Lord Young of Graffham obituary

Businessman who served in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet in the 1980s and was regarded as one of her favourite ministers

David Young, who has died aged 90, was a businessman and entrepreneur who became one of Margaret Thatcher’s most trusted cabinet ministers, executing her policies on enterprise, employment and privatisation throughout the second half of her time in government.

She gave him personal credit for her third successive election victory, in 1987, which she believed was a result of the policies he followed as secretary of state for employment. He never stood for election, but was appointed by the prime minister to the House of Lords in 1984 and was then whisked, within weeks, directly into the cabinet, becoming one of the few in her circle whose promotion she did not subsequently come to regret.

Thatcher was famously quoted as having said of Young: “Other people bring me problems; David brings me solutions”, but her official biographer, Charles Moore, could find no record of her making that remark despite its assiduous repetition.

It appears to have had its genesis in 1984 in the Financial Times, in which she was said to have made the somewhat different observation that “other people come to me with their problems; David Young comes with his achievements.” Young was resented by some elected colleagues in government, but the pride he took in his reputation as a can-do, go-getting minister proved justified when Thatcher wrote in her memoirs: “David Young did not claim to understand politics: but he understood how to make things happen.”

He first became involved in politics in his middle years, after a successful business career, when in 1977 he joined the Centre for Policy Studies, a free-market thinktank founded to promote the political approach that Thatcher pursued after her election as Conservative party leader. As a younger man he had voted Labour in the 1966 general election and although thereafter he switched to support the Conservatives, he became disillusioned by the direction of the party under Edward Heath.

Thatcher’s belief in self-help and the free market chimed much more with his own ideology. He became director of the CPS when she took office in 1979, acting as an adviser to Sir Keith Joseph at the Department of Industry. In 1982, partly at his own suggestion, he was appointed chair of the Manpower Services Commission, where he remained until joining the government as minister without portfolio in 1984, charged with responsibility for the enterprise economy.

He joined the Conservative party for the first time on the afternoon of his first cabinet meeting. Thatcher had contemplated appointing him as her chief of staff in No 10, but decided he would be more use to her as a minister.

In 1985 he became employment secretary, and after the 1987 election served as secretary of state for trade and industry for two years.

He resumed his business career in 1990, but 20 years later returned to politics as David Cameron’s enterprise adviser in the coalition government. This time he had his own office in No 10, to which he travelled using his pensioners’ freedom pass, and he produced a series of four reports on business strategy, the last of which appeared shortly before his 83rd birthday. He joined the privy council on appointment to the government in 1984 and was made a Companion of Honour in the New Year honours in 2015.

Young was the elder of two sons born to Rebecca and Joseph in a close-knit lower-middle-class Jewish community in north London. His paternal grandfather came from Lithuania and his maternal grandfather from Tilsit, in what is now Russia. Joseph established a flour importing business, which failed, and later moved into manufacturing children’s coats. David’s younger brother, Stuart, became an accountant and was appointed chairman of the BBC in 1983, a post he held until his death at the age of 52, from cancer, in 1986.

The two boys were both educated at Christ’s college, Finchley, which David left at 16 to become an articled clerk in a solicitor’s officewhere an uncle was a partner. He studied for a law degree in the evenings at University College London, but having qualified decided that he preferred the potential opportunities of a business career. He worked for five years as personal assistant to the chair of Great Universal Stores, Sir Isaac Wolfson, to whom he was distantly related, before setting up on his own in 1961.

Dealing in property, construction and plant hire, he built a hugely profitable business developing industrial sites beside the junctions of the country’s newly built network of motorways, only to see it all collapse in the 1973 property crash. “I went back to ‘Go’ without the £200,” he said. He recovered, however, and constructed a second successful property business before his foray into politics at the end of the decade.

He had planned to take only a two- year “holiday” from his company interests, but became increasingly involved in the political whirl as a member of the cabinet at the centre of events.

When Thatcher gave him a central role planning the 1987 election campaign, effectively keeping an eye on the party chairman, Norman Tebbit, whose leadership ambitions she suspected, he began to nurse his own aspirations for further political advancement.

In a tape-recorded diary Young kept of that election campaign, quoted by Moore, he wrote of his membership of Thatcher’s “charmed circle” and speculated about the possibilities of his future posts. These included party chairman, leader of the Lords, foreign secretary or even prime minister.

To achieve this last position, he posited the idea that special legislation could be passed to allow him to renounce his life peerage and be elected to the House of Commons, and to this end asked the MP Alan Clark to sound out ministerial opinion on the subject. Clark, a junior minister under Young and a great supporter, wrote in his diaries of Young’s bright ideas, charm, humour and readiness to listen.

In 2021 Young published an edited version of his 1987 diary, titled Inside Thatcher’s Last Election, and put on record the tensions with Tebbit in the run-up to polling. This included a much-publicised row between the two men a week before the election when Young grasped Tebbit by the lapels of his jacket, saying: “Norman, listen to me, we’re about to lose this fucking election.”

At the time Young’s position as a Thatcher favourite served only to increase resentment of him among his Westminster colleagues. He had a reputation for amiability, and was kind to staff in his business career, yet his indefatigable self-promotion conveyed a degree of bumptiousness – he was sometimes dubbed “Lord Ego” – that did not go down well in the political world.

He was also criticised for inattention to detail in his policy dealings: he was a man of ideas, but one who sometimes failed to follow them through, and even Thatcher told him he was “too broad brush”.

He left government at his own request at the end of 1989. While Thatcher appointed him deputy chair of the Conservative party at that point, he vacated Tory headquarters when she lost office the following year.

In 1990 he became executive chair of Cable and Wireless, an appointment that caused some initial controversy as the company had been privatised during the previous decade and because of Young’s immediate previous position as industry secretary. He left after a boardroom row in 1995 and later described it as “the most tedious five years” of his career.

He also joined the US investment bank Salomon Brothers in 1990 and embarked on a hugely busy boardroom life in pursuit of business, education and cultural interests.

A supporter of many Jewish charities, he was also a director of the Prince of Wales’ Business Leaders’ Forum, director of the Royal Opera House Trust (1990-95), chairman of the London Philharmonic Trust (1995-98) and chaired the council of University College London (1995-2005). In 1996 he set up Young Associates, for companies investing in new technology.

He never lost his interest in politics and two days before his death wrote an article for the Telegraph on the current state of industrial unrest in the country. He also retained an ability to annoy his Conservative colleagues. In an interview with the Jewish Chronicle last year he spoke of the “very privileged position” he had enjoyed in the Thatcher government because he was unelected, no threat to anyone and thus of particular value to the prime minister.

In the same interview he went on to describe Boris Johnson, then prime minister, as the antithesis of Margaret Thatcher and as “very clever, very able but very lazy”. He also said that David Cameron had “no sense of direction” and that anyone with a bit more seichel (wit or intelligence) “would have handled Brexit differently”.

In 1956 he married Lita Shaw. She survives him, along with their two daughters, Karen and Judith.

David Ivor Young, Lord Young of Graffham, businessman and politician, born 27 February 1932; died 9 December 2022


Julia Langdon

The GuardianTramp

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