Lord Cormack, long-serving Tory MP and champion of historic buildings – obituary

Lord Cormack
Lord Cormack - ROGER HARRIS
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Lord Cormack, who has died aged 84, was a long-serving Conservative MP and a lifelong champion of Britain’s cultural heritage. Devoted in particular to historic churches and the Palace of Westminster, he became almost part of the fabric of Parliament himself.

Patrick Cormack co-founded in 1974 Heritage in Danger – originally a campaign against Labour’s proposed wealth tax – which raised awareness of national treasures at risk. He also co-founded – and chaired for 35 years – the all-party heritage group, and was one of the first advocates of a national lottery to fund the arts.

He promoted Bills to enable historic churches whose congregations had dwindled to receive state grants, until government brought in its own scheme. He was a driving force in preventing Hereford Cathedral selling the medieval Mappa Mundi in 1988 to pay for urgently-needed repairs.

Yet Cormack was unable 11 years before to save Lord Rosebery’s Mentmore Towers and its Rothschild art collection for the nation; he raised over £1 million himself, and blamed Treasury inflexibility for the initiative’s failure. He was also unsuccessful in a campaign to end government funding for the Institute of Contemporary Arts.

Speaker George Thomas acclaimed Cormack’s “deep love and loyalty for the insitution of Parliament”. It was Cormack who in the 1970s persuaded the parliamentary authorities to convert the former New Scotland Yard building into MPs’ offices instead of replacing it with an aggressively modernistic structure – though a less repugnant annexe was later constructed.

In 14 years chairing the Commons’ works of art committee, he trawled salerooms for Westminster scenes and portraits of parliamentarians to hang in corridors and committee rooms. His crowning coup was to track down in South Africa one of the few panoramic views of the Palace after the great fire of 1834.

Inevitably, some of Cormack’s decisions aroused controversy. Right-wing Tories objected to his committee accepting a bust of Parnell from Dublin businessmen. Renaming of the Harcourt Room restaurant as the Churchill Room struck many as a pointless break with tradition. And Speaker Betty Boothroyd became so incensed with his traditional subjects for the Commons’ Christmas card that in 1993 she bypassed him to commission a view of her own tree.

Though Cormack developed a certain grandeur, he retained a social conscience. Elected in 1970 as a supporter of Edward Heath, he spent his 40-year career on the back benches, save for three years as Deputy Shadow Leader of the House under William Hague. His credentials as a “wet” did not commend him to Margaret Thatcher, and in this respect he did not mellow.

Patrick Cormack canvassing in 2005
Patrick Cormack canvassing in 2005 - DAVID BURGES

He was an early critic of Sir Geoffrey Howe’s economic policies, rebelled repeatedly against rate capping, opposed the abolition of the Greater London Council and voted against the poll tax. By 1984 he was accusing some ministers of behaving “as if they had a God-given right to govern”, and months before Mrs Thatcher’s removal in 1990 he called for her to go.

Cormack, who listed “fighting philistines” as one of his recreations, could barely conceal his disdain for her more abrasive followers. He denounced as “squalid” Norman Tebbit’s campaign to keep the Hong Kong Chinese out of Britain, and stormed out muttering “Disgrace!” when Terry Dicks called for an end to all funding for the arts, branding Luciano Pavarotti “an overweight Italian”.

His most effective political intervention came after his elevation to the Lords. Cormack led the Tory peers who in 2013 persuaded David Cameron not to proceed with Lords reform. The Liberal Democrats retaliated over this breach of the Coalition Agreement by blocking a redistribution of Commons seats expected to benefit the Conservatives.

Queen Elizabeth II holds a gold letter opener after it was given to her  by Patrick Cormack as  treasurer of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, to mark her Golden Jubilee in 2002
Queen Elizabeth II holds a gold letter opener after it was given to her by Patrick Cormack as treasurer of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, to mark her Golden Jubilee in 2002 - John Stillwell / WPA Rota.

Cormack’s passion for historic churches reflected a deeply conservative Anglicanism. Devoted to his own parish church at Brewood, he was also rector’s warden of St Margaret’s, Westminster. Though opposed to women priests, he stayed in the Church when their ordination was approved, serving in the General Synod from 1995 to 2005.

Patrick Thomas Cormack was born in Grimsby on May 18 1939, the son of Thomas Cormack, a council official, and the former Mary Harris. Educated at St James’s Choir School, Havelock School, Grimsby and Hull University, he returned to St James’s in 1961 as second master. After a spell as education officer with a trawler company, he became an assistant housemaster at Wrekin College in 1967, then two years later head of History at Brewood Grammar School.

