Stephen Brasher's "The Returning Officer" column.

Philip Dormer Stanhope served as the Whig MP for the constituencies of St Germans (1715-22) and Lostwithiel (1722-24) before going to the House of Lords (which he called “the hospital for incurables”) in 1726 as the fourth Lord Chesterfield. Although he served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, his political career was blighted by making an enemy of Robert Walpole. His fame rests with the letters he wrote to his illegitimate son (also Philip), MP for Liskeard (1754-61) and St Germans (1761-65).

He often wrote of the importance of speaking well in parliament, even if ignorant of a subject: “Mr Pitt, particularly, has very little parliamentary knowledge.” After piloting Britain’s switch to the Gregorian calendar despite knowing little of law or astronomy he wrote: “but I was particularly attentive to my choice of words . . . they thought I informed, because I pleased them; and . . . said I had made the whole clear to them, when, God knows, I had not even attempted it”.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special