Nigel Lawson: Margaret Thatcher’s ‘unassailable’ chancellor who quit in acrimony

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Nigel Lawson was Margaret Thatcher’s “unassailable” chancellor of the Exchequer for six years, until he resigned after a long-running and bitter storm over her reliance on monetarist guru Sir Alan Walters as her economic adviser.

The bombshell resignation in October 1989 marked the early stages of a succession of bleak and calamitous events which were to lead to Mrs Thatcher’s own downfall 13 months later.

Mr Lawson, later to become Baron Lawson of Blaby, effectively told the prime minister in a curt letter that she had to choose between him and Sir Alan. The successful conduct of economic policy was only possible, he said, “if there is, and is seen to be, full agreement” between the prime minister and chancellor.

This requirement could not be satisfied “so long as Alan Walters remains your personal economic adviser”, Mr Lawson said, adding: “I have therefore regretfully concluded that it is in the best interests of the government to resign my office without further ado.”

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Nigel Lawson applauded by Margaret Thatcher at the Conservative Party conference in Brighton (PA)

When Mrs Thatcher herself was questioned about Sir Alan’s activities, she tersely replied: “Advisers advise, ministers decide.”

As chancellor between 1983 and 1989, Mr Lawson was widely credited with winning the 1987 election for the government through the success of his economic strategy.

But Mrs Thatcher is known to have blamed his attempts to “shadow” the deutschmark in 1988 for much of the sharp rise in inflation the following year. In one private conversation, she is reported to have said that his policy had “put back” the Government by two years.

Mr Lawson possessed a formidable intellect but he was a prickly, arrogant man, aloof, with no discernible desire for popularity, and was labelled “the fat cad of the Remove”. He had the appearance of an old-fashioned Victorian villain who had fully earned his nickname of “Smuggins”.

Nigel Thomas Lawson was born on March 11 1932. During the war, when he was shunted around the country, he attended seven different primary schools and then went to Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford.

He served two years National Service in the Royal Navy where, despite criticism for scruffiness and arrogance, he was sufficiently well-regarded to be given charge of a motor torpedo boat, the Gay Charger.

In 1955, he married his first wife, Vanessa Salmon, a daughter of the Lyons catering empire.

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Nigel Lawson has died at the age of 91 (PA)

In 1966, he became editor of The Spectator, but 1970 brought two reverses when he was fired by the influential right-wing magazine and failed in his bid to enter Parliament at Eton and Slough.

Meanwhile, he had decided to invest the family’s money in a small merchant bank. He lost possibly as much as £400,000 when the 1974 financial crash came.

It was that year that he entered Parliament as MP for Blaby, a seat he held until he retired from the Commons in 1992. He was quickly spotted as a bright newcomer, if a ponderous parliamentary performer.

But his marriage crumbled under the pressure of work. It was dissolved in 1980 and Vanessa died five years later.

That year he married Therese Maclear, a former Commons library researcher who “always wanted to be a rock singer like Tina Turner”. 

His two marriages produced six children, including food writer Nigella and Dominic, another former editor of The Spectator.

Nigel Lawson remained a loner and an outsider, but when Mrs Thatcher won the 1979 election, he was appointed financial secretary to the Treasury. Two years later he joined the cabinet as energy secretary and ordered British Gas to sell its half of Wytch Farm, but backpedalled on a previous decision to sell gas showrooms.

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Nigel Lawson holding up his Budget box with his wife Therese (PA)

He acclaimed the Falklands war as “the rebirth of Britain”.

In 1982, he persuaded Ian MacGregor to take over as chairman of the National Coal Board. The following year he became chancellor and quickly gained a reputation as one of the most radical holders of the office since the war.

During his first term at 11 Downing Street, from 1983 to 1987, Mr Lawson presided over a startling turnaround in the economy, which saw unemployment plummet, direct taxation sharply reduce and Britain’s budget deficit turn into a surplus with which he began paying back the centuries-old National Debt.

His career reached a pinnacle in 1988 when, in the most dramatic budget of recent times, he cut the basic rate of tax to 25p and slashed the top rate to 40p. Mrs Thatcher’s description of him as “brilliant” was a genuine personal tribute.

However, in those heady days, the seeds of the division which was to lead to their parting had already been sown. Mr Lawson was long convinced of the desirability of Britain joining the European exchange-rate mechanism, and he decided to conduct his own trial run from about mid-1987 to March 1988 when he tried to shadow the German mark.

Towards the end of that period, interest rates were cut to keep sterling in line with the mark, a policy which Mr Lawson himself later admitted contributed to rising inflation.

The policy was criticised by Sir Alan, and Mrs Thatcher’s statement that “you cannot buck the market” seemed to be aimed directly at the chancellor.

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Nigel Lawson with wife Therese, son Tom and daughter Emily (PA)

After that, Mr Lawson was the subject of criticism for accepting lucrative offers of jobs in the City and banking world. Later, he became a life peer.

Lord Lawson also became known for his views on climate change, opposing international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol, and was the founding chairman of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which has lobbied against climate change policies such as net zero.

He was also an outspoken Eurosceptic and a prominent voice in the successful campaign for the UK to leave the European Union in 2016, serving as the chairman of Vote Leave.

In 2018, he faced claims of hypocrisy after it emerged he was applying for a French residency card.

The parliamentary record shows he last spoke in the House in April 2019 when he raised the spectre of “undesirable insurrectionary forces” if Parliament refused to accept the result of the Brexit vote.

Warning of a “rift” with the public, the veteran politician highlighted the danger of “an ugly situation” developing.

His second wife once refuted the public view of him as grumpy and arrogant. She said: “He is not in the least. He’s an absolute softy, very loving and he’s clever. Unlike me he doesn’t lose his temper in spite of the most extraordinary trials.”

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