This is how last night’s edition of Newsnight previewed their profile of Eric Forth, who died on Wednesday.
The Conservative MP Eric Forth has died. In an age where backbenchers are more renowned for their slavish loyalty to their parties rather than independence of mind, Mr Forth stood out.
Ye Gods! Will we never be able to move away from this ‘slavish loyalty’ rubbish? The true story is that whilst Eric Forth stood out – for a host of reasons – he stood out in an age when backbenchers are increasingly known for their independence of mind.
For those of us trying to monitor backbench behaviour he was, frequently, a right pain in the arse – but that was both part of his appeal, and also how he liked to be seen. He thought politics should be played rough, describing consensus as a ‘revolting political concept’. He saw himself as a ‘parliamentary yob’, and had no time for those he saw as the grandees in his party (‘Some of them learned their politics with their cucumber sandwiches’).
He was always at revolts related events – he was the only Tory MP at the launch of The Rebels, for example – and was speaking to a group of University of Nottingham students less than a month ago, full of verve and bite, including being very rude about the current state of the Conservative Party. It is one of life’s ironies that his successor will almost certainly be chosen from the new Conservative A List of candidates, an innovation that Forth loathed.
During the 1997 Parliament, Forth led a small ginger group of Tory backbenchers, committed to campaign of guerrilla warfare against the new government. Forth’s ‘awkward squad’, as it became known, felt that the Opposition were being too conciliatory and consensual towards the Government. Forth therefore set about disrupting parliamentary proceedings, filibustering in debates, and forcing divisions on non-contentious legislation. The exemplar of this behaviour was the Disqualifications Bill, where opposition from Conservative backbenchers resulted in the deliberations of the Committee of the Whole House running from 5.43pm on 25 January 2000 to 7.19am on 26th. When one Tory whip tried to stop Forth filibustering, he was given short shrift: ‘Fuck off. Do you really think I’ve been here for 18 hours and I’ve got the chance of losing a day’s business and I’m going to give it up now? Piss off.’ Forth got what he wanted: a full day’s business, including Prime Minister’s Questions, was lost.
In 2001 Parliament, Forth’s activities were curbed initially, when Iain Duncan Smith appointed him Shadow Leader of the House, a post he held until Michael Howard’s election as Tory leader in November 2003. But more recently, there were signs that Forth was restarting his awkward squad activities, objecting to private members bills, and introducing amendments to otherwise uncontroversial bills. In December last year, during the debate on the National Insurance Contributions Bill, he said:
I must chide our Front-Bench spokesmen a little – I do that from time to time – because we are being sucked into this modern idea of consensus. We are being asked to sign up to the idea that the more Bills and Government measures to which we agree, the more popular we will somehow be outside the House. I plead guilty to the fact that I regard the proper work of the Chamber as that which is being exemplified today. Our proper job is to assume the worst of the Government until they prove otherwise, not the reverse.
We will miss him.