John Barnes, Historian

Sir Peter Emery

Although he served more than forty years as an MP, achieving junior office in Edward Heath's government, it is likely that Emery will be principally remembered by political historians as the man who conceived the idea of the Bow Group and brought it to fruition in partnership with a future Judge, Bruce Griffiths. Both were serving on the committee of the Federation of University Conservative Associations, but it was Emery who observed that Conservative university graduates rarely joined or rejoined their local constituency associations and suggested establishing a club in London to "focus and centre graduate and undergraduate thought, acting as a stimulus to the Conservative Party and providing an effective counter to 'intellectual' Socialism and the Fabian Society." In the first forty years of its existence the Group more than fulfilled his ambitions for it.

Although Emery's motion was passed by the Federation's annual conference at High Leigh in 1950, it was to be nine months before the organisation came into being, even though the idea had found an early welcome at Conservative Central Office. The steering committee met first in November 1950 and, unable to afford membership of the Constitutional Club, instead linked their fortunes with the Bow Conservative Club. Emery had become Secretary of the Poplar Conservative Association and was to fight the seat in October 1951 and he found the suggestion made by his constituency chairman, Colonel Joel, that their research would be better grounded on the East End than based in a West End club more than acceptable. Emery and Griffiths tossed for the chairmanship and the latter won: Emery took on the Secretaryship and wrote the constitution. Although he resigned after a year, he had helped create an organisation that had an influence on the Conservative Party out of all proportion to its numbers. Many of its early members, like his close friend, Geoffrey Howe, went on to serve in Cabinet or, like William Rees Mogg, became highly influential journalists.

Emery's own ambitions seemed likely to be fulfilled when he defeated an influential member of his own trade union and well-established MP, Ian Mikardo, at Reading South in 1959 and clung on to the seat in 1964. With the Conservative Party relegated to opposition, he was recruited to the team which Heath deployed to good effect in savaging Callaghan's 1965 budget, but forfeited his front bench position when defeated in the 1966 election. He made a speedy recovery, securing victory in the Honiton by-election in March 1967, but he was not made a member of Heath's much-reduced front bench team and had to wait until the government reshuffle in the spring of 1972 before he was given a place in Heath's government. When Margaret Thatcher replaced Heath as leader in 1975, Emery found himself out of favour and this time there was to be no change of fortune.

Not surprisingly he was to be found in the Heseltine camp in 1990, although subsequently he gave his loyalty to John Major. As a staunch advocate of British membership of the European Union, although no "federalist", he strongly supported the Maastricht treaty, sharply attacked the disloyalty of the Eurosceptics, and backed Major when he put his leadership on the line in 1995. In 1997 he threw his support behind Ken Clarke.

Peter Frank Hannibal Emery was the son of a small clothing manufacturer in Highgate and claimed to be the great great grandson of a Captain Hannibal, whose schooner carried grain between Plymouth and Australia Although it has been reported that he was evacuated to the United States at the start of World War II, by his own account, he lived there for four years before it started and was educated at Scotch Plains, New Jersey. He supported himself by working as a labourer, sheet metal worker and arc welder. It seems unlikely that he returned to join the RAF in 1942; 1944 seems more likely, but he was certainly a pilot, who after demobilisation, flew with the Volunteer Reserve until 1950. He won a scholarship to Oriel College Oxford, where he was active in Conservative politics and the Union, securing election to the Librarianship of the Union Society and helping found the Oxford branch of United Europe with Edward Boyle, Peter Kirk and Dick Taverne. On coming down he became a salesman with the family business and was elected to the Hornsey Borough Council in 1949. His local government career culminated with the deputy Mayoralty of Hornsey in 1957-58.

Although he claimed to have contested Lincoln in 1955, he was not in fact the candidate, but in October 1959 he ousted Ian Mikardo from Reading South. Thanks largely to the intervention of a Liberal, his majority was cut to only ten votes in 1964 and his subsequent defeat in 1966 at the hands of John Lee came as little surprise. Although at times a trifle rebellious - some would say bumptious, given the story of the way in which he reacted to his appointment to the Scottish Grand Committee (he turned up in a kilt, made a lengthy and critical speech and was promptly removed) - Emery made a more than promising start to his Parliamentary career, acting as Lord Harlech's PPS in 1960-61 and serving Joe Godber in the same capacity 1961-64. He was elected joint Secretary of the 1922 Committee 1964-65 and appointed to the economics front bench team when Heath became shadow Chancellor.

A burgeoning Parliamentary career did not preclude his active involvement in business. Emery became a director of the Institute of Purchasing and Supply 1961-71, Secretary-General of the European Federation of Purchasing 1962-72, a director of Phillips Petroleum (UK) 1963-72 and of Property Growth Insurance 1966-72 in addition to chairing Shenley Trust Services (formerly Emery and Emery) from 1976.

