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Obliging Noble: The Lord Howe Interview

Lord Howe

6 min read

For a third of a century, Lord Howe has represented his party at the despatch box. Daniel Brittain meets one of Parliament’s gentlemen

At the end of this month, Lord Howe will have reached a significant milestone in an unmatched political career. On that date he will have served 33 continuous years on the Conservative front bench and as a minister for 20 years. He has served six prime ministers: John Major, David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, and Rishi Sunak. Add the three Tory leaders who never made it to PM: William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. That’s nine leaders in all. 

“I’ve only had to grit my teeth on two or three occasions going through the lobbies,” he replies when asked about whether his long tenure speaks to a certain political flexibility. A playful smile crosses his lips when asked if Liz Truss posed a particular challenge. “She didn’t stay in post long enough for me to have to reflect on whether I was supportive of her policies.” 

Asked about his political longevity, he laughs nervously. “I know, it’s ridiculous isn’t it?” he says. Perhaps his secret has been to operate under the political radar because, except in the Lords, he’s not a well-known figure. Few will have heard of him in the Commons or indeed much of Westminster, let alone the outside world.

I’ve only had to grit my teeth on two or three occasions going through the lobbies

Known to his friends as Freddie, the seventh Earl Howe is a rarity these days: a minister drawn from the aristocracy. He lives in an 18th-century Buckinghamshire mansion, which grew in the 19th. He and his wife, who serves as the the Lord Lieutenant of the county, fulfil exactly the role one might expect of them. They are involved in good works: vice-president of the cricket club, holding garden open days, and even the music festival, Pennfest. “It’s a pretty tough three days with the house shaking and all the windows vibrating. We can’t go away in case anything happens.” Clearly he finds it an endurance test.

His father’s career was also remarkable. Following the Howes’ centuries-old tradition, he joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman in 1914 and served throughout both world wars, leaving as a lieutenant commander. So his second career as a stage and film actor comes as a surprise. He appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s early British movies, often as the baddie, notably the murderer in Young and Innocent: “Great film, it’s on DVD.” After the Second World War, he concentrated on stage and television. 

Lord Howe’s political career began in 1991 becoming a Lords whip. Formally titled a Lord-in-waiting, it also carried royal duties, including being driven to airports in a pre-war maroon Rolls Royce to greet heads of state on behalf of her late majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Within a year he left the Rolls behind, becoming an agriculture minister, and moving to the Ministry of Defence for the last two years of the Major government. 

Back in office in 2010, he again served at the Department of Health and Social Care and then back to Defence, before becoming deputy leader of the Lords in 2015. Like many Lords ministers he is unpaid, and only puts in for the daily allowance when he thinks he has had a particularly tough day at the office. He’s not turning down a salary out of altruism: there are just too many ministers on the payroll in the Commons. “Not getting the pension contribution is pretty tough,” he admits. 

Howe is very much a One Nation Tory and agrees readily that he is a ‘wet’. “Oh yes, liberal on social policy, fiscally responsible on the economy,” he says. He was aggrieved that the Conservatives initially opposed gay adoption and recalls with deep approval his party’s early-90s policy on prisoner rehabilitation. On current Conservative politics, he is dismayed by the infighting. “It’s deeply unfortunate that we are seeing MPs so openly disagreeing with the party’s approach on key policy issues that matter to the public.”

Not surprisingly, John Major was the prime minister to whom he feels closest. “His life was made miserable by a tiny group of rebels; the same is true now. It causes huge frustration to Tory peers to see MPs so disunited, openly disagreeing with the Prime Minister in a destructive, strident manner. He doesn’t deserve it. Dogma and ideology are alien to the Conservative Party.” 

In contrast, he prides himself on an ability to work with all sides. Political opponents regard him as hard-working and a great pourer of oil on troubled waters. Although one has called him unctuous. “If I lay courtesy on with a trowel, that’s because courtesy is important to our debates which are less party political. I don’t flannel – I say what I mean.” A Labour peer describes him as “extremely capable, hugely respected and emollient – the classic example of a good Lords minister”.

If that means a pragmatist, then Lord Howe agrees. “A lot of my time is spent saying to government, ‘give ground here and you’ll get the rest of the bill’, but I enjoy it more when I can find the way through a substantial area of disagreement,” he says. He is amused by a Quentin Letts’ parliamentary sketch that called him “a perfect fit behind the complaints desk at Luton airport”.

Opponents agree that his feel for the House means he is given the toughest jobs: “I was once told to lead for the government on a health statement. I had no notice or briefing at all. If you can survive that, you can survive anything.” This year, he had 24 hours’ notice to lead on the lengthy committee stage of the Victims and Prisoners Bill, after the justice minister was taken ill. 

If he is disappointed not to have made it to Lords leader, he doesn’t let it show. “I’m too old and it’s no longer appropriate for the job to go to an hereditary peer.” Win or lose, his career on the front bench will probably finish at the election. 

At 73, he wants to support his wife in her work. If so, the Lords is going to lose a very smooth operator. “I’m looking forward to being a very active back bencher,” he smiles. 

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