Cormack fought Bolsover in 1964, and in 1966 his home seat of Grimsby, the Labour education secretary Anthony Crosland defeating him by 8,126 votes. He would rush to Crosland’s defence when it was disclosed that he had accepted a coffee pot as an official gift from the corrupt Yorkshire architect John Poulson.

In the 1970 election that brought Heath to power, he pulled off a shock by capturing the mining seat of Cannock from Aneurin Bevan’s widow Jennie Lee by 1,529 votes. At Westminster he became PPS to health ministers, and eventually to Sir Keith Joseph. He also became the first chairman of the All-Party Committee for the Release of Soviet Jewry, pursuing this cause vigorously and repeatedly being refused a Russian visa.

Cormack criticised the government for “lacking contact with the people”, and as the miners’ dispute began to bite in 1973, pressed Heath to address the nation directly, then urged “flexibility, which is not a sign of weakness” to end the stand-off.

When boundary changes split his constituency he opted for South West Staffordshire, including parts of Fergus Montgomery’s Brierley Hill. Cormack’s supporters lauded a “brilliant and entertaining young man” of Cabinet potential, and in May 1972 he defeated Montgomery for the selection by four votes.

Montgomery’s backers called a general meeting to challenge the outcome. At this point Heath’s political secretary Douglas Hurd wrote to one local worthy that the selection procedure had been correct. Both sides took this as Heath endorsing Cormack, only for an embarrassed prime minister to insist he had not.

The meeting confirmed Cormack as candidate by 697 votes to 629, and Montgomery found another seat. But he had to weather threats of a boycott by branches loyal to Montgomery and a no-confidence vote by the constituency executive before receiving a final endorsement from the full membership.

In the snap February 1974 election, Cormack took South-West Staffordshire by 9,758 votes. With his party in opposition, he launched his campaigns to save Britain’s historic houses, works of art and landscapes, making an immediate impact – except on the Treasury.

After Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979, he became chairman of the all-party heritage committee and the Conservative backbench Arts and Heritage committee, and a founder-member of the Education, Science and Arts Select Committee.

In 1984 he spoke out against the choice of David Jenkins – who he said did not believe in God – as Bishop of Durham. When Jenkins’s enthronement in York Minister was met by a bolt of lightning, Cormack urged the government to help fund the repairs.

Over time he campaigned for recipients of blood transfusions who had contracted haemophilia, vocally opposed pit closures, and urged the West to intervene against the Bosnian Serbs. He defended John Major robustly against criticism from the Eurosceptic Right.

For 14 years from 1983, Cormack served on the Speaker’s panel of committee chairmen. When the 1997 election decimated the Tory front bench, Hague brought him on. 
On Miss Boothroyd’s retirement three years later, Cormack put himself forward for Speaker, finishing sixth behind Labour’s Michael Martin in a chaotic electoral process. In 2002, after many attempts, he was elected to the 1922 Committee executive. Later, he chaired the Northern Ireland Select Committee.

During the 2005 campaign, his Liberal Democrat opponent died and the poll in South West Staffordshire was postponed for seven weeks. Cormack was easily re-elected – having issued a statement regretting that his constituents had been denied the chance to have him represent them.

In 2007 local Tories voted not to readopt Cormack, who ignored the decision. It was invalidated because of irregularities, and the constituency executive tied on whether to readopt him. Party members overwhelmingly endorsed Cormack, but he retired with a life peerage at the 2010 election.

When Baroness d’Souza stood down as Speaker of the Lords in 2016, Cormack again sought the Chair. He  came third with 85 votes, against 443 for Norman Fowler and 111 for the Lib Dem Baroness Garden.

For almost three decades Cormack co-edited the impartial House Magazine. He was a director of the Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit, and chaired the History of Parliament Trust and the parliamentary groups for Bosnia, Croatia and Finland.

He was also at various times president of the Staffordshire Historic Buildings and Historic Churches  Trusts; vice-president of the Society of Antiquaries; and chairman of the Council for Independent Education and the William Morris Craft Fellowship.

Cormack’s books included Heritage in Danger (1976); Right Turn (1979); Westminster: Palace and Parliament (1981); Castles of Britain (1982); Wilberforce: The Nation’s Conscience (1983) and Cathedrals of England (1984).

He was a member of the Worshipful Company of Glaziers, a freeman of the City of London, an honorary citizen of Texas and a commander of Finland’s Order of the Lion. He was knighted in 1995.

Patrick Cormack married Kathleen McDonald in 1967; they had two sons.

Lord Cormack, born May 18 1939, death announced February 25 2024

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