9 July 1999

ATORYREBELMPWITHROOTSINCOUNTRYSIDE

Christopher Gill is best known as a high-profile Tory MP.

But behind the headlines, hes a man who has close links

with the countryside and is passionate about rural issues.

Tim Relf talks to him in the first of an occasional series

profiling well-known figures who have close farming ties

ITS still a matter of some debate, apparently, whether John Majors infamous "bastard" tag applied to Chris Gill.

Maybe the truth will surface, says Mr Gill, when the ex-PMs memoirs are published later this year. "All will be revealed," reckons the one-time farmer, now Conservative MP for Ludlow.

Whats not in doubt is that Mr Gill was among the Tory rebels whose anti-European stance caused embarrassment at Downing Street, got them temporarily kicked out of the party and prompted the then-PMs outburst. "No regrets," he maintains, five years on from the episode. "We were the catalyst for a huge swelling-up of public opinion."

His high profile since then is a far cry from life as a livestock farmer, the career he followed from 1972 until entering Parliament in 1987. "I miss it in many ways," he says. "Getting a farm had been a family ambition for a long time."

But going into politics was a more pressing ambition. It was something the now-62-year-old had wanted to do since childhood. "I felt then – and I feel even more strongly now – that politicians have tended to take the soft option whenever faced with hard decisions."

And it was a "supine" attitude towards Europe that sparked the "bastard" incident. There was, he says, a reluctance of politicians to speak frankly on the subject. "It was too important to be let go by default."

Nowadays, Mr Gill maintains his stance over Europe – "implacably opposed" to economic and monetary union and arguing for the "repatriation" of farming and fishing powers.

This position doesnt get greater support, he claims, because many of those in senior positions in agriculture are "well-to-do" farmers, whose IACS cheques are hefty. "This does not apply to the majority of farmers I represent. Im untypical. My guiding principle is always be mindful of the little guy."

Beef questions certainly feature prominently in his mailbag and Mr Gill immerses himself in such topics between Mondays and Fridays in Westminster where, stalking the corridors of power, hes a well-known face. Join him for coffee in one of the members tea rooms and virtually everyone that passes exchanges a nod or a hello or a Lets talk about that later.

Hes also a member of the 1922 committee – something that, he concedes, makes him "feel like one of the proverbial men in grey suits". Its a hectic life. "Nineteen-hour days are not uncommon."

Fridays see him head back to his constituency, where the farm is now run by his daughter and son-in-law. Mr Gill, meanwhile, still chairs the Wolverhampton-based family meat business.

This background, he says, is invaluable in helping deal with the issues of a rural constituency.

He also had three years in the Royal Navy. "At prep school, the head always used to say there were two types of boy who knew what they wanted to do – those who wanted to go to sea and those who wanted to farm. I count myself lucky to have done both."

But what about future aspirations? Has that little run-in with the ex-PM all been forgotten now? Hardly. "In terms of my own political career, it put a full stop after it," says Mr Gill.

But press him on the subject of ambitions and, for the first time, the straight-talking ex-farmer begins to sound a bit more like how you expect a politician to sound. "A week is a long time in politics," he says. "A tremendous amount can happen before the next general election."

Other people on Chris Gill:

Paul Tyler, Liberal Democrat MP,

North Cornwall

"Im rather a fan. We are way apart in political terms – but we have worked together very closely on some issues and I have a lot of respect for him. Hes a bit of a party rebel in the Conservative Party and he has not been afraid to attack his own party when he thought they were out of line."

Lord Plumb, ex-Conservative MEP

"I dont share his views, of course. Anti-European talk is frustrating. Its totally unhelpful. There is no doubt that, in monetary terms, farmers would be better off with economic and monetary

union. Europe could be good for Britain if we played it more like the Europeans do."

Chris Jones, auctioneer,

Ludlow market

"Hes weathered the storm and is one of the few Conservatives who kept their seat. If you have a problem, you can write to him and he makes sure the right people get to hear about it. Now

hes in opposition, however, he hasnt got the same power as he did when the Conservatives were in power."