"Peter’s loss is incalculable". Sir Simon Burns pays tribute to Peter Ainsworth
Peter can claim significant credit in placing environmental issues at the forefront of Conservative party policy over the last ten years. He will be sorely missed by all those who were fortunate enough to know him.
The sudden and unexpected death of Peter Ainsworth, at the relatively young age of 64, will have come as a terrible shock to his many friends and former colleagues in the House of Commons.
Following a career in the city as a merchant banker, he was elected in 1992 as the MP for the safe Conservative seat of East Surrey and was quickly earmarked for promotion; becoming PPS to the chief secretary to the treasury in 1994 before becoming PPS to the secretary of state for national heritage the following year.
In 1996 he joined the Major government as a whip. In opposition, William Hague appointed him deputy chief whip before entering the shadow cabinet as shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport and from 2001-2002 as shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs before he had to resign due to illness in his family.
Urbane and with a ready, dry sense of humour he sought as a politician to persuade people to take environmental issues seriously
When David Cameron became leader of the opposition in 2005, Peter resumed his role as shadow environment secretary. A key role given Cameron’s commitment to the environment and combating the effects of climate change. In this role he was ideally suited, given his passionate love of the countryside and his deep belief in the urgent need to take action to combat the impact of climate change on the environment.
Up until then environmental and climate change issues were not high up on the political agenda of the Conservative party but thanks to the foresight of David Cameron, these issues became a major part of the Cameron Project to modernise the party and tackle the growing threat to the planet. In this key policy area it was to the credit of Cameron that he chose Peter to head up the initiative, given his deep knowledge of the subject and his passionate commitment to ensuring that the subject remained at the forefront of the Conservative party’s political agenda, despite scepticism from parts of the Party.
Sadly, Peter was reshuffled out of the shadow cabinet in 2009 and announced his retirement from Parliament in 2010.
On leaving Parliament, his love of classical music and the environment were reflected in a number of his roles outside politics. He was chair, and later a trustee, of the Elgar Foundation and a vice-president of the Arthur Bliss Society. He was a founding partner of the Robertsbridge Group, a sustainability consultancy; a board member of the wild plant charity Plantlife; a member of the campaign to protect rural England; Friends of the Earth; the Surrey Wildlife Trust; a board member of the Environment Agency; and the London Sustainable Development Commission. From 2011-2019 he was chairman of the Big Lottery Fund, from 2016 chairman of the Churches Conservation Trust and in 2019 he became chairman of the Heritage Alliance.
To his many friends, Peter’s loss is incalculable. Urbane and with a ready, dry sense of humour he sought as a politician to persuade people to take environmental issues seriously. In a party that at the time was not altogether convinced by persuasion and with his forensic knowledge of the details rather than the approach of the zealot, self-righteously knowing that he was right and his critics wrong. In this he largely succeeded, and he can claim significant credit in placing environmental issues at the forefront of Conservative party policy over the last ten years.
As a friend he will be remembered as an amusing and fun person, who enjoyed a party with a ready wit that hid his natural shyness. As David Cameron said in his fitting tribute, ‘he (Peter) was a kind, generous and thoroughly decent man and will be greatly missed’.
Indeed, he will be sorely missed by all those who were fortunate enough to know him.
Sir Simon Burns was the Conservative MP for Chelmsford until 2017 and former transport minister.