John Barnes, Historian

Major the Hon Sir John Jacob Astor

"Jakie" Astor, as he was invariably known, was the youngest child and fourth son of the redoubtable Nancy Astor and her husband Waldorf, then Conservative MP for Plymouth, but shortly to forfeit his seat on succeeding his father as the 2nd Viscount Astor. Nancy was elected in his place, the second woman ever to be elected and the first to take her seat in the Commons. She was keen for her sons to follow her into the House and a reluctant Jakie was eventually persuaded to take over where his mother had left off in 1945 and seek to regain part of her Plymouth seat for the Conservative party.

His relationship with her was loving but delicate. As a staunch Christian Scientist, Nancy had taken against his marriage to Chiquita Carcano, the delightful but irretrievably Catholic daughter of the Argentinian Ambassador, and not only refused to attend the wedding in 1944, but forbade his father to do so. In return Jakie threatened to boycott her funeral.

Nancy had a domineering personality, but Jakie was invariably able to deflate her with wit and a disarming affection that robbed his gibes of all malice. On one occasion when late in life, she was behaving monstrously, he told her gently, "The trouble with you, Mama, is that the engine works perfectly, but the steering has gone." Her memoirs, he said, should be entitled "Guilty, but insane.

He inherited her wit, charm and talent for mimicry and caricature. He memorably described the Astors as a theatrical family and even when they were not acting in charades, their conversation would suddenly take on an air of fantasy as they adopted new identities. His brother recalled Jakie, as a ventriloquist's doll or as a retired Indian Colonel" and claimed him as "clearly a chip off the same block." Jakie was always able to see the comedy in life, even if sometimes it was richly black.

Although he failed to win Plymouth Sutton at the first attempt, he captured the seat eighteen months later and sat in the Commons from 1951 until 1959. He had served briefly as Butler's private secretary in 1949 and acted as secretary to the British delegation at the Commonwealth Conference in Canada that same year, but he was not by inclination a political animal and as a high Tory liberal had not much liking for many of his fellow Conservatives in the House. He served briefly as John Boyd Carpenter's parliamentary Private Secretary, but even before the Suez crisis he had already decided to stand down at the next election.

He will be best remembered for an act of considerable political courage when first in the Conservative party's Defence Committee and then on the floor of the House, he called in question his own Government's actions during the Suez crisis and was one of eight Conservative MPs to abstain on a vote of no confidence on 8 November 1956. He described the operation as "unnecessary and wrong", doomed because there were clear indications that the Americans were against it and destructive because it threatened the special relationship. With his American connections Astor was immensely concerned at the breach and he was one of the leading signatories of a motion on 28 November urging the Government to do all in its power to restore active co-operation with the Eisenhower administration. Although he knew Butler better than Macmillan, perhaps too well, he supported the latter for the premiership and strongly approved the steps Macmillan took to rebuild the Anglo-American alliance.

Retirement from the Commons did not end Astor's contribution to public life. He chaired the governing body of the National Institute of Agricultural Engineering 1963-8 and through the influence of a close friend, Lord Rothschild, was made chairman of the Agricultural Research Council in 1968. When he gave up the chair in 1978 he was knighted for his services. He had handled his disparate team of scientists, farmers and government officials with firmness and tact and welded them into an effective team. He regularly visited the various institutes for which the Council was responsible and arranged for their directors to attend Council to report on their work. Three were found wanting and Astor displayed tact as well as firmness in ensuring that they were disposed off with very little acrimony and limited public attention. The Council's secretary, Sir William Henderson, paid tribute to his "great wisdom, ability to analyse the reaction of others, appreciation of the cares of office of public servants and astuteness of timing" From 1978 to 1983 he served on the NEDC for agriculture.

One little known contribution that he made to the history of his times came when he was a guest of another very good friend, President Kennedy, when it was found that the Soviet Union had installed missiles in Cuba. Pressed to stay, he was one of those with whom Kennedy tested ideas throughout the crisis.

John Jacob Astor was born at Cliveden shortly before the end of the First World War and was educated at Eton and New College, Oxford. He was one of a remarkable group of undergraduates, many of whom like his lifelong friend, Julian Amery, Edward Heath and his pair, Roy Jenkins, were also to enter the House. The mutual respect that he and Amery had for one another's integrity and their friendship survived the Suez crisis and Astor was one of those who paid tribute to the skill and understanding Heath displayed in holding the party together at that difficult time. Astor, more interested in steeplechasing than his degree, wrote to his brother Michael, "I may have to come clean and tell father that the only thing I've passed this term is water, and not much of that." His father confiscated his horse, but the College authorities brought his studies to a premature end.

Astor had a good war, as is evidenced by the award of the MBE (military), the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour in 1945, but it typically began in anti-climax. He had joined the Lifeguards in February 1939, but when the regiment went to the Middle East, he was left behind. He promptly volunteered for Phantom, whose mission was to effect close liaison between GHQ and front line units. His quick grasp of the technology and operation of military signalling, including dexterity with the Morse key, was such as to shape the rest of his wartime service. In command of J Squadron, he went in with the Commandos at Dieppe. Although never ordered ashore, his radio was smashed by enemy gunfire aboard the last destroyer to leave the area. Subsequently he remained with the Commandos and in January 1944 was asked whether he and his squadron would volunteer for the SAS. Although he had no head for heights, Astor completed parachute training, but his knowledge of signals was too valuable to permit him to be dropped in France. Instead he was employed on to training French, Belgian and British personnel in the SAS in the use of signals equipment. Subsequently, he took F Squadron into France on D-day liasing with the resistance and operating with the First SAS regiment. Later he was to spend some time in the mountains of Italy setting up communications for 2 SAS, before returning to Holland to take a further part in joint operations with the SAS in the campaign which ended successfully with the German surrender on Luneburg Heath.

Already a millionaire through an inheritance from his grandfather at the age of 21, Astor took up farming in the postwar years. He was eventually to farm 1,800 acres in Bedfordshire, and to establish a pedigree herd of Herefords.

His lifelong interest in racing could now be given free rein, and he became a leading owner and breeder. He bred foals at Newmarket, brought them to maturity at Hatley, and had them trained at Newbury. Among his many successes were two victories in the St Leger and two in the Irish 2000 Guineas. A notable rider to hounds and for a period joint master of the Fitzwilliam, his interest in the flat slowly gave place to a passion for steeplechasing. Twice a Steward of the Jockey Club, 1968-71 and 1983-4 and chairman of its disciplinary panel, he resigned from it briefly in 1974 to run a public stable. In his fifties, he learnt to fly and his Cessna was frequently to be seen at race meetings. He was a member of the Horserace Totalisator Board 1962-8 and of the Horserace Betting Levy Board 1976-80.

Astor was married three times. His first marriage came to an in 1972. Four years later he married Mrs Susan Sheppard, but that marriage too was dissolved in 1985. Finally in 1988 he married Marcia de Savary, who survives him. From the mid 1980s Astor fought a long struggle with Parkinson's disease, but as late as 1995 was still able to play a round of golf. He faced illness with characteristic courage and was reported recently to have observed that the best thing about dying was that "you don't have to pack".

Astor was a man of great charm and intelligence and a liberal Tory of the old school. He had a catholic taste where people were concerned, mixing easily with gypsies as well as people of his own class. When his mother, who hated horseracing, shouted at him, "Don't forget racing brings out the worst in all classes", he turned and said, "Just like the House of Commons." He will be greatly missed.