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Patrick Cormack: Man of the House

Lord Cormack: 18 May 1939 – 25 February 2024 | Image by Paul Heartfield

23 min read

A one-nation Conservative with 54 years of continuous service in Parliament, former House magazine editor Patrick Cormack was always guided by his strong Anglican faith

We were polar opposites, but in Patrick Cormack I found a shared appreciation of our beautiful, messy democracy. Words by Jess Phillips

I sat on the board of this magazine for two years with Lord Patrick Cormack. There are few people who could more aptly be described as being my polar opposite; I was a young, wise-cracking, Labour woman MP with a thick accent, he was a cut glass-toned elderly Conservative peer of the realm. I worried how we might rub along. I needn’t have. 

Patrick had an impish sense of humour and a delight for gossip which when we did it, I trusted would be kept between us. I was always struck by his old-fashioned manners, for example he would always stand when I entered a room as if he were a schoolboy and I were his school marm. The old worldly manner could have been jarring to me, a rabble-rousing feminist, but it was always done with such grace and kindness. A bygone era, kept not because of patriarchal norms but because he wanted to show me respect. 

He never left a meeting without mentioning his family and yours

Patrick & Mary
1970: The newly elected MP for West Staffordshire, with wife Mary | Image by: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Lord Cormack was a creature of the parliamentary estate, he was always informing us of correspondence he was having with various parliamentarians old and new, always knew if someone’s wife was ill, if their children were graduating, if their husband had been given some honour or another. He loved this place; he loved the people and I marvelled at how comfortable he was in these hallowed halls of both the Commons and the Lords. 

We were very much not cut from the same cloth, but in Patrick I found an ally, an ally of the beauty, albeit messy, of our democracy. I doubt I will ever not be maddened by our Parliament in its old-fashioned ways, its rules and regulations, but the belief that our representative democracy is so very special was something we shared. 

Patrick was a parliamentarian in a way I will never be, but before all of that he was a man who never left a meeting without mentioning his family and yours. My love is with his family at this sad time, he loved them so dearly. In his memory, I will not take on his traditions or deference, but I will continue to revel in our freedoms and representative rights. He would have expected nothing less and nothing more. 

Jess Phillips is Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley

Parliament has lost one of its biggest personalities – and champions. Patrick Cormack’s was a life well-lived. Words by Sir Lindsay Hoyle

A light went out in Parliament last month when we were all told the sad news that one of its biggest characters – and champions – had died.

Lord Cormack – Patrick – was not only a huge personality, but he also had a warmth that was almost tangible.

I will never forget those bewildering first days when I arrived in the House of Commons in 1997, how kind he was in showing us newbies the ropes: how to navigate the labyrinthine corridors, to put in for a question and, most importantly, which cafeteria served the best breakfast.

Patrick was already an old hand by that time, having been elected to the House in 1970, and his wisdom, advice and experience were always offered courteously and with kindness – to MPs and staff alike. I know many of them are terribly upset that this good-hearted gentleman is no longer with us and will miss his incredible wit and the laughs they shared.

It is true to say that what Patrick did not know about the history of Parliament was just not worth knowing. The House magazine and the History of Parliament Trust have lost their biggest cheerleader.

Patrick, who had been a Commons man through and through, moved seamlessly to take up his seat in the House of Lords in 2010.

He had a warmth that was almost tangible

Already a friend of Betty Boothroyd – latterly Baroness Boothroyd – from when she was Commons Speaker, the two remained close allies when he joined her on the red seats of the Lords.

That kinship endured until her death last year, when Patrick expertly arranged her funeral in the Cambridgeshire village of Thriplow, where she spent her later years. I can remember Patrick joking that holding the event in the middle of Prime Minister’s Questions had been “Betty’s revenge”, as she had not been a fan of the move from twice weekly PMQs to one half-hour slot on a Wednesday.

Unbelievably, it was only a few weeks ago that I had the privilege of working with Patrick on Betty’s memorial service, so it is hard to believe that he is gone too.

I like to think that Betty is welcoming Patrick to the next stage of his journey – and I can almost hear them cackling away in agreement that theirs were lives well-lived.

Sir Lindsay Hoyle is Commons Speaker

Wise, experienced and honourable, Patrick Cormack was my friend and mentor – we are all poorer for his passing. Words by Lord Brownlow

Lord Cormack, Patrick, was a dear, honourable and gentle man. 

