Four times - when in opposition before 1970, when in government after 1970, and after the general election defeats of February and October 1974 - Edward Heath offered John Biffen positions on the Conservative front bench. (The 1974 offers were almost desperate in their urgency, for Heath's power was now crumbling, and he was striving to neu-tralise his critics.) Each time Biffen refused; he differed sharply from Heath on certain major items of policy, notably the management of the economy and the matter of British entry into the EEC and he felt, therefore, that he could not honourably serve.
His attitude excited amazement among most of his fellow Tories, but it also excited a respect that grew steadily over the years.
Yet, unlike his close friend and mentor Enoch Powell, Biffen had nothing about him of the obvious characteristics of the rebel. His demeanour was quiet and his voice soft, never quite losing its native Somerset burr. When, during the five years he spent as Leader of the House of Commons his intelligence, articulacy and humour became familiar to a wide audience, it was noted that his jokes - almost invariably laced with irony - were gentle, never, in an increasingly savage political age, ad hominem.
William John Biffen was born in Somerset in 1930. His father, Victor, was a farmer at Combwich and his mother, Sarah, the daughter of a businessman prominent in Conservative politics. John, however, hated farming. Though he did his father's farm accounts from early manhood until the latter's death, when the farm was sold, he signalled his distaste for agriculture by selling off the substantial acreage attached to the property he bought in Shropshire when he became a Member of Parliament for Oswestry in 1961. His fundamental interests were economics and politics.
Young John was educated at grammar school, Dr Morgan's School in Bridgwater, and proceeded to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he read History. He took a good degree, and demonstrated his political interests by becoming Vice-Chairman of the Federation of University Conservative and Unionist Associations.
Upon graduation Biffen went to work for Tube Investments, thus beginning an interesting - and highly typical - career of combined business and political work. He came to the conclusion that businessmen did not understand politics, and that politicians did not understand business and began to produce for Tube each quarter papers projecting both economic and political developments dealt with in tandem. These papers, written in the limpid prose of which he was master, were to be found invaluable by various companies for which he worked over the years.
Many Conservative politicians were criticised in the 1990s for supposedly improper involvement in the world of business, but Biffen's business concerns, it is interesting to note, were never made the subject of attacks on either side of the House of Commons. He never received payment in brown envelopes. His movement between the worlds of commerce and politics was always clear to the world; and his probity was above question.
But Biffen was ever the individualist. When politically ambitious young men of his generation were visiting the United States, or France, or Germany, or the Soviet Union, Biffen took a month off to go to Albania. I once asked him the reason for this bizarre choice. He gave his subdued chuckle, showing his slightly wolf-like teeth and said: "Because nobody else was going there." He then showed me a yellow cutting from the Birmingham Post (he was then based in Birmingham). "This is the most gratifying headline I have ever had," he said. It read "Birmingham Tory Pierces Iron Curtain". "It seemed," he added, "that I'd gone to war all by myself."
Conservative constituency parties do not normally care (and particularly did not when Biffen was a young man) for …