The former Conservative cabinet minister Peter Brooke, who has died aged 89, ought to be remembered as the Northern Ireland secretary who inaugurated the province’s delicate peace process, or even as the founding minister for the National Lottery. But he will probably be recalled for briefly singing a song on an Irish TV chat show the night when seven Protestant construction workers were killed by an IRA bomb.
The singing of My Darling Clementine in Dublin on Gay Byrne’s Late Late Show shortly after the atrocity, in January 1992, was a mistake for which Brooke apologised and offered his resignation, but he had an understandable excuse. Brooke had had a hard week working in Belfast and had barely heard about the attack in County Tyrone. However, he was chiefly disconcerted by being asked unexpectedly about the traumatic death of his first wife, with his new wife sitting in the studio audience – and was then cajoled by Byrne into singing the only song he knew. “My defences were down … it was patently an error,” he said later.
It was a measure of Brooke’s popularity in the Commons that when he apologised unreservedly in the chamber the following week he received cross-party support, with only Ian Paisley’s hardline Democratic Unionists demanding his resignation. The prime minister, John Major, supported Brooke at the time, but dropped him a few months later after unexpectedly winning the April 1992 general election. He was brought back into the cabinet as culture secretary that September following the resignation of David Mellor.
Brooke was well liked in the house because he was an old-style Tory, not one of the highly partisan Thatcherite ministers who surrounded him in government. He was emollient, cultivated and charming, with a passion for cricket – and a penchant for using it as a metaphor. Before entering parliament he had been a successful management consultant.
Brooke was born in London into a political family: his father, Henry, was a hardline home secretary in the last days of the Macmillan and Home administrations, who was responsible in the Profumo affair for the prosecution of Stephen Ward. His mother, Barbara (nee Mathews), was a London councillor and had been a vice-chair of the Conservative party for 10 years. Both parents were given life peerages and sat together in the Lords, as Lord Brooke of Cumnor and Lady Brooke of Ystradfellte.
The oldest of four children, Peter followed in his father’s footsteps by being educated at Marlborough and Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied classics and became president of the Oxford Union debating society and president of the university Christian Association. After graduating in 1957 he studied for an MBA at Harvard and Lausanne, and joined a management consultancy, working for periods in the 1970s in Brussels, Switzerland and New York.
If it was always likely that he would eventually enter politics, he did not do so without difficulty. He applied for nomination in 27 constituencies and stood unsuccessfully in the Labour seat of Bedwellty against Neil Kinnock in the October 1974 election, where he came in nearly 23,000 votes behind and lost his deposit. It was not until 1977, when he was 42, that he was nominated for the safe Tory seat of the City of London and Westminster. He won the byelection there that followed the resignation of Christopher Tugendhat, who was becoming a European commissioner. Brooke held the seat until his retirement from the Commons in 2001.
He became a junior government whip following the 1979 election and served time as a junior minister in the Department of Education (1983-85) and then the Treasury (1985-87), where he was put in charge of Customs and Excise. It was a surprise when Margaret Thatcher made him party chair after the 1987 election.
Despite the Tories’ victory, the campaign had been marked by bitter rows over its conduct between Norman Tebbit and Lord (David) Young of Graffham, and staff morale was low. The promotion of an obscure junior minister – Brooke was also made paymaster-general, a post his father had once held – rather than a more senior party figure seemed a strange one in the circumstances, but Brooke’s easy manner and business acumen helped to steady the organisation.
As a pro-European he was unhappy with the increasingly Eurosceptic party’s campaign against “A Diet of Brussels” on its posters during the 1989 European elections, though he was not influential enough to change it.
Soon moved after the elections he became Northern Ireland secretary – a promotion also greeted with scepticism on both sides of the Irish Sea. Unionists discounted the fact that Brooke came from an old Anglo-Irish family – he claimed to be three-eighths Irish – and grew alarmed when he soon suggested in an interview that Sinn Féin might be included in future negotiations if the Provisional IRA declared a ceasefire. He would later, out of office, speak in a BBC interview of Gerry Adams being a brave man to have entered negotiations.
In deep secrecy, in 1990 “deniable” talks got under way between an MI5 agent and Republican paramilitaries. Much more publicly but slowly, Brooke headed moves to bring constitutional parties and the Irish Republic’s government towards negotiations: “talks about talks”, the so-called Brooke initiative.
The Economist magazine remarked: “Mr Brooke has done more in a few months than many of his predecessors managed in several years and nobody expected it of him.” The IRA’s campaign nevertheless continued, as did that of the Loyalists who, with the connivance of the police, shot the Republican lawyer Pat Finucane in front of his family in 1989.
After the Late Late show debacle, it was always likely that Brooke would be moved, though Major’s excuse that a younger man needed promotion was undermined by the fact that he was succeeded at the Northern Ireland Office by Patrick Mayhew, who was four years older.
Brooke was disappointed but within six months he was back as culture secretary following Mellor’s affair with the model Antonia de Sancha. Since what started life as the Department of National Heritage had been created for Mellor, Brooke’s appointment to replace him was again a surprise, though in fact he had wide cultural interests, in pictures and books, was a regular theatregoer, spoke several languages and was a keen visitor of ancient churches.
The department – in which he had to deal with numerous arts organisations seeking government funding – had its pitfalls. There was the fire at Windsor Castle, culminating in the Queen’s “annus horribilis” in December 1992, after which he and the prime minister promised government funding for the repairs before being forced to backtrack in the face of public opposition.
Another lapse of judgment occurred with the announcement that the 50th anniversary of the end of the second world war would be celebrated by a family fun day in Green Park (though this was the wheeze of a junior minister) from which Brooke also had to retreat following criticism from veterans. However, he was successful in protecting the BBC licence fee from perennial demands that it should be replaced by a subscription service.
In 1994, Brooke was again replaced and returned to the backbenches. He rather hoped to become the Commons speaker but this was thwarted by the election of Betty Boothroyd. He accepted her appointment with good grace and remained in the Commons for another seven years before stepping down and becoming a life peer. He also served in the Lords as chair of the Association of Conservative Peers.
Brooke’s list of outside interests accumulated: he became a trustee of the Wordsworth Trust, supervising Dove Cottage, of the Churches Conservation Trust and of the Cusichaca project which seeks to preserve the Inca remains in Peru – his first wife had grown up there – and of various other arts projects, some in Wiltshire, where he had his home. In 1992 he was appointed Companion of Honour.
Brooke married Joan Smith in 1964, and they had four sons, one of whom died in infancy. She died suddenly in 1985 after a routine hospital operation went wrong. In 1991, he married Lindsay Allinson, who was a Conservative Party election agent. She survives him, along with his sons, Jonathan, Daniel and Sebastian; sisters Honor and Margaret; seven grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
• Peter Leonard Brooke, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, born 3 March 1934; died 13 May 2023
• This article was amended on 18 May. The maiden name of Peter Brooke’s mother was Barbara Mathews, rather than Matthews.