His life was devoted to his wife, their two sons, his faith and church, Parliament and to so many other things he held dear; like cathedrals, castles, crafts and heritage, all of which embodied the very fabric of our history and society. He believed deeply in these things and his life and service championed them. 

Over time, Patrick was kind enough to gift me copies of the many books he wrote and these perfectly encapsulate his passions.

Many will know that just after one’s introduction to the House of Lords as a new peer you return and sit for 20 minutes or so to observe debate. When I came back into the chamber after my introduction I was sat next to Patrick. I returned to that place time and time again, and we started a friendship which included him teaching me the procedures and nuances of the work and ways of our Chamber.

We both worried at the way politics is moving

Throughout the Covid lockdown, which soon followed my introduction, we would continue our chats every Saturday morning when he would phone me. Even when the House returned those calls continued every week until his untimely and sad death.

We didn’t, and naturally couldn’t, agree on everything but I am not betraying any of his confidences to say that on our calls we both worried at the way politics is moving. Particularly concerning, the tragedy of lost opportunity and progress for the United Kingdom through division and the lack of vision and hope for the people we share our islands with.

He would be amused at the irony that in recent days many, many kind, touching and warm tributes have been paid to him via social media, something he stringently avoided in life. That said he mastered using his laptop, whilst during lockdown the House of Lords’ proceedings were conducted on Microsoft Teams. Inevitably he was delighted once the House returned and to its traditional ways of doing things.

Patrick was of a generation of wisdom, experience and commitment that included, among others, Lord Judge and Baroness Boothroyd – we are poorer for their recent passing. 

Party Conference

Backpool 1989:  At party conference | Image by: David Fowler / Alamy Stock Photo

He was a great teacher and I have learned so much from him. What do they say?: “I’ve taught you everything you know but not quite everything I know.” My journey seems very much like that, and I will now miss his further instruction, our discourse and above all his friendship. Rest in peace my noble friend.

Lord Brownlow is a Conservative peer

Scrupulously balanced in his approach during his time as editor, Patrick Cormack ensured the long-term future of The House magazine. Words by John Healey

We’re all still reading The House magazine thanks to Patrick Cormack. 

He steered it through the early years as editor, then over decades on the editorial board.

He was hands-on over content, determining for many years which parliamentarian would have the coveted cover profile, with its specially-commissioned cartoon.

He was paternal in the care he took to make sure the magazine had balanced voices that never strayed too close to the margins of British politics.

Above all, he maintained The House’s early purpose to be Parliament’s in-house magazine, binding together all those who worked in the Palace and opening up Westminster’s ways to a wider readership. 

My first job in London was on The House magazine. It was in the early 80s, just after Mrs Thatcher won her second election and was unleashing her divisive brand of reform on Britian. I was one of just two editorial staff, responsible for commissioning, writing, subbing, overseeing typeset page layouts and getting proofs to the printer late each Thursday night. 

Keith Young was the owner, having rescued the sinking title from the cross-party group of MPs that set it up in 1976. Patrick Cormack was the editor, reassuring the House authorities and readership of the magazine’s respectability. They were an odd couple – the inspirational entrepreneur and the establishment man. But together over more than two decades they built The House magazine’s profile, status and readership.

Tradition, convention, moderation were Patrick’s watchwords

Growing up in rural North Yorkshire I was used to coming across conservative sentiment. Patrick Cormack was the first Conservative I’d met. 

Tradition, convention, moderation were Patrick’s watchwords. History and heritage his passion. He belied his Grimsby upbringing and typified the “Shire Tory” representing rural Staffordshire for 40 years. He was also brave, rebelling regularly against his own government when he found these values at odds with the Thatcherite mission. 

Our work on The House magazine had a weekly rhythm. My favourite part was on Friday afternoon when I got a taxi down to Westminster with three boxes of the magazine to deliver by hand throughout the Palace – to Hansard reporters, whips’ staff, lobby attendants, police officers, mailrooms, press gallery desks, catering managers, and clerks offices in both the Commons and Lords. 

My arrival signalled the end of the week, which meant everyone was always pleased to see me, “the man from The House magazine”.

Of course, on Monday at our weekly editorial meeting it was Patrick Cormack who ensured the magazine embodied that shared pride that so many felt then in working within and being a part of our UK Parliament. 

