Peter Ainsworth, Tory whip who served in the Shadow Cabinet and was passionate about the environment – obituary

Telegraph Obituaries
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Peter Ainsworth at the 2000 Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth - Nils Jorgensen/Shutterstock
Peter Ainsworth at the 2000 Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth - Nils Jorgensen/Shutterstock

Peter Ainsworth, who has died suddenly aged 64, was Conservative MP for East Surrey from 1992 to 2010, a government whip under John Major, and shadow secretary for culture and later the environment under William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron.

Yet he made as great a contribution to public life after leaving the Commons, as chairman of the Big Lottery Fund, the Churches Conservation Trust, the Elgar Foundation and the Heritage Alliance.

At the time of his death, he was serving on the panel convened by Oriel College, Oxford, to recommend whether its statue of Cecil Rhodes should be removed. Ainsworth’s own view, for which he was trying to build a consensus, was that despite Rhodes’s manifest flaws, his benefactions to Oxford had benefited students of all races.

Ainsworth was to his many friends a “Technicolor human being”, kind, principled and above all funny. One who inadvertently mowed a grass snake in half was only briefly taken in when Ainsworth rang pretending to be an RSPCA inspector.

Ainsworth at the 2000 Tory Party conference with a model of the Millennium Dome (now the 02 arena): though he had supported the building of the Dome, he was critical of what he saw as its mismanagement by the Labour government  - Paul Grover
Ainsworth at the 2000 Tory Party conference with a model of the Millennium Dome (now the 02 arena): though he had supported the building of the Dome, he was critical of what he saw as its mismanagement by the Labour government - Paul Grover

Boris Johnson said he had been a “delightful colleague”, and to Cameron he was “a key driver of our modernising agenda in opposition, particularly our environmental policy”. His departure from Cameron’s Shadow Cabinet stemmed from differences not with the Tory leader but with some of his staff.

Ainsworth was named Campaigning Politician of the Year in 1993 by Green magazine for his resistance to plans to widen the M25 to 14 lanes around Heathrow Airport. Country Life dubbed him Country Politician of the Year for his efforts – thwarted by colleagues under pressure from agribusiness – to stop farmers grubbing up hedgerows.

Having worked in banking with Warburgs, Ainsworth was convinced that global warming could only be defeated by harnessing the capitalist system rather than treating it as the enemy. He was an inspiration to younger “Green” Tories like Zac Goldsmith,

As a new backbencher he voted to ratify the Maastricht Treaty, but in the 2016 referendum he voted reluctantly for Brexit, convinced the European Commission was too bureaucratic to do anything about climate change.

The Commons vote of which he was proudest came in 2003 when he defied the whips to vote against the war in Iraq.

Ainsworth in 2002 throwing an inflatable duck from Westminster Bridge as part of a charity race along the Thames - Heathcliff O'Malley
Ainsworth in 2002 throwing an inflatable duck from Westminster Bridge as part of a charity race along the Thames - Heathcliff O'Malley

Many colleagues reckoned Ainsworth would have been a success as Environment or Culture Secretary. He had a book of poetry awaiting publication at his death, had a passionate concern for the built environment, and became a champion of English classical music, helping to rescue Elgar’s birthplace from financial difficulties and making a pilgrimage to the grave in Ireland of Arnold Bax.

He was vice-president of the Arthur Bliss Society, and along with Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede and the journalist Simon Heffer he was leading a campaign to have a statue put up in London to commemorate Sir Hubert Parry. He was also an enthusiastic, if conservative, member of MCC.

Out of Parliament and chairing what started as the National Lottery Community Fund from 2011 to 2019, he made sure funding was allocated sensibly and effectively. With the Churches Conservation Trust, he took a deep interest in potential uses for redundant churches. And while he had only chaired the Lottery-funded Heritage Alliance since 2019, it was already seeing the benefits of his style of leadership.

Peter Michael Ainsworth was born on November 16 1956 to Lt-Cdr Michael Ainsworth, a prep school master at Ludgrove and a former Worcestershire cricketer, and Patricia, neé Bedford.

Ainsworth, chairman of the Big Lottery Fund, launches the Big Music Project in 2014  - Matt Alexander/PA Wire
Ainsworth, chairman of the Big Lottery Fund, launches the Big Music Project in 2014 - Matt Alexander/PA Wire

Educated at Ludgrove and Bradfield, he read English at Lincoln College, Oxford. Graduating in 1979, he worked as research assistant to the MEP Sir Jack Stewart-Clark, then in 1981 joined the stockbrokers Laing & Cruickshank as an investment analyst. Moving to Warburgs in 1985, he became their director of corporate finance in 1989.

Ainsworth joined the Conservative Party as a schoolboy. Though in no sense a Right-winger, he was president of the university Monday Club at Oxford, then joined the traditionally liberal Bow Group. He served on Wandsworth council from 1986 to 1994, chairing the Conservative group from 1990.

Prior to the 1992 election, he was selected to succeed Sir Geoffrey Howe at East Surrey, then elected with a majority of 17,656 over a Liberal Democrat.

He used his maiden speech to highlight the threat to the countryside posed by widening the M25, then introduced his Hedgerows Bill to make farmers notify the local council before destroying more than 60ft of hedge. It received an unopposed Second Reading, then was talked out.

At a Shadow Cabinet meeting in 2006 - David Wimsett/UPPA/Photoshot
At a Shadow Cabinet meeting in 2006 - David Wimsett/UPPA/Photoshot

Ainsworth was put on the Environment Select Committee, then became PPS in turn to Jonathan Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and the National Heritage Secretary Virginia Bottomley.

In July 1996 Major appointed him a whip. After Labour’s crushing election victory the following May – in which Ainsworth’s majority held up despite adverse boundary changes – Hague promoted him to deputy chief whip.

Hague brought him on to the front bench in 1998 as Shadow Culture Secretary. When Defra was formed after the 2001 election, Duncan Smith made Ainsworth Shadow Environment Secretary, but he stepped down for family reasons the next year.

Ainsworth briefly chaired the Environmental Audit Committee, then in 2005 Cameron, taking over from Michael Howard, persuaded him to return as Shadow Environment Secretary.

In March 2006 he set out the direction Conservative policy would take, saying: “Achieving a sustainable world and combating the threat of climate change will require really fresh ideas and radical thinking. We cannot expect to meet the challenges of this century by toying with the structures and technologies we have inherited from the past, and the concept of Decentralised Energy should be taken seriously.”

Ainsworth and his wife Claire in 2002 - Lynn Hilton/Mail On Sunday/Shutterstock
Ainsworth and his wife Claire in 2002 - Lynn Hilton/Mail On Sunday/Shutterstock

Ainsworth lost his place in the Shadow Cabinet in Cameron’s January 2009 reshuffle; Nick Herbert took over at Environment.

He chaired the all-party groups for the environment and sustainable aviation, and served on the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art. Either side of his leaving the Commons in 2010, he chaired the Conservative Arts and Creative Industries Network and the Conservative Environment Network.

Succeeded as an MP by Sam Gymiah, Ainsworth became a founding partner in the global sustainable development consultancy the Robertsbridge Group.

He also became chairman of Plantlife, and was a board member of the London Sustainable Development Commission, the Environment Agency, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Friends of the Earth, and the Surrey Wildlife Trust.

Peter Ainsworth married Claire Burnett, a fellow banker, in 1981. She survives him, with their son and two daughters.

Peter Ainsworth, November 16 1956, died April 6 2021