A fatal choice. When Irish terrorists murdered Airey Neave in the car park of the House of Commons, they chose their target well. Had he lived, the IRA would not today have victory in its grasp. Norman Tebbit on the elusive life and violent death of a Tor

Public servant, secret agent

Paul Routledge <em>Fourth Estate, 392pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 1841152

Public Servant, Secret Agent brings together in one volume a great deal about the life of Airey Neave that, although not all new, has hitherto been scattered in several books, and it also sheds some new light on his death. It is a pity that the most important section of the book, Paul Routledge's account of his meeting with the godfathers of the Irish National Liberation Army who planned Neave's murder, has been torn out of its proper place in the final chapters and dumped awkwardly into a preface. I find it hard to believe that an author as skilled as Routledge would have drafted his book in such a fashion. More likely, some marketing-obsessed, wet-behind-the-ears publisher's gofer is to blame. My advice to readers is to skip the preface, get on with the story, and then go back to it in the context of the closing chapters, where it would be an antidote to some of the fantastical conspiracy theories naming the CIA and MI6 as Neave's assassins.

The book, like Neave's life, falls naturally into three sections: first, his childhood in comfortable middle-class, pre-war England; second, his experiences in the wartime years - the battle of Calais, capture, Colditz, escape and initiation into the subterranean, cloak-and-dagger world of the Resistance and secret intelligence services; and third, his political career, the making of Margaret Thatcher and the development of a policy for Northern Ireland, which cost him his life when he was blown up in his car leaving the House of Commons car park. At times, Routledge's leftist views impel him to disapprove of Neave, but his conscious struggle for objectivity and his regard for the man's courage and moral strength redress the balance. He paints a picture of a privileged English upper-middle-class boyhood, even a somewhat raffish life reading law at Oxford, by which time Neave's traditional Conservative views and his detestation of those ugly political sisters, communism and fascism, were well established. In a prize-winning essay written before he left Eton for Oxford, Neave expressed his foreboding that Hitler would lead Germany into war, only months after the infamous Oxford Union vote that "This House will under no circumstances fight for King and Country".

At Oxford, Neave was more occupied by traditional student activities such as partying than by politics or studies, but with a frantic last-minute struggle, he achieved a law degree and then embarked on a career at the Bar. He had joined the Territorial Army at Oxford, convinced that he at least should fight for King and Country, and he enlisted with a searchlight regiment just days before Chamberlain's ultimatum to Hitler precipitated the declaration of war. Posted to France, he was soon parted from his searchlights and took command of an ill-assorted and randomly equipped troop of soldiers in the battle of Calais, with the aim of delaying the German assault on the beaches at Dunkirk. It all but cost him his life and, seriously wounded, he was captured.

From the first, his thoughts were of escape, and his failed attempts led to incarceration in the "escape-proof" prison at Colditz. There is no black-and-white account of fearless British officers and dunderheaded black-hearted German jailers, and the Germans mostly emerge as decent men, frequently resisting extreme provocation by their British and Allied prisoners, although some recaptured escapees were unforgivably executed.

Colditz, the prison for bad boys, became an academy and virtual hothouse for recidivist escapees. Accompanied by a Dutch prisoner, Neave made a "home run" on his second attempt to break out. Escaping from Germany into the safety of Switzerland, he made the dangerous run across France, over the Pyrenees into Spain, and the far from entirely safe journey from Gibraltar back home. He was soon recruited into MI9, a branch of MI6 responsible for the support of the mainly French and Dutch Resistance fighters operating the escape lines for POWs and aircrew evading capture after being shot down. As the war ended, Neave joined the Nuremberg war crimes team and served the indictments on the Nazi leaders.

Routledge's account of Neave's political career after demobilisation in 1946 is not particularly sympathetic. His careers as a backbencher and then junior minister were not distinguished, but they are treated too dismissively. However, it was during the Tory leadership election of 1975 that Neave turned the course of history when he concluded that only Margaret Thatcher would topple Edward Heath - and then go on to win the leadership. The conspiratorial streak in Neave's character made him the ideal man to orchestrate Thatcher's successful leadership bid. As his reward, he chose the shadow portfolio for Northern Ireland - a fatal choice.

From here, Routledge descends into wild, feverish tales of secret intelligence plots and of coups against Harold Wilson's government. The renegade intelligence officer Peter Wright is quoted as an impeccable source, the dubious rag Searchlight is called a "respected" magazine (not by me), while Ken Livingstone is ranked as an authoritative source. Neave, on the other hand, is said to have "given his standard rant" against the tide of murder in Ulster, and the story of an MI6 assassination plot against Tony Benn is recycled. Routledge even rehashes the tale about an MI6-CIA plot to kill Neave (allegedly because he planned to clean up the secret intelligence service, putting Christopher Tugendhat in charge), and he makes the somewhat asymmetric charge that MI6, as vengeance for Neave's death, methodically murdered nationalists with connections to the Irish National Liberation Army.

Despite these vapourings, Routledge's conclusion is that Neave was murdered by the INLA. It chose its target well. Had Neave lived, the IRA would not today have victory in its grasp, because there is no doubt that he would have continued to prosecute the war, using all the dark arts of intelligence and the secret state.

Lord Tebbit is a former chairman of the Conservative Party