John Healey is Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne

Independently minded, with 54 years of continuous service in both Houses, Patrick Cormack was a passionate advocate for Parliament. Words by Lord McFall

It was a sad day sharing the news of Patrick Cormack’s death in the Lords Chamber. Baroness Chakrabarti summarised the mood in her response: “In polarised times, I look across and see the significant space where the temperate voice of our friend Lord Cormack ought to be. We will all miss him.” 

In many ways, Lord Cormack and I echoed each other in our careers. Like me he entered Parliament as a constituency MP following a career as a teacher. He also had a great interest in Northern Ireland as chair of the select committee (I was a minister in the Northern Ireland Office.) Together we entered the Lords in 2010. In total, he held an extraordinary record of 54 years of continuous service in both Houses.

He was, right up until the end of his life, a very active parliamentarian – a passionate advocate for, and servant of, this place. There was rarely a day when I wouldn’t pass him in the corridor on the way to my office.

Patrick NI report
Image by: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

A search for his name in Hansard produces thousands of spoken contributions. He could speak fluently on a range of topics, from heritage to foreign affairs to Lords reform. On that last subject he was a consistent advocate for sensible and incremental reforms. It was a motion on the floor of the House by him in 2016 which led to the establishment of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the size of the House, which concluded that the number of members must be capped. 

He was universally recognised in the House for his courtesy

In Who’s Who, his interests are listed as “fighting philistines, walking, visiting old churches, avoiding sitting on fences”. As much as he was known for his independently minded contributions, he was universally recognised in the House for his courtesy.

Beyond his public contribution, he demonstrated an enormous amount of kindness behind the scenes. During the Covid pandemic, he regularly stayed in touch with members who had to isolate at home, including the late great Betty Boothroyd. He also played a key role in arrangements for her funeral. 

A passionate historian, Patrick shared his considerable knowledge generously. In 2015 he contributed much to the parliamentary commemorations of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Lord Eames, former Primate of All Ireland, recalled that, having invited Patrick to visit St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh, he had been expecting to lead the tour. However it soon became apparent that Patrick had considerable knowledge about its history. Because of Patrick, Lord Eames learned a great deal about his own church that day! 

To go back to Baroness Chakrabarti’s comments in the Chamber, he is a significant loss to the red benches. 

Lord McFall of Alcluith is Lord Speaker

Terrier-like in his pursuit of causes, Patrick Cormack was also warm and considerate. A one-nation Tory, he put his beliefs first – regardless of the consequences for his career. Words by Lord Norton

Patrick, Lord Cormack, died suddenly on 25 February , aged 84. He was devoted to Parliament and served it with dedication over a period of 54 years, 40 as an MP and 14 as a peer.

He was born in Grimsby, Lincolnshire, on 18 May 1939, and proved to be a proud “yellow belly”. He studied at the local St James’ Choir School, where he later taught, and the University of Hull and soon became active in politics. As a Young Conservative, he worked with three others in the county who were later to be parliamentary colleagues – Norman, Lord Lamont (a fellow Grimbarian), John, Lord Taylor of Holbeach and me. I got to know him when I was a teenager and he was already a parliamentary candidate, fighting the then unwinnable seat of Bolsover in 1964. 

His second attempt to win a seat – against Tony Crosland in Grimsby in 1966 – was also unsuccessful, but he scored a spectacular success in 1970, defeating Labour’s Jennie Lee in Cannock. He spent the rest of his life serving in Parliament, moving from the Commons to the Lords in 2010, at the same time making his home in Lincoln, where he lived with his wife, Mary, in the Minster Close, looking out on the cathedral, of which, as a devout Anglican, he was a devoted champion.

Some obituaries have focused on his rather grand manner, but he was always true to himself and what he believed in. He put his beliefs first and if that meant voting against his own government, he did so – not infrequently during the Thatcher era and in his years in the Lords. He has been characterised as a traditionalist – and in his support of institutions, he was – but he was also a one-nation Tory and was prepared to argue his case, regardless of the consequences for his career. On some issues, such as Bosnia, he proved to be on the right side of history.

He maintained a prodigious work rate, both as an MP and peer

He maintained a prodigious work rate, both as an MP and peer. He was a great believer in the House of Lords and the value it added to the legislative process. In 2001, he and I founded the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber to make the case against an elected House, but to press to strengthen the existing House in fulfilling its functions. Among our successes was the House of Lords Reform Act 2014.

