John Biffen

Last updated

The Lord Biffen

John Biffen
Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal
In office
11 June 1983 13 June 1987
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Preceded by The Baroness Young
Succeeded by John Wakeham
Leader of the House of Commons
In office
7 April 1982 13 June 1987
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Preceded by Francis Pym
Succeeded by John Wakeham
Lord President of the Council
In office
7 April 1982 11 June 1983
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Preceded by Francis Pym
Succeeded by William Whitelaw
Secretary of State for Trade
In office
5 January 1981 6 April 1982
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Preceded by John Nott
Succeeded by The Lord Cockfield
Chief Secretary to the Treasury
In office
4 May 1979 5 January 1981
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Preceded by Joel Barnett
Succeeded by Leon Brittan
Shadow Secretary of State for Industry
In office
19 November 1976 4 May 1979
Leader Margaret Thatcher
Preceded by Michael Heseltine
Succeeded by Eric Varley
Shadow Secretary of State for Energy
In office
15 January 1976 19 November 1976
Leader Margaret Thatcher
Preceded by Patrick Jenkin
Succeeded by Tom King
Member of the House of Lords
Lord Temporal
In office
3 June 1997 14 August 2007
Life peerage
Member of Parliament
for North Shropshire
Oswestry (1961 - 1983)
In office
9 November 1961 8 April 1997
Preceded by David Ormsby-Gore
Succeeded by Owen Paterson
Personal details
William John Biffen

(1930-11-03)3 November 1930
Combwich, England
Died14 August 2007(2007-08-14) (aged 76)
London, England
Political party Conservative
Sarah Wood(m. 1979)
Alma mater Jesus College, Cambridge

William John Biffen, Baron Biffen, PC , DL (3 November 1930 – 14 August 2007) was a British Conservative politician. A member of the House of Lords, he previously spent 36 years in the House of Commons and served in Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet.


Early life

The son of Victor William Biffen, a tenant farmer, of Hill Farm, Otterhampton, Bridgwater, Somerset, and his wife Edith Annie ('Tish'), [1] John Biffen was born in Bridgwater, Somerset, in 1930. He was educated firstly at Combwich village school followed by Dr. Morgan's Grammar School, Bridgwater. [2] He then earned a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge where he graduated with a first class honours degree in History. From 1953 to 1960 he worked for Tube Investments Ltd.

Member of Parliament

Having previously stood unsuccessfully against Richard Crossman at Coventry East in 1959, Biffen was the Member of Parliament (MP) for the constituency of Oswestry, later renamed Shropshire North, from the time of his election at a by-election in 1961 until his retirement at the 1997 general election.

In his early political career he was a disciple of Enoch Powell, voting for him in the Conservative leadership election of 1965. Biffen was a Eurosceptic and voted against Britain's entry into the EEC in a parliamentary division in 1972 against his own party. Biffen championed tight fiscal policy and opposed state intervention in economic management.

In government

This stance barred his way to advancement under Edward Heath, but contributed to his promotion under Margaret Thatcher. He served in Thatcher's government in the successive positions of Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Secretary of State for Trade, and as Leader of the House of Commons. In the 1960s Biffen joined the Mont Pelerin Society. Thatcher writes in The Downing Street Years (1993) that '(Biffen) had been a brilliant exponent in Opposition of the economic policies in which I believed... But he proved rather less effective than I had hoped in the gruelling task of trying to control public expenditure.' [3]

In 1981, Biffen allowed Rupert Murdoch to buy The Times and The Sunday Times without reference to the Monopolies Commission. [4] According to Woodrow Wyatt, who helped persuade Thatcher to ensure this, the Commission "almost certainly would have blocked it." [5]

As Leader of the House Biffen used the guillotine to cut short debate on the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1986. Edward Pearce has written that Biffen "was widely thought the best post-war floor leader". [6]

