Obituary: Baron Lawson of Blaby

‘Thatcherite revolutionary’ who served as the first Jewish chancellor since Benjamin Disraeli


As Margaret Thatcher’s “brilliant Chancellor”, Nigel Lawson, who has died aged 91, presided over the economic boom of the mid-1980s, which marked the heyday of her premiership.

But his later decision to quit her government helped trigger the series of events that led to Thatcher’s dramatic fall in November, 1990.

Lawson — once cruelly, but not totally inaccurately, described as looking “like the Prince Regent on a diet” — was the longest-serving Chancellor of the Exchequer since David Lloyd George; a record he held until it was surpassed by Gordon Brown in the first decade of the 21st century. Lawson was also the first Jew to serve as Chancellor since Benjamin Disraeli — a fact upon which he rarely commented.

Born seven years before the outbreak of the Second World War, Lawson’s upbringing in Hampstead was a comfortable one, with a family cook, maid and nanny.

Lawson’s father Ralph built a successful tea-trading firm in the City of London, while his mother Joan hailed from a family of prosperous stockbrokers.

Despite their wealth, the family had only recently put down roots in Britain. Lawson’s casino-loving grandfather, Gustav Leibson, emigrated from Latvia around 1890, became a British subject in 1911 and later changed his name to Lawson.

But his grandson largely eschewed his Jewish heritage. “I was not brought up in any Jewish culture but rather in the culture of this country,” he suggested.

For Lawson, like his parents, being Jewish was something he “took for granted”. He was “puzzled — not peeved or irritated, simply puzzled” — by the focus on it.

After graduating from Oxford and completing his National Service, Lawson became a successful journalist.

At the Financial Times, he wrote the Lex column; he later joined the newly launched Sunday Telegraph in 1961, before becoming editor of the Conservative Party’s “house journal” The Spectator five years later. He also had a brief stint as Downing Street speechwriter for Alec Douglas-Home (PM 1963-64).

While Lawson failed in his first attempt to get into Parliament in 1970, his climb was rapid once he won the safe Tory seat of Blaby in Leicestershire four years later. A member of Ted Heath’s inner circle, he was responsible for drafting both of the Conservatives’ 1974 manifestos.

Even Heath’s defenestration by Thatcher the following year — (she trounced him in the first round of the leadership race) — and her distaste for the former prime minister’s centrist politics — did not slow Lawson’s rise. Intellectually Lawson shared Thatcher’s passion for free-market economics and she came to regard him as one of the “more solid” members of her team.

After the Conservatives won power in 1979, Thatcher sent Lawson to the Treasury as Economic Secretary. During her rocky first years in No 10, Lawson helped provide intellectual ballast for the new government’s radical economic policies and in a speech in Zurich in early 1981 became the first minister to publicly use the term “Thatcherism”.

When Thatcher engaged in a mass cull of the Cabinet’s so-called “wets” (people willing to compromise) in autumn, 1981, Lawson was an unsurprising beneficiary. As Energy Secretary, he helped ready the gas and electricity industries for privatisation. Perhaps more importantly, he began stockpiling coal, anticipating the showdown with the miners in 1984.

With the Conservatives’ landslide re-election in 1983, Thatcher, who eventually came to “share Nigel’s high opinion of himself”, appointed Lawson as Chancellor. But if not always without tension, their partnership proved successful throughout the Tories’ second term in government.

After two cautious years of incremental reforms, the Chancellor cut income tax in 1986 for the first time in seven years, repeating the cut in 1987, and promised more if the Conservatives were re-elected. “The Lawson boom” — which saw unemployment cut from just over three million in 1983 to half that level by the end of 1989 — was fuelled not simply by tax cuts but by a wave of privatisations.

While former Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan likened the sale of British Telecom, British Gas, and British Airways to “selling off the family silver”, Lawson revelled in the advent of “people’s capitalism”.

It was capped by another of the Chancellor’s enthusiasms, the October 1986 “Big Bang”, which swept away the City’s restrictive practices.

However, despite the Conservatives winning a third term in 1987, trouble was on the horizon, both for the economy and the relationship between Prime Minister and the Chancellor. Thatcher, always conscious of her status as “First Lord of the Treasury”, resented the fact that Lawson “did not generally like to seek or take advice”.

Lawson, by contrast, believed there could “only be one Chancellor”.

As interest rates were hiked to douse rising inflation, Thatcher fretted at Lawson’s supposedly awry political judgment. Valuing intellectual consistency, he later asserted the heretical belief that Thatcherism did not mean “whatever Margaret Thatcher herself at any time did or said”.

Ironically, while Thatcher prided herself on her acute awareness of what “our people” would stand for, it was Lawson who warned her that the poll tax, flagship of her third term, was “completely unworkable and politically catastrophic”.

Thatcher’s ire grew as she came to believe that Lawson was pursuing “a personal economic policy without reference to the rest of the Government” and, while publicly lauding his swingeing top-rate tax cuts in 1988, she confided to close aides that the Chancellor was “a gambler”.

Behind closed doors, they rowed ferociously: Lawson resented her aggressive manner, Mrs Thatcher his alleged deceptions. He considered resigning, she toyed with firing him. In May 1989 matters came to a head when she appeared to blame him for inflation.

When Lawson threatened to quit, she uncharacteristically backed down and apologised. But it was merely a temporary truce. Less than six months later Lawson threw in the towel when Thatcher refused to sack Sir Alan Walters, her economic adviser, despite his public attacks on the Chancellor.

While she initially appeared to stabilise the government, fending off a dark horse leadership challenge in November 1989, Lawson’s resignation, coupled with that of her long-serving Cabinet minister Geoffrey Howe a year later, suggested that the Prime Minister, as well as being deeply unpopular in the polls, could no longer work with her most senior colleagues.

Lawson— who confessed “it was impossible not to feel for Margaret” while also believing that she was “the author of her own misfortune” — cast one of the votes for Michael Heseltine in the November 1990 leadership contest that ended Thatcher’s 11 years in Downing Street.

Lawson remained in the Commons until the 1992 election, after which he joined the House of Lords.

A vocal climate-change sceptic, Lawson— who in office had repeatedly urged Thatcher to join the European Exchange Rate Mechanism — also became a strong supporter of Brexit. He retired from the upper chamber in December 2022.

Like most of her former ministers, Lawson didn’t emerge unscathed from Thatcher’s score-settling memoirs. Nonetheless, she rightly concluded that, whatever their differences, she could not deny him a place on the list of “Conservative — even Thatcherite — revolutionaries”. In a tribute, Boris Johnson called him a “fearless and original flame of free-market Conservatism”.

Married and divorced twice, Lawson is survived by five children, including the journalist and former Sunday Telegraph editor Dominic Lawson and the TV cook and food writer Nigella Lawson. His daughter Thomasina died in 1993 at 32. His first wife, Vanessa Salmon, was a members of the family which founded the J Lyons & Co catering company.

Nigel Lawson: born March 11, 1932. Died April 3, 2023

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