Conservative minister

Born: July 26 1940;

Died: November 9 2019

LORD Mawhinney, who has died aged 79, served as Transport Secretary and chairman of the Conservative Party during John Major’s premiership, and later became chairman of the Football League; an Ulsterman with a background in medicine, he also had stints as a minister of state at the Department of Health and the Northern Ireland Office.

Combative and notoriously ill-tempered with his staff, Mawhinney was a divisive chairman of his party, alienating many party activists and his fellow MPs. He owed his role (and his previous ministerial posts) to his friendship with Major – they represented neighbouring constituencies and met for curry once a week – who, as prime minister, was almost as unpopular with his own party as with the country at large. As campaign manager, Mawhinney presided over the Tories’ worst defeat in half a century, in which they lost 178 seats, though he himself held on, having moved from Peterborough (which fell to Labour) to North West Cambridgeshire.

As a minister, Mawhinney’s primary achievement was the badly bungled privatisation of Railtrack; he also incurred fury by refusing compensation to homeowners affected by construction of the Channel Tunnel rail link, ignoring the recommendation of the Ombudsman. After his retirement from the Commons in 2005, he became chairman of the English Football League, during which he tried, with mixed success, to limit the number of foreign players and supervised the transformation of Division One into the Championship.

Brian Stanley Mawhinney was born on July 26 1940 in Belfast, the son of Frederick Mawhinney, a restaurateur, and his wife Coralie (née Wilkinson). He had a deeply religious upbringing in the Open Brethren (though he was later to become an evangelical member of the Church of England), and attended the Royal Belfast Academical Institution before doing a physics degree at Queen’s University and then an MSc in radiation biology at the University of Michigan.

While in America he helped to organize a Billy Graham crusade and met his wife, Betty Oja, whom he married in 1965. He completed a PhD at the University of London and taught for two years at the University of Iowa, before becoming a lecturer at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine in 1970, where he remained until 1984. From 1980 until 1983, he served on the Medical Research Council.

In 1974, he made his first attempt at parliament, contesting Stockton-on-Tees, where he was beaten by the sitting Labour MP, Bill Rodgers, who later became one of the “Gang of Four” founders of the SDP. In the Conservative landslide of 1979 which brought Margaret Thatcher to power, he secured Peterborough with a majority of slightly more than 5,000.

He was an assiduous local MP, securing a set of bells for Peterborough Cathedral, becoming a patron of Peterborough United, being elected to the General Synod, and serving on the Conservative backbench health committee. His Northern Irish background led to visits to the USA to counter Noraid’s propaganda and fundraising, and in 1985 he became PPS to Tom King, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Mawhinney, despite his background, was never popular with Unionists, who saw him as insufficiently robust, while his attempts, when he became under-secretary and then minister of state, to encourage non-sectarian schools (he helped to set up Lagan College) met opposition from the Catholic Church. He was, however, quietly influential in beginning to explore dialogue and to revive power-sharing.

After the 1992 election, however, Major promoted him to Minister of State in the Department of Health, where he banned the sale of tobacco on NHS premises and withdrew a guide for teenagers on sexually transmitted diseases on the grounds that it was “smutty”; during his tenure, the number of managers working in the health service increased 24-fold, and waiting lists topped one million for the first time.

In 1994, he joined the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Transport, where he privatised Railtrack and attempted to privatise the port of Dover, ruled out a third runway for Heathrow and allowed regional airports to take on transatlantic flights. When Major resigned as party leader in a bid to face down his Eurosceptic critics, Mawhinney ran his re-election campaign, and then – to the horror of many Tory MPs – was given the role of party chairman (staying in Cabinet as Minister without Portfolio).

As the party degenerated amidst factional infighting, it was a thankless task, but Mawhinney’s abrasive approach did not help; he alienated Eurosceptics and Europhiles alike, while his attacks on the opposition (including the “demon eyes” campaign which warned of “New Labour – New Danger”) made little impact, as was shown by Tony Blair’s subsequent landslide victory.

Having abandoned Peterborough for the newly created neighbouring constituency, Mawhinney was knighted in Major’s resignation honours and served briefly under William Hague as shadow home secretary, before retiring from the Commons in 2005, and being elevated to the peerage.

From 2003 to 2010, he attempted to reorganise English football and, in particular, to combat the dominance of the Premier League, though many of his ideas, such as a salary cap, did not go down well with clubs. He was noted for his enthusiastic consumption of Lucozade.

In the Upper House, he reviewed the initial plans (under Labour) for HS2, and spoke out against same sex marriage; in 2017, in increasingly poor health, he took a leave of absence from the Lords. He is survived by his wife, their two sons and a daughter.