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Sir George Young

Position: Leader of The House of Commons

Last Updated: Friday, April 1st, 2011


With only six MPs having sat in the Commons for longer than him (including Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke), Sir George Young has shown himself to be one of politics’ great survivors and bouncers back.

Had things turned out differently, he could now have just arrived in the Lords after a successful decade in the Speaker’s chair, or alternatively be looking forward to his second anniversary in that role.

But instead, 37 years after this paternalist, liberal Tory first entered the House of Commons, he finds himself again sitting around the Cabinet table (although not a full member of Cabinet) as Leader of the House of Commons, helping deliver the business for a Government led by a fellow Old Etonian.

With a background that makes it hard to avoid the “toff” label, he was born in 1941, the son of a fifth Baronet – the first Baronet having been one of Nelson’s admirals at Trafalgar.

He inherited his father’s title whilst he was reading PPE at Christ Church, Oxford, and worked variously as a banker and economic adviser to the Post Office and Economic Development Council (as well as taking time to do an MPhil in Economics at Surrey University) in his twenties.

His political career was well underway, however, having been an officer of the Oxford University Conservative Association, becoming Deputy Chairman of Clapham Conservatives in 1967 and then getting elected to Lambeth Council the following year.

This latter position was to be of particular significance, since he was elected on the same day as one John Major, and he sat on the housing committee chaired by the future Prime Minister who would one day make him a Cabinet Minister. He also sat on the GLC between 1970 and 1973.

Sir George arrived in Parliament in February 1974 after snatching the seat of Acton in West London from Labour – and he represented it (later renamed Ealing Acton) until 1997.

He was appointed to the whips’ office within two years and under Margaret Thatcher’s premiership he served as a minister at the departments of Health and the Environment between 1979 and 1986.

In the former role he was a strident anti-smoking campaigner and in the latter was given special responsibility for race relations in the wake of the riots in Brixton, where he had lived in the 1960s.

But in 1986, Thatcher dropped him from the Government and that might have been the end of his frontbench career. Indeed, he then felt able to participate in a series of rebellions against the poll tax from the backbenches.

Yet in the summer of 1990, he made a surprise comeback to the Government as a senior whip, as part of an operation to try and reunite the parliamentary party amidst whispering’s about Thatcher’s future (although his return was attacked by the likes of Norman Tebbit).

But within months Thatcher had left office and after supporting Michael Heseltine for the leadership, Sir George was appointed to serve under him as a housing minister by his old friend John Major, and he remained there until 1994.

There then followed a year’s spell as a minister at the Treasury, before being promoted in the summer of 1995 to Cabinet as Transport Secretary, where he sat out the final two years of the Conservative Government.

His Ealing Acton seat was abolished by the Boundary Commission in advance of the 1997 General Election, and it was in November 1995 that he secured the selection for safe-as-houses North West Hampshire, where he succeeded Sir David Mitchell, father of Andrew Mitchell MP.

After the Tory defeat in 1997, he backed Ken Clarke for the leadership (as he did in every subsequent contest too) and served William Hague as shadow defence secretary, shadow leader of the Commons and spokesman on constitutional affairs, but resigned from the frontbench to contest the Speakership in October 2000.

He came closest in the field of twelve to preventing Scottish Labour MP and one of the existing Deputy Speakers, Michael Martin, from taking the job (Sir George won the support of a respectable 241 MPs), but having failed to win the post, remained on the backbenches and became chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee in 2001, a job which he carried out adeptly for the following eight years.

A second stab at acquiring the Speaker’s chair came in June 2009 after Martin was forced to resign. With two Labour MPs having held the post on the trot (Betty Boothroyd preceded Martin), many thought it was time for another Tory Speaker, and so it came to pass: but alas for Sir George, the Tory who won the day (beating him by 322 votes to 271 in the final round in a secret ballot) was John Bercow. Bercow had found favour with scores of Labour MPs (who still had a Commons majority at that stage) after becoming increasingly isolated on the left wing of his party, whilst Sir George had attracted the lion’s share of the votes of Conservative MPs.

Again, you might have bet that his chances of ever playing a serious frontline role in politics again had been extinguished, but he was resurrected by David Cameron in September 2009: he was given the shadow leader of the Commons portfolio after the demotion of Alan Duncan and was promptly appointed to that post for real by the newly installed Prime Minister Cameron after the 2010 general election.

In that role, he now takes the weekly business questions every Thursday lunchtime in the Commons, a position which requires him to be well versed in all aspects of Government policy, and, with the help of the whips, he schedules government business in Parliament.

He turns 70 in the summer, but Cameron clearly values having his experience on the frontbench for the time being.

Married with four grown up children, he is known as the “Bicycling Baronet” after his favoured mode of transport – and one which he was forced to use exclusively for a while in the late 1980s after being caught drunk driving and having to temporarily surrender his licence.

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