John Biffen

William John Biffen, Baron Biffen, PC, DL (3 November 1930 – 14 August 2007) was a British Conservative politician. A member of the House of Lords, he previously spent 36 years in the House of Commons and served in Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet.

The Lord Biffen

John Biffen
Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal
In office
11 June 1983  13 June 1987
Prime MinisterMargaret Thatcher
Preceded byThe Baroness Young
Succeeded byJohn Wakeham
Leader of the House of Commons
In office
7 April 1982  13 June 1987
Prime MinisterMargaret Thatcher
Preceded byFrancis Pym
Succeeded byJohn Wakeham
Lord President of the Council
In office
7 April 1982  11 June 1983
Prime MinisterMargaret Thatcher
Preceded byFrancis Pym
Succeeded byWilliam Whitelaw
Secretary of State for Trade
In office
5 January 1981  6 April 1982
Prime MinisterMargaret Thatcher
Preceded byJohn Nott
Succeeded byThe Lord Cockfield
Chief Secretary to the Treasury
In office
4 May 1979  5 January 1981
Prime MinisterMargaret Thatcher
Preceded byJoel Barnett
Succeeded byLeon Brittan
Shadow Secretary of State for Industry
In office
19 November 1976  4 May 1979
LeaderMargaret Thatcher
Preceded byMichael Heseltine
Succeeded byEric Varley
Shadow Secretary of State for Energy
In office
15 January 1976  19 November 1976
LeaderMargaret Thatcher
Preceded byPatrick Jenkin
Succeeded byTom King
Member of the House of Lords
Lord Temporal
In office
3 June 1997  14 August 2007
Life peerage
Member of Parliament
for North Shropshire
Oswestry (1961 - 1983)
In office
9 November 1961  8 April 1997
Preceded byDavid Ormsby-Gore
Succeeded byOwen Paterson
Personal details
William John Biffen

(1930-11-03)3 November 1930
Combwich, England
Died14 August 2007(2007-08-14) (aged 76)
London, England
Political partyConservative
Sarah Wood
(m. 1979)
Alma materJesus College, Cambridge

Early life

The son of Victor William Biffen, a tenant farmer, of Hill Farm, Otterhampton, Bridgwater, Somerset, and his wife Edith Annie ('Tish'),[1] John Biffen was born in Bridgwater, Somerset, in 1930. He was educated firstly at Combwich village school followed by Dr. Morgan's Grammar School, Bridgwater.[2] He then earned a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge where he graduated with a first class honours degree in History. From 1953 to 1960 he worked for Tube Investments Ltd.

Member of Parliament

Having previously stood unsuccessfully against Richard Crossman at Coventry East in 1959, Biffen was the Member of Parliament (MP) for the constituency of Oswestry, later renamed Shropshire North, from the time of his election at a by-election in 1961 until his retirement at the 1997 general election.

In his early political career he was a disciple of Enoch Powell, voting for him in the Conservative leadership election of 1965. Biffen was a Eurosceptic and voted against Britain's entry into the EEC in a parliamentary division in 1972 against his own party. Biffen championed tight fiscal policy and opposed state intervention in economic management.

In government

This stance barred his way to advancement under Edward Heath, but contributed to his promotion under Margaret Thatcher. He served in Thatcher's government in the successive positions of Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Secretary of State for Trade, and as Leader of the House of Commons. In the 1960s Biffen joined the Mont Pelerin Society. Thatcher writes in The Downing Street Years (1993) that '(Biffen) had been a brilliant exponent in Opposition of the economic policies in which I believed... But he proved rather less effective than I had hoped in the gruelling task of trying to control public expenditure.'[3]

In 1981, Biffen allowed Rupert Murdoch to buy The Times and The Sunday Times without reference to the Monopolies Commission.[4] According to Woodrow Wyatt, who helped persuade Thatcher to ensure this, the Commission "almost certainly would have blocked it."[5]

As Leader of the House Biffen used the guillotine to cut short debate on the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1986. Edward Pearce has written that Biffen "was widely thought the best post-war floor leader".[6]

Biffen's image as an economic dry mellowed during his time in government and he made blunt public calls for greater moderation in government policy. In 1980 he warned the country to prepare for "three years of unparalleled austerity". In 1981 Biffen gave a speech to a fringe meeting at that year's Conservative Party Conference in which he argued the party was "within touching distance of the débâcles of 1906 and 1945." He further claimed that far from cutting public spending, the government had increased it by two per cent since 1979 and that the government was part of an all-party consensus in favour of the welfare state and public spending: "We are all social democrats now", Biffen concluded in his speech.[7]

