Tribute: Lord Tordoff
A ‘reliable anchor’ midst the storms of political life, Geoff Tordoff helped steer the Liberal Party through turbulent times. Lord Steel remembers a popular peacemaker
Geoff Tordoff was a popular and universally well-respected member of the House of Lords for 35 years until ill health forced his retirement three years ago. He had also been a major player in the Liberal Party including during the extremely difficult decade of the 1970s. Geoff became Party Chairman in 1976, the year in which I was elected Leader, and he served in this role during the turbulent times.
There had been real doubt as to whether the Liberal Party would survive in this period as it was beset by divisions as to how to handle the allegations against Jeremy Thorpe and we struggled to explain why it had been in the national interest to form the ‘Lib Lab Pact’. This was a time when the party lacked the kind of national organisation supporting candidates in winnable seats that was later created by the likes of Lord Rennard.
Geoff Tordoff was central to this and together with Gruffydd Evans as President (whom I was able to make a peer in 1978) they helped to steer the party through the 1979 General Election in which we unexpectedly more or less held the same number of seats that we had won in the 1974 elections. Geoff and Gryff were like reliable anchors in the midst of storms.
When Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister she allowed me to appoint only a handful of peers. When I made Geoff one of them in 1981, he soon became an essential member of what was then a much smaller group than today’s. He was the first of our peers to make the job of chief whip full-time (albeit unpaid) and, working with Frank Byers and Nancy Seear, he ensured that the Liberal voice was effectively heard in every debate.
'He ensured that the Liberal voice was effectively heard in every debate'
Within the Party, and in the Lords, he was a peacemaker who made things happen by building consensus on ways forward. Such was the respect in which he was held in the House that he was the first peer from our benches to speak from the Government Despatch Box for over 50 years when he became Chairman of Committees.
He was a Liberal through and through. He had fought Knutsford in the 1966 general election (with a young Lord Greaves as his agent). He became chair of our Assembly Committee before becoming chair of the National Executive – and was elected as Party President in 1984 when his role was important in working with the SDP whenever the relationship between the two parties became fractious.
Geoff lived in the Liberal ‘stronghold’ of Richmond for some time and travelled on a coach with members from there to the special Assembly in Blackpool in 1988 to approve the merger with the SDP. He entertained them singing from the full repertoire of Gilbert and Sullivan operas.
As chief whip in the Lords, he once had to get his staff (Celia, now Baroness Thomas) to ring police stations along the route to the House of Lords to see if they were holding a peer who was believed to be en route to open a debate, but in inebriated condition. Nothing ever became known publicly about this, but Geoff calmly opened the debate in the name of the missing peer.
11 October 1928 – 22 June 2019
Lord Steel of Aikwood is a Lib Dem peer