Emery's return to the Commons in a safe seat should have ensured his political future, but somewhere along the line he appears to have crossed Heath, for whose election as leader he had worked in 1965. Not only was he left on the backbenches after his return, but to the considerable surprise of political observers, was not given junior office when the Conservatives returned to power in 1970. By then he had added chairmanship of the Consultative Council of Professional Management Organisations to his other interests. His luck changed with Heath's U-turn on industrial policy and he was appointed Under Secretary for Trade and Industry in the spring of 1972. When Howe joined the department as Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs, they worked closely together on the Fair Trading legislation.

When Heath decided to create the Department of Energy early in 1974, he transferred the Secretary of State for Industry, Peter Walker, to the new department and Walker took Emery with him. Within a matter of weeks the Government was out, defeated when it sought a mandate to take on the unions. What happened next must have been galling for a bright and energetic minister, as Emery undoubtedly was. In opposition, he was not included in Heath's front bench team in opposition and with Margaret Thatcher's accession to the leadership after Heath's second successive election defeat, he found that his face did not fit. He decided to concentrate on his business interests, but as one of his friends remarked, he seemed also to lose something of what until then had been a consistent and coherent approach to Conservative policy. Public renunciation of his former leader was accompanied by some curious shifts in his political stance, including opposition to sanctions on Rhodesia and a vote against devolution in defiance of the whips.

Nor was a highly productive business career without its pitfalls. In 1980 he was twice censured by the Public Accounts Committee for making a 70 per cent profit on a Government contract entered into by Shenley Trust Services to operate the Underwater Training Centre at Fort William. In the teeth of its initial condemnation, he insisted that the profit amounted to no more than 7 per cent and forced a fresh enquiry. Unfortunately for him, it reached the same conclusion, and Government support was withdrawn from the centre in April 1982. The controversy did not prevent Mrs Thatcher from recommending him for a knighthood in January 1982, but it led to later gibes when he appeared to be exploiting the public purse over space exploration. Earlier he had attracted some criticism for negotiating a road-building contract for a British firm, in which he had an interest, while on an official Parliamentary delegation to Ghana and there was a further burst of criticism in October 1983 - even though the activities of Shenley Trust Services in promoting the cause of one of South Africa's puppet states, Bophuthatswana, were a known quantity - when he wrote an article for The Times praising the South African regime without declaring an interest.

None of this affected his standing with his constituents, with the whips, or his fellow Parliamentarians, while his business interests continued to go from strength to strength. He was universally liked, and while thought on occasion to cut corners, he was not regarded as a rogue. Service on the Select Committee on Trade and Industry 1979-87 was followed by chairmanship of the Select Committee on Procedure 1984-97. A longstanding supporter of departmental scrutiny by parliamentary select committees, who had written an introduction to Judge's monograph on the politics of Parliamentary reform, Emery was an active and conscientious chairman, and was particularly helpful, Howe remembers, in helping to carry through changes to improve Parliamentary scrutiny of European legislation. He was subsequently to serve on the select committee looking at modernisation of the Commons when the Blair Government took office, but he was dismayed at the erosion of the position the Commons had once enjoyed, telling the House Magazine shortly before his retirement at the 2001 election that he would miss the House, but not what it was becoming.

In 1995 he opposed the Nolan Committee's recommendation that details of MP's outside earnings should be published. Critics noted that while Chairman of the Winglaw Property Group 1984- 2000, he had made 500,000 in bonuses over property deals between 1989 and 1992.

Emery chaired the Scientific and Technology Committee of the North Atlantic Assembly 1985-9, 1997-2001, acting in a similar capacity for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly was responsible for a report on the follow up to the Kyoto resolutions on global warming. He also acted as Treasurer of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly until he stood down from the House of Commons in 2001.

A man of boundless energy, sharp intelligence, and brash self-confidence, Emery was not always taken at his own estimation. Florid in every sense of the word, he could get things badly wrong. His efforts to limit Sunday Trading before lunch to newsagents and filling stations were received with mirthful scorn and it was not the only occasion on which he was treated by younger colleagues as no more than an "amiable blunderbuss". Although universally liked, he could be very pompous. But he was always his own man, whether insisting on the need for joint consultation before Cruise missiles were launched from the UK, fighting to secure amendments to the Rates Bill, warning the Thatcher Government of the dangers of its indecisiveness over apartheid, opposing the merger of British Airways and British Caledonian or opposing banding of the poll tax. He could be very effective as, when a member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, he condemned the Foreign Secretary in biting words for perpetrating a whitewash over the Sandline affair; and as founder Chairman of the National Asthma campaign he stood shoulder to shoulder with Alan Milburn against his own front bench over the Smoking Bill in 2001. In a voice by then high and wheezing, he described how he was affected by the smoke-polluted corridors of the House.

If there was something anti-climactic about his later career, it was because he was so clearly a young man of promise. Four decades as an MP and a long stint as Chairman of a major House of Commons Committee are not to be taken as a mark of failure. That they seem so is a measure of what he was thought capable of achieving.