John Barnes, Historian

Keith Stainton (1921-2001)

Keith Stainton served his constituents well for almost two decades as the Member of Parliament for Sudbury and Woodbridge, but apart from a brief spell on the front bench as an Aviation spokesman under Heath, his contribution to Conservative politics and the House of Commons was made in various Select Committees. His work was valued by the House, but left little impression on the outside world. However he left his mark on the statute book by successfully promoting a useful private members bill in 1965, the Housebuilding (Protection of Purchasers ) Act, which strengthened the powers of the National Housebuilders Registration Council, and set up a housebuilding standards agency.

He was more than a little unlucky in the way that his career came to an end. He had won Sudbury and Woodbridge in a notable bye-election in 1963. He was up against a strong Labour candidate and the campaign was notable for charges that Fisons had contributed to the Conservative campaign. Stainton replied that his own firm had not made any contribution to his party, although they had given money to the University of East Anglia, and he then found a more effective riposte by drawing attention to the way in which the Co-op had funded the labour cause. He held the seat at six general elections, and, although he was over sixty, was expected to take the new seat of South Suffolk that had been formed after boundary changes.

He had earlier, not unexpectedly, lost out to John Gummer in the quest for Sussex Coastal, but when the selection for South Suffolk was made, to nearly everyone's surprise, the vote went to Tim Yeo. Stainton had not been altogether easy about the direction in which Mrs Thatcher was taking the party and had been outspokenly critical of her deflationary strategy in February 1980. That may well have played some part in his failure to secure one or other of the seats formed from his constituency, but he took his defeat well. Although a group of supporters had contested Yeo's selection, Stainton refused pleas to fight as an independent. “I do not wish to be divisive”, he said. “My wish is to unite a disillusioned electorate.”

Keith Monin Stainton was the son of Thomas Stainton, a butcher in Kendal, and his mother was a Belgian refugee whom his father had met during the First World War. He was born on 8 November 1921. A product of Kendal Grammar School, he had left school at the age of fourteen to become an insurance clerk. He had joined the Navy in 1940 and was selected for a commission. He served in submarines, most notably on the French submarine, Casabianca. In the latter part of the war they operated in conjunction with the French resistance. He was awarded the Legion d'Honneur, the Croix de Guerre avec Palme and the Ordre del'Armee for the part he had played in various torpedo actions 1943. He left the Navy as a Lieutenant in 1946.

Between 1946 and 1949 he read for a Commerce degree at Manchester University, achieving a distinction in economics, and became a leader writer on the Financial Times in 1949. He was a member of the National Union of Journalists. In 1952 he moved into industrial consultancy as a partner with Urwick Orr, and from 1956 became a director of various public companies. He joined the Ipswich based firm, Burton, Son and Sanders Ltd in 1957. They were involved in food manufacture and distribution. He took over as Managing Director in 1961 and from 1962 to 1969 coupled that job with chairmanship of the company. Subsequently, he chaired Scotia Investments from 1969 until 1972, but was then forced to stand down in favour of major General Belchem. He also became an underwriting member of Lloyds, specialising in maritime and aviation reinsurance. He became the chairman of Hodgson and Faraday in 1984.

Stainton first took an active interest in politics at Manchester, becoming chairman of the University Conservative Association and he was a founder member of the Bow Group. Subsequently he chaired the Croydon East Conservative Association. When John Hare was elevated into a peerage and chairmanship of the Conservative Party, Stainton was chosen to fight the subsequent bye-election and his victory was a sign of the revived fortunes of the party after the traumas of 1963. He subsequently held the seat comfortably, although fortunate perhaps because Labour and the Liberals divided the opposition evenly in the February and October 1974 General Elections.

He served on the Estimates Committee from 1964 until 1968 and also served on the Select Committee on Science and Technology. All too briefly under Heath, he became a front bench spokesman on Aviation, part of an experiment to bring on younger men, but after the General Election of 1966, he returned to the backbenches. From 1970 he served as a member of the Expenditure Committee and in his last Parliament he was a member of the Council of Europe and Western European Union.

Stainton did not often make the headlines but he had a mind of his own. He was one of those who abstained when the Conservative opposition moved the rejection of the Race Relations legislation in 1968 and was a supporter of Biafra in the Nigerian Civil War. In 1970 he became one of the patrons of the Common Market Safeguards Committee. By abstaining, he contributed to a Conservative Government defeat in committee on the Coal Industry Bill in 1971 and in 1972 he was one of the eighteen members voting against the Northern Ireland Bill. He was amongst those urging Heath in 1972 to avoid a confrontation with the unions, although he would have preferred to see more flexibility in the prices and incomes legislation that the Heath Government adopted. In 1973, he led a campaign to modify the Design Copyright Act. His opposition to docks nationalisation and more particularly the proposal to nationalise of the Felixstowe docks in March 1976 was more predictable. In that year also, speaking in favour of anonymity for men accused of rape until they were found guilty, he told the House that in one of his surgeries, with no one else to hand, a female constituent had begun to undress. “Fortunately”, he observed, “the ultimate was not reached.”

Stainton occasionally fell prey to an old enemy of MPs, alcohol. He had already served a ban for drunk driving in 1973 and in 1976, convicted for a second time, he served a three year ban.

In February 1980 he publicly canvassed the dismay of many Conservatives about Mrs Thatcher's economic policies, although his remarks were overshadowed by similar criticisms voiced anonymously by Julian Critchley in the Observer. He expressed concern whether the country could survive monetarism, sometimes called Thatcherism, and claimed that they were “throwing out the baby with the bathwater”. In 1981 he was one of those concerned that the Charity Commission had legitimised the Moonies and pressed Whitelaw to institute an enquiry into its role. But in the last session of the 1979 parliament, he made the columns of the press less helpfully as one of those who, even if they had asked questions, had made no speech at all in the Chamber.

Stainton married first Vanessa Ann Heald and they had six children. That marriage was dissolved and in January 1980 he married Frances Easton.

He died on 3 November 2001 and his obituary for the Independent was written by Tam Dalyell.