Robert Shirley, Earl Ferrers: 1929 - 2012

The Conservative peer who served five prime ministers.

The Lord Speaker has just announced that Robert Shirley, the 13th Earl Ferrers, has died. He was 83, and had been unwell for some time. He had sat in the Lords for over 50 years, and served five prime ministers - as a lord-in-waiting, and as a minister in the Ministry of Agriculture, Home Office and others. He was an extremely tall man, who seemed to uncoil himself with great dignity whenever he rose to speak in the Lords, but was always happy to bend down to hear what you had to tell him.

A New Statesman journalist marking the passing of a hereditary Conservative peer like this seems unlikely, I know. But a couple of years ago, I had the chance to meet Earl Ferrers on a few occasions (I used to work at Total Politics magazine, which is published by the same outfit that was publishing his gently brilliant memoir, Whatever Next?) and found him to be a charming, funny and fascinating man. He was a living piece of history - you only had to see the guestlist for his book launch party (which included a former prime minister and half of Thatcher's cabinet) to get a sense of the amount of time and effort he had ploughed into top-level politics, and the high regard in which he was held by some of the most eminent politicians of the last five decades.

In 1998, when the House of Lords was partially reformed and a ballot was held to choose the 92 hereditary peers who would hang on to their seats in the legislature, Earl Ferrers topped the list. He was popular, yes, but his fellow Lords also voted for him in recognition of the fact that, unlike some others, he considered being a peer to be a full-time job. While further reform of the upper house seems to have vanished off the agenda once again, in the future we mustn't forget that even in its undemocratic state, the Lords contained individuals like Earl Ferrers who, through an accident of birth, were placed in a position of power and went about their jobs with good humour, hard work and individuality.

If you never had the good fortune to meet him or see him speak, you're in luck - the Daily Mail serialised his book last year, so you can still read some extracts on their website. I also recommend the anecdote in this interview about how he once threw a rotting fish, repeatedly, at the Lords Chief Whip, Bertie Denham. I mean, who wouldn't?

Earl Ferrers in 1979. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.