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Lord Strathclyde

Position: Leader of the House of Lords

Last Updated: Monday, June 13th, 2011

When one thinks of the great survivors of frontline Tory politics, it is Ken Clarke’s name that most naturally comes to mind. However, it should not be forgotten that the Justice Secretary did in fact sit out most of his party’s thirteen years in opposition on the backbenches.

The same cannot be said of Lord Strathclyde, the Leader of the House of Lords: he has served continuously on the frontbench since 1988, when appointed to serve in Margaret Thatcher’s government when still in his twenties.

Politics is, however, quite literally in his blood. Born in 1960, Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith – to give his full name – is the grandson of the first Lord Strathclyde, but he had no expectation of inheriting the title and entering the House of Lords until he was in his forties or fifties upon his own father’s death.

However his father – Sir Tam Galbraith, who was elected Conservative MP for Glasgow Hillhead in 1948 (and in fact the last Tory to sit for a constituency in Scotland’s second city) – died suddenly in 1982, meaning that on the death of first Lord Strathclyde in 1985, the title was inherited by the peer’s grandson at the grand old age of 25.

Not that he had shunned politics whilst embarking on a career in the City as an insurance broker: in 1984 he had contested Merseyside East at the European Parliament election.

In 1988 he was appointed a whip in the House of Lords, getting his first ministerial job at the Department of Employment the following year. Over the following five years he then variously served Thatcher and Major at the Department of the Environment, the DTI and the Scottish Office before being appointed Chief Whip in the Lords in 1994, by which point he had reached the age of 34.

He remained in that post as the Conservatives were sent back onto the Opposition benches after the 1997 general election, but was unexpectedly vaulted to the leadership of the Tory peers in December 1998.

William Hague had sacked Viscount Cranborne as Tory leader in the Upper House for secretly negotiating a deal with Tony Blair, during the passage of the legislation to abolish the hereditary peers, to retain 92 of their number. In the event, Strathclyde and the entire Tory frontbench in the Lords threatened to quit en masse if Hague didn’t accept the deal, which then remained part of the Bill which became law. In fact, it allowed Strathclyde to retain his place on the red benches, since he was one of 92 hereditaries then to be elected to remain there as a voting peer. 

So Strathclyde has led the Tories in the Upper House ever since, and played an important role in keeping check on successive Labour Governments which enjoyed virtually inpenetrable Commons majorities by forging alliances across the Lords to defeat such measures as the abolition of trial by jury in certain cases and some of the more authoritarian excesses of New Labour such as 42-day detention.

Indeed, since coalition-building is far more familiar at their Lordships end of the Palace of Westminster, where they are used to no party having an overall majority, working with the Lib Dems in government won’t have come as so much of a shock to the system of Lord Strathclyde as some of his counterparts in the Commons.

He now has to steer the Coalition Government’s programme through the Upper House and recently has found some Lib Dem peers leading the charge against aspects of the NHS reforms and electing police commissioners, for example.

But the biggest issue which is not going to go away over the coming years is that of changing the very nature of the House of Lords itself. Nick Clegg is pressing ahead with plans to make it a smaller, mainly elected chamber, in line with the Coalition Agreement – but there is massive resistance from all sides of the existing chamber, even including some Lib Dems.

Privately, Strathclyde used to talk of Lords reform as being a “third term priority” for a Conservative Government. But he now finds himself in the awkward position of formally having to back the Coalition’s proposals, whilst being expected to help steer them into the long grass again.

Married with three children, Strathclyde is something of a bon viveur, whose Champagne-fulled parties in his suite at the Tory conference are legendary.

Jonathan Isaby

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