Biffen's image as an economic dry mellowed during his time in government and he made blunt public calls for greater moderation in government policy. In 1980 he warned the country to prepare for "three years of unparalleled austerity". In 1981 Biffen gave a speech to a fringe meeting at that year's Conservative Party Conference in which he argued the party was "within touching distance of the débâcles of 1906 and 1945." He further claimed that far from cutting public spending, the government had increased it by two per cent since 1979 and that the government was part of an all-party consensus in favour of the welfare state and public spending: "We are all social democrats now", Biffen concluded in his speech. [7]

On 9 February 1986 he said that Toryism was "not a raucous political faction" and after the Conservative Party's losses in the 1986 local government elections, and poor performances in the two parliamentary by-elections held simultaneously, Biffen was interviewed on Weekend World by Brian Walden on 11 May as the government's spokesman. He called the results "Black Thursday", said the Conservatives needed to fight the next general election on a "balanced ticket" and that "no one seriously supposes that the Prime Minister would be Prime Minister throughout the entire period of the next Parliament". [8] This alienated him from Thatcher and resulted in his being dropped from the Cabinet after the 1987 general election. His dismissal was no surprise, in that Thatcher's press secretary Bernard Ingham had already famously called him a "semi-detached" member of the Cabinet. Thatcher in her memoirs described Biffen's desire for a balanced ticket as "foolish" and "a recipe for paralysis." [9] In the month after his sacking Biffen likened Thatcher's governing style to that of a "Stalinist regime". [10]

Backbenches and retirement

On the backbenches Biffen voted against the Local Government Finance Act 1988 which introduced the Community Charge (the poll tax). He voted against the Maastricht Treaty and was in favour of a referendum on the EU Constitution so he could vote "No". [11] On 3 June 1997 he was created a life peer, as Baron Biffen, of Tanat in the County of Shropshire. [12]

Personal life

Biffen married Sarah Wood in 1979. He had one stepson, Nicholas Wood, a correspondent with The New York Times and International Herald Tribune, and a stepdaughter, Lucy. [13]

Political views

Despite his right-wing views on economic policy, he was very much to the left of Margaret Thatcher on social policy: he completely opposed capital punishment, and was very supportive of equal gay rights, though agreed with Powell on immigration. Biffen also opposed the tightening of laws restricting abortion, voting, in 1990, to preserve the limit at 28 weeks. [14]

Brian Walden noted that Biffen was the "most honest" politician he had interviewed. [15]


He died on 14 August 2007, aged 76, after a short illness, having suffered from kidney failure for many years. [16] He was survived by his wife, stepson and stepdaughter.

Biffen was portrayed by Roger Brierley in the 2004 BBC production of The Alan Clark Diaries .


  1. "The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/98990. Archived from the original on 17 June 2019. Retrieved 17 June 2019.
  2. Biffen, John (9 December 2013). Semi-Detached. Biteback Publishing.
  3. Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (HarperCollins, 1993), p. 26.
  4. John Campbell, Margaret Thatcher: The Iron Lady (Jonathan Cape, 2003), p. 572.
  5. Woodrow Wyatt, The Journals of Woodrow Wyatt: Volume 3 (Pan, 2001), p. 582.
  6. John Ramsden (ed.), The Oxford Companion to 20th-Century British Politics (OUP, 2002), p. 55.
  7. Hugo Young, One of Us (Pan, 1990), p. 240.
  8. John Campbell, Margaret Thatcher: The Iron Lady (Jonathan Cape, 2003), p. 448.
  9. Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (HarperCollins, 1993), p. 422.
  10. The Sunday Telegraph (London), 5 July 1987
  11. John Biffen, Vindication for De Gaulle, The Guardian (London), 15 June 2005.
  12. "No. 54787". The London Gazette . 9 June 1997. p. 6697.
  13. "Lords Hansard text for 6 December 2005 (51206-22)". Archived from the original on 28 October 2016. Retrieved 1 September 2017.
  14. "Amendment of law relating to termination of pregnancy". Archived from the original on 22 December 2012. Retrieved 3 February 2013.
  15. Sean Coughlan. "Walden's secret ingredient for power". BBC News. Archived from the original on 23 November 2008. Retrieved 29 May 2006.
  16. "Thatcher leads tributes to Biffen". BBC News. Archived from the original on 6 September 2017. Retrieved 14 August 2007.


Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
David Ormsby-Gore
Member of Parliament for Oswestry
Constituency abolished
New constituency Member of Parliament for North Shropshire
Succeeded by
Owen Paterson
Political offices
Preceded by
Joel Barnett
Chief Secretary to the Treasury
Succeeded by
Leon Brittan
Preceded by
John Nott
Secretary of State for Trade
Succeeded by
The Lord Cockfield
Preceded by
Francis Pym
Lord President of the Council
Succeeded by
The Viscount Whitelaw
Leader of the House of Commons
Succeeded by
John Wakeham
Preceded by
The Baroness Young
Lord Privy Seal

Related Research Articles

Margaret Thatcher Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990

Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, was a British stateswoman who served as prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990 and leader of the Conservative Party from 1975 to 1990. She was the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century and the first woman to hold that office. A Soviet journalist dubbed her "The Iron Lady", a nickname that became associated with her uncompromising politics and leadership style. As Prime Minister, she implemented policies known as Thatcherism.

Edward Heath Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1970 to 1974

Sir Edward Richard George Heath,, often known as Ted Heath, was a British politician who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1970 to 1974 and Leader of the Conservative Party from 1965 to 1975. Heath served 51 years as a Member of Parliament from 1950 to 2001. He was a strong supporter of the European Communities (EC), and after winning the decisive vote in the House of Commons by 356 to 244, he led the negotiations that culminated in Britain's entry into the EC on 1 January 1973. It was, says biographer John Campbell, "Heath's finest hour". Although he planned to be an innovator as Prime Minister, his government foundered on economic difficulties, including high inflation and major strikes. He became an embittered critic of Margaret Thatcher, who supplanted him as party leader.

Norman Tebbit English politician

Norman Beresford Tebbit, Baron Tebbit is a British politician and life peer. A member of the Conservative Party, he served in the Cabinet from 1981 to 1987 as Secretary of State for Employment (1981–83), Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (1983–85), Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (1985–87) and Chairman of the Conservative Party (1985–87). He was a member of parliament (MP) from 1970 to 1992, representing the constituencies of Epping (1970–74) and Chingford (1974–92).

1979 United Kingdom general election election for members of the British House of Commons

The 1979 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday 3 May 1979 to elect 635 members to the British House of Commons. The Conservative Party, led by Margaret Thatcher, ousted the incumbent Labour government of James Callaghan with a parliamentary majority of 43 seats. The election was the first of four consecutive election victories for the Conservative Party, and Thatcher became the United Kingdom's and Europe's first elected female head of government.

1987 United Kingdom general election election for members of the British House of Commons

The 1987 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday, 11 June 1987, to elect 650 members to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom. The election was the third consecutive general election victory for the Conservative Party, and second landslide under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, who became the first Prime Minister since the Earl of Liverpool in 1820 to lead a party into three successive electoral victories.

Geoffrey Howe British politician

Richard Edward Geoffrey Howe, Baron Howe of Aberavon,, known from 1970 to 1992 as Sir Geoffrey Howe, was a British Conservative politician.

Keith Joseph British barrister and politician

Keith Sinjohn Joseph, Baron Joseph, known as Sir Keith Joseph, 2nd Baronet, for most of his political life, was a British barrister and politician. A member of the Conservative Party, he served in the Cabinet under four prime ministers: Harold Macmillan, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher. He was a key influence in the creation of what came to be known as "Thatcherism".

Maastricht Rebels

The Maastricht Rebels were British members of Parliament (MPs) belonging to the then governing Conservative Party who refused to support the government of Prime Minister John Major in a series of votes in the House of Commons on the issue of the implementation of the Maastricht Treaty in British law.

Peter Tapsell (British politician) British politician

Sir Peter Hannay Bailey Tapsell was a British Conservative Party politician and Member of Parliament (MP) for Louth and Horncastle. He served in the House of Commons continuously from 1966 until 2015, and was also previously an MP from 1959 to 1964. He was Father of the House between 2010 and 2015.

