If ever there is an example of someone who personifies the essence of being an English gentleman, in terms of decency, courtesy and a mischievous sense of humour, it is Robin. There was no surprise that, when the last Labour government foolishly decided to cull all but 92 of the hereditary peers, he topped the ballot to stay in the lifeboat.
He was born to life of privilege: a stately home and a title that went back to William the Conqueror, but would say that the greatest privilege of all was having a close knit family who, unlike to many of his time, loved and appreciated him. Earl Ferrers joined Harold MacMillan’s government in his 30s as a Lord in Waiting. He served Heath, Thatcher and John Major in senior positions.
A Lord in Waiting is a fascinating but dogsbody job. You greet foreign signatories as a representative of the Queen and as such you take precedence over everybody, including the Prime Minister, which seriously irritated a prickly Ted Heath.
His next job was as a whip, where he shared an office with Bertie Denham and Peter Carrington. One evening he had left a dinner in the Lords with Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home, who was rather shell-shocked at the barbarism of the Commons. ‘I cannot tell you what pleasure it gives me to come back to this oasis of civilisation’, sighed Home.
After that Robin, Bertie and Peter decided to go to the Playboy Club. Carrington could not believe the attention they all received from the shapely Bunny Girls. ‘This is not true. It is not just possible!’ he cried. What innocent days. Imagine what the News of the World would make of that now.
Robin, to his horror, found himself in the DTI negotiating with Chirac in Europe about clementines of which he didn’t have a clue. Bemused, he left it to an official, whom he wanted to overrule. Just as well he didn’t, as it was just a bargaining counter and quite fortuitously saved the taxpayer millions.
One of my favourite stories was when he was in the department of environment with John Gummer. Gummer, despite a bad press suggesting he was a bit of a sanctimonious prig, was quite the opposite: fun, witty and totally irreverent. I was once nearly chucked out of an Indian restaurant in Norwich with him and the Danish Ambassador for being too rowdy.
Robin, a hater of all things bureaucratic, found himself in charge of protecting endangered species. His minutes to the Secretary of State are legendary:
'I see little attraction in protecting, for example, the Stag Beetle. They are horrible nasty things which bite… I cannot conceive of anyone in their right mind wanting to protect them. Maybe it is to stop traders from exporting them. My view is, if they do export them, bully for them.'
On bats, which he hated:
'Earl Ferrers has been alarmed by recent press coverage of a bat, which has bitten a pregnant woman and has been found to have rabies. He has commented: ‘The UK has always carried out a rigorous protection policy against rabies, in order to protect the population from a most disagreeable and violent form of death. When foxes were considered to be infected with it they were shot. Now that bats are found to have rabies the position appears to be that if a person kills a bat he is fined £5000. If a bat kills a person then nothing happens. How do officials recommend that we crawl out of this absurd hole?’
He also thought global warming was a load of codswallop and hated most of the countryside regulations. Yet he was Minister of State in charge of it all. Wonderful.
Spoof minutes to his Secretary of State were a favourite pastime: ‘taking this issue from first principles, we must establish whether Members of the House of Lords would qualify as an endangered species’. And in beautiful departmentspeak, he hilariously made out his case. Officials loved it all.
Drawing pins on the front bench red leather to spook fellow Ministers and a fight involving a dead herring with his Chief Whip, are great stories in this very readable book.
I have only one sorrow. Where are the likes of this great and amusing man now?
Whatever Next? Reminiscences of a Journey Through Life by Earl Ferrers is published by Biteback.