He was also a historian, not least of the Palace of Westminster, and served for many years as chair of the History of Parliament Trust. His fellowships included that of the Society of Antiquaries. He held two honorary doctorates, including one from his alma mater. 

He was above all a doughty campaigner, terrier-like in his pursuit of causes. He was also warm and considerate, concerned for the welfare of others.  The tributes that have been paid by fellow parliamentarians bear testimony to the loss experienced by the institution to which he devoted his life.

Professor the Lord Norton is a Conservative peer

Known for his far-reaching impact on Parliament’s art collection and his work on Lords reform, Patrick Cormack also made an amazing contribution to the success of The House magazine. Words by Lord Faulkner

It is hard in 500 words to do justice to the achievements of a parliamentarian as great as Patrick Cormack. Following the Lord Speaker’s announcement in the chamber of his death at the start of business on 26 February numerous colleagues in all parts of the House, intervening on Questions and in debates, paid their own tributes. Quoted in The Guardian the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, described him as a “vivid character” and “unfailingly kind”.

I was privileged to work closely with Lord Cormack. I chair the Lord Speaker’s Panel on Works of Art and Patrick was a knowledgeable and hard-working member who brought to our deliberations his experience over many years of chairing the equivalent committee in the House of Commons. 

Melissa Hamnett, director of Heritage Collections and chief curator, wrote this to me: “From within the curatorial team, I know I speak for all of us when I say his impact on the Parliamentary Art Collection has been far-reaching. His commitment and input on the panel was always passionate and his impact as chair of the Commons Works of Art Committee is highly acknowledged and regarded. His extensive knowledge of works of art at the Palace of Westminster and his seemingly limitless positive ideas and empathy for both people and art knew no bounds.”

He was the founder of the All-Party Arts and Heritage Group, and led numerous expeditions to museums, galleries and churches.

He contributed numerous articles and diary pieces, all beautifully written on numerous subjects

Patrick’s passion for Parliament led to him, with Lord Norton of Louth, founding the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber after the 2001 election. This is an unofficial all-party group which supports the modernisation of the House of Lords, including a reduction in the number of members, giving statutory powers to the House of Lords Appointments Commission, and ending the election of hereditary peers. I was one of his first Labour recruits.

Lastly, I must mention The House, with which Patrick Cormack was associated for all but its first three years. With Mike Thomas MP, I was one of its co-founders in October 1976. The edition of 28 January 1980 records for the first time the formation of a parliamentary advisory group with Patrick as a member. Mike Thomas lost his seat in the 1983 election and the magazine announced: “During the 1983 Parliament, the board will be chaired by Patrick Cormack, who has for many years been associated with the magazine.”

He later took on the role as editor, combining that with the chair of the editorial advisory board, and in 2005 he became life president.

Looking through the bound copies of the magazine from its beginning in the Lords library it was evident to me what an amazing contribution Patrick Cormack – whilst in the Commons and then in the Lords – made to its survival and success. 

He contributed numerous articles and diary pieces, all beautifully written on numerous subjects, his favourites being the Church of England, art and heritage, Parliament, and his love for his adopted city of Lincoln. I shall miss him greatly. 

Lord Faulkner is a Labour peer

With his strong Anglican convictions, Patrick Cormack exhibited a deep personal affinity with the Lords Spiritual – and the Lords Spiritual returned the affection. Words by the Lord Bishop of Southwark

Patrick Cormack was both a type and a highly distinctive individual. He set himself standards and invariably observed them. He promoted them in public life and was often disappointed. Lord Cormack was a one-nation Tory and not a modern Conservative. Indeed, while not himself irrelevant in mode or outlook, Patrick saw little use in brash modernity unless and until it had clearly proven its usefulness. In this and in his deep appreciation of historic institutions – the monarchy, Parliament and the Church – he was a true Tory in continuity with generations past, but judging the issues of the present with an unjaundiced eye. 

Patrick Cormack amongst his many gifts, exemplified a quality I recognise in many clergy: that of being able to focus care, compassion and kindness on any individual in a way that conveys a depth of fellow-feeling. In previous centuries Patrick may have ended up as a cathedral dean or even a Church of England Bishop. He could have been vividly realised in the pages of Trollope. 

Patrick spoke extempore frequently and with ease in the Lords, but never flippantly. Indeed, he could be fearless. His one-nation Toryism was socially conservative and rooted in standards, so much so that the welfare of local communities and the promotion of standards in public life tended to take priority over party loyalties.