Ian Gilmour, Baron Gilmour of Craigmillar British politician

Ian Hedworth John Little Gilmour, Baron Gilmour of Craigmillar, was a Conservative politician in the United Kingdom. He was styled Sir Ian Gilmour, 3rd Baronet from 1977, having succeeded to his father's baronetcy, until he became a life peer in 1992. He served as Secretary of State for Defence in 1974, in the government of Edward Heath. He also served in the government of Margaret Thatcher, as Lord Privy Seal from 1979 to 1981.

Ian Gow British Conservative MP killed by an IRA bomb

Ian Reginald Edward Gow was a British Conservative politician and solicitor. While serving as Member of Parliament (MP) for Eastbourne, he was assassinated by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), who exploded a bomb under his car outside his home in East Sussex.

Brian Walden British politician and broadcaster

Alastair Brian Walden was a British journalist and broadcaster who spent over a decade as a Labour Member of Parliament. He was considered one of the finest political interviewers in the history of British broadcasting, tenacious and ruthless. He won awards for broadcasting including the BAFTA Richard Dimbleby Award for television in 1986, and in 1991 was named ITV personality of the year. He was known for interviews of politicians, especially Margaret Thatcher. He was said to be her favourite interviewer, although he gave her tough interviews.

Sir Anthony Meyer, 3rd Baronet British politician

Sir Anthony John Charles Meyer, 3rd Baronet was a British soldier, diplomat, and Conservative and later Liberal Democrat politician, best known for standing against Margaret Thatcher for the party leadership in 1989. In spite of his staunch conservative views on economic policy, his passionate support of increased British integration into the European Union led to him becoming increasingly marginalised in Thatcher's Conservative Party.

Wets and dries

During the 1980s, members of the Conservative Party in Britain who opposed some of the more hard-line policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were often referred to by their opponents as "wets". Thatcher coined the usage in 1979–80, with the meaning of feeble, lacking hardness, or willing to compromise with the unions. The label was especially applied to senior members of her government who were nevertheless outside Thatcher's inner circle and who expressed opposition to her strict monetarist policies designed to tackle inflation, and her cuts to public spending.

Sir George Arthur Gardiner was a British Conservative Party politician and journalist. Two months before the 1997 general election he defected to the Referendum Party, becoming the only MP it ever had. The party dissolved later that year.

Woodrow Wyatt British politician

Woodrow Lyle Wyatt, Baron Wyatt of Weeford was a British politician, author, journalist and broadcaster, close to the Queen Mother, Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch. For the last twenty years of his life, he was chairman of the state betting organisation The Tote.

Political history of the United Kingdom (1945–present)

When Britain emerged victorious from the Second World War, the Labour Party under Clement Attlee came to power and created a comprehensive welfare state, with the establishment of the National Health Service giving free healthcare to all British citizens, and other reforms to benefits. The Bank of England, railways, heavy industry, and coal mining were all nationalised. The most controversial issue was nationalisation of steel, which was profitable unlike the others. Economic recovery was slow, housing was in short supply, bread was rationed along with many necessities in short supply. It was an "age of austerity". American loans and Marshall Plan grants kept the economy afloat. India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon gained independence. Britain was a strong anti-Soviet factor in the Cold War and helped found NATO in 1949.

John Donkin Dormand, Baron Dormand of Easington, known as Jack Dormand, was a British educationist and Labour Party politician from the coal mining area of Easington in County Durham, in the north-east of England. He was Member of Parliament (MP) for the Easington constituency from 1970 until his retirement in 1987.

First Thatcher ministry Government of the United Kingdom

Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 4 May 1979 to 28 November 1990, during which time she led a Conservative majority government. She was the first woman to hold that office. During her premiership, Thatcher moved to liberalise the British economy through deregulation, privatisation, and the promotion of entrepreneurialism.

<i>The Path to Power</i> (Margaret Thatcher) memoir by Margaret Thatcher

The Path to Power is a memoir by former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Margaret Thatcher covering her life from her birth in 1925 until she became Prime Minister in 1979.