was there to learn, and the ice was broken.

Mr Maclean stepped onto the first rung of the ministerial ladder when the-then Westmorland MP Michael Jopling made him a junior Parliamentary private secretary.

After regaining Penrith and the Border in the 1987 General Election, he was made a junior whip in charge of the Scottish MPs and first came into contact with Baroness Thatcher.

“When something big was happening, she would come into the whips’ office, kick off her shoes and tuck her feet up and I’d get out the Glenfiddich,” said Mr Maclean. “ ‘Good God Maclean, pour her a decent whisky’ the chief whip told me the first time.”

As a junior minister in the Ministry of Agriculture from 1989 to 1992 Mr Maclean was embroiled in “mad cow disease”, salmonella in eggs, and other national food industry crises while supporting his constituents’ battles to save the Settle-Carlisle railway and Penrith’s cottage hospital and campaigning, as always, for upgrades to the West Coast Main Line.

In 1992 Mr Maclean was appointed Minister of State for the Environment, going straight to Kuala Lumpur for a preparatory summit for the first Earth Summit at Rio de Janeira, before the summit itself for 17 days of negotiations.

They were exciting times, said Mr Maclean, until the Tory ministers began losing the ball over law and order because of decisions such as the “bonkers” system of unit fines for the magistrates courts.

In the 1993 reshuffle, Mr Howard became Home Secretary and Mr Maclean was appointed Home Office Minister of State for policing and criminal justice.

Abrasive and outspoken, Mr Maclean repeatedly courted controversy with, for instance, his views on beggars (“I always give them something – I give them a piece of my mind”) and when he called, in a widely reported first draft of a speech, for criminal “vermin” to be driven off the streets.

But he held onto Penrith and the Border in the 1997 General Election with a 10,000 majority despite the national Labour landslide. The Tories’ defeat was inevitable, said Mr Maclean. “We had lost the plot on the economy with the ERM debacle and deserved a good kick. But it was difficult adjusting to being in opposition and I felt terribly flat.”

Mr Maclean opted for the back benches rather than the shadow Cabinet position offered to him by William Hague and focused his energies on starting a research office for MPs in Central Office and campaigning against the Hunting Bill. “I’ve only followed a hunt for half a day but it’s an issue of freedom,” said Mr Maclean.

The foot and mouth crisis was the worst time of his life and fighting to save his constituency from meltdown became the focal point of all his training in the Commons.

“The catastrophe is still with us and small businesses are still being lost,” said Mr Maclean.

He says the suffering he witnessed during foot and mouth, when strong men would telephone him in tears, has changed his attitude to life, as have his marriage breakdown and his chief whip’s role of father confessor to other MPs.

“I tended to be combative but now see other people’s problems in a way I didn’t before, which has mellowed me and given me a softer edge,” said Mr Maclean. “When you realise half the nation has relationship difficulties, you can’t make assertive statements about how people should live.”

Mr Maclean says the separation from Jay, a devout Catholic, has been hard to handle for them both and there has been no rush to divorce. “That doesn’t worry me as I’m not interested in marrying again,” said Mr Maclean. “But it will have to be settled some time.”

Should his party win the next election, he would be happy to carry on as chief whip for a couple of years though his ultimate dream is to become Secretary of State for Defence.

“I imagine picking up a rifle during a visit to a firing range and hitting more targets than the Parachute Regiment,” said Mr Maclean.

“I’m a crack shot – though I might be in a wheelchair by then.”

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