Lord Cormack exhibited a personal affinity with the Lords Spiritual which sprang from his strong Anglican convictions. The Lords Spiritual returned the affection. He was a zealous son of the Church and entirely at home in the Cathedral Close at Lincoln. He was a convivial host, with his wife Mary (as I can testify) and was a great conversationalist which allowed him to share the passions of his life. He did not require acquiescence to his views, but he did insist on a free flow of one’s convictions. In his case these included the importance of the Book of Common Prayer and the appreciation of tradition and institutions adapting over time to changing circumstances rather than the whiff of revolution.

He could have been vividly realised in the pages of Trollope

Obituarists have rightly noted his considerable knowledge of historic buildings and of the institution of Parliament. He was no mere dilettante. His enthusiasm extended – on the bicentenary of the birth of Queen Victoria in 2019 – to securing the loan of a picture of a three-year old Princess Alexandrina Victoria from the Dulwich Picture Gallery that I had pointed out to him, for an exhibition in Lincoln. This also helps demonstrate the importance for Patrick of the local and particular over the central and trans-corporate. In his faith this coalesced with a firm support of the parish system of the Church of England and of its parochial and cathedral clergy. 

The particular and local did not dim his wider sympathies and he was an ardent European and supporter of the Commonwealth. Both, he believed, buttressed our national life and for him Brexit was a cause of lament and deep regret. 

Patrick’s enthusiasms had not dimmed at the end of his life. He was devoted to his family and it was to his wife’s health, especially in recent months, that his concern most often turned. For all his traditionalism, he was always looking forward in faith and hope. We shall miss him. 

The Lord Bishop of Southwark is a Non-Affiliated peer

A moderate, paternalistic man who stayed true to his principles, Patrick Cormack cared deeply about people and his causes. Words by Gavin Williamson

Much ink has been spilled about Lord Cormack, but very little is known about who he really was. Above all, the Patrick I knew was a deeply caring person: he cared about individuals, but also about causes; and in many ways, he was a man ahead of his time.

When he was first elected, his campaigning style ran rings around that of the Labour establishment figure, Jennie Lee. A parliamentary candidate holding surgeries across the constituency, being out and about, campaigning non-stop: this may be the norm in 2024, but in 1970, such a hyperactive campaigning style made him stand out from the crowd. 

Nowadays, we often see parliamentarians hosting shows on GB News. This is yet another legacy of Patrick, who was the first parliamentarian to have a television show. He used his platform to highlight heritage being destroyed and lost, harnessing the small screen as a campaigning tool and promoting causes that were close to his heart. And as the years have passed, this once radical mode of campaigning has become a common practice. 

From my very first meeting with Patrick, I knew straight away that he was everything a Conservative MP should be. From his diligence and sense of duty to his readiness to hear your case no matter what, his attentive and good-hearted nature was clear to all those around him. 

He rarely set foot in the world of emails, and yet, when confronted with a problem or concern on the doorstep, he would jot down every last detail and would not rest until he had found a solution. He bore the brunt of rants and complaints with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, before stepping in to soothe any upset and lessen any hurt. Indeed, Patrick was kind, not just to those he knew, but to anyone who needed his help. He was a moderate, paternalistic man who would always do what was best for the individual while remaining true to his principles.

He never shied away from having a little chuckle at himself

Patrick silo
Image by: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

However, despite this integrity and rigour, he never shied away from having a little chuckle at himself. I fondly remember a campaigning session in 2010, when I had just been selected as the candidate for his old seat. He had introduced me to a constituent who, as we were parting ways, said “very nice to meet you Mr Williams”. Once out of earshot, I told Patrick that I had got quite used to people shortening my name. Sharp as ever, Patrick quipped: “Well, after 40 years I’ve got used to people calling me Mr McCormack, so I’ve long given up correcting them.”

But perhaps most of all, Patrick was a man of infinite curiosity – a man who, unlike some modern politicians, was interested in more than just the politics of the day. He believed in Parliament and saw it as the sacred bond that brought the nation together. For him, it was a place where voices could be heard and disagreements could be had: it was a handmaiden for our great tradition of democracy which, running through our history like a needle and thread, links modern civilisation with the classical world. Patrick contributed so very much to this tradition, as well as to our country and the wider world. He leaves behind a legacy that, while difficult to capture with words alone, continues to shape our lives both political and personal. 

Gavin Williamson is Conservative MP for South Staffordshire

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