On 9 February 1986 he said that Toryism was "not a raucous political faction" and after the Conservative Party's losses in the 1986 local government elections, and poor performances in the two parliamentary by-elections held simultaneously, Biffen was interviewed on Weekend World by Brian Walden on 11 May as the government's spokesman. He called the results "Black Thursday", said the Conservatives needed to fight the next general election on a "balanced ticket" and that "no one seriously supposes that the Prime Minister would be Prime Minister throughout the entire period of the next Parliament".[8] This alienated him from Thatcher and resulted in his being dropped from the Cabinet after the 1987 general election. His dismissal was no surprise, in that Thatcher's press secretary Bernard Ingham had already famously called him a "semi-detached" member of the Cabinet. Thatcher in her memoirs described Biffen's desire for a balanced ticket as "foolish" and "a recipe for paralysis."[9] In the month after his sacking Biffen likened Thatcher's governing style to that of a "Stalinist regime".[10]

Backbenches and retirement

On the backbenches Biffen voted against the Local Government Finance Act 1988 which introduced the Community Charge (the poll tax). He voted against the Maastricht Treaty and was in favour of a referendum on the EU Constitution so he could vote "No".[11] On 3 June 1997 he was created a life peer, as Baron Biffen, of Tanat in the County of Shropshire.[12]

Personal life

Biffen married Sarah Wood in 1979. He had one stepson, Nicholas Wood, a correspondent with The New York Times and International Herald Tribune, and a stepdaughter, Lucy.[13] The family lived at Tanat House, Llanyblodwel.

Political views

Despite his right-wing views on economic policy, he was very much to the left of Margaret Thatcher on social policy. Similarly to Powell, he completely opposed capital punishment and was very supportive of equal gay rights but wanted less immigration. Biffen also opposed the tightening of laws restricting abortion and voted in 1990 to preserve the limit at 28 weeks.[14]

Brian Walden noted that Biffen was the "most honest" politician he had interviewed.[15]


He died on 14 August 2007, aged 76, after a short illness, having suffered from kidney failure for many years.[16] He was survived by his wife, stepson and stepdaughter.

In popular culture

Biffen was portrayed by Roger Brierley in the 2004 BBC production of The Alan Clark Diaries.


  1. "The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/98990. Archived from the original on 17 June 2019. Retrieved 17 June 2019. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. Biffen, John (9 December 2013). Semi-Detached. Biteback Publishing. ISBN 9781849547017.
  3. Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (HarperCollins, 1993), p. 26.
  4. John Campbell, Margaret Thatcher: The Iron Lady (Jonathan Cape, 2003), p. 572.
  5. Woodrow Wyatt, The Journals of Woodrow Wyatt: Volume 3 (Pan, 2001), p. 582.
  6. John Ramsden (ed.), The Oxford Companion to 20th-Century British Politics (OUP, 2002), p. 55.
  7. Hugo Young, One of Us (Pan, 1990), p. 240.
  8. John Campbell, Margaret Thatcher: The Iron Lady (Jonathan Cape, 2003), p. 448.
  9. Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (HarperCollins, 1993), p. 422.
  10. The Sunday Telegraph (London), 5 July 1987
  11. John Biffen, Vindication for De Gaulle, The Guardian (London), 15 June 2005.
  12. "No. 54787". The London Gazette. 9 June 1997. p. 6697.
  13. "Lords Hansard text for 6 December 2005 (51206-22)". Archived from the original on 28 October 2016. Retrieved 1 September 2017.
  14. "Amendment of law relating to termination of pregnancy". Archived from the original on 22 December 2012. Retrieved 3 February 2013.
  15. Sean Coughlan. "Walden's secret ingredient for power". BBC News. Archived from the original on 23 November 2008. Retrieved 29 May 2006.
  16. "Thatcher leads tributes to Biffen". BBC News. Archived from the original on 6 September 2017. Retrieved 14 August 2007.


  • John Biffen, Nation in Doubt (Conservative Political Centre, 1976).
  • John Biffen, Political Office, or Political Power?: Six Speeches on National and International Affairs (Centre for Policy Studies, 1977).
  • John Biffen, 'The Conservatism of Labour', in Maurice Cowling (ed.), Conservative Essays (Cassell, 1978), pp. 155–167.
  • John Biffen, 'Inside the House of Commons', (1989).
  • John Biffen, Inside Westminster (Andre Deutsch Ltd, 1996).