Sir Graham Bright, Tory MP who anchored John Major’s campaign to succeed Mrs Thatcher as PM – obituary

Burly and affable, Bright shared his colleagues’ chuckles of irony that he had made his fortune developing the low-calorie sweetener Sweet ’n Low; he used the pink packets as visiting cards
Burly and affable, Bright shared his colleagues’ chuckles of irony that he had made his fortune developing Sweet ’n Low dieter’s sweetener ; he used the pink packets as visiting cards - UPPA/Photoshot/Avalon

Sir Graham Bright, who has died aged 81, was a self-made businessman who was Conservative MP for Luton East and then Luton South for 18 years and PPS to John Major for the first four years of his premiership.

Chubby, centrist and impossible to dislike, Bright in November 1990 played a crucial part in Major’s emergence to take the leadership as the party’s MPs turned against the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

Though Major, then Chancellor, had appointed Bright his PPS only the month before, their relationship worked from the start. With Major – who had declared himself ready to second Mrs Thatcher in a second ballot – sidelined with wisdom teeth trouble as she failed to see off Michael Heseltine’s challenge on the first, Bright faced a stream of MPs saying his boss had to throw his hat in the ring.

Bruce Anderson wrote: “Graham Bright had three objectives: to remain polite to everyone, to remember the names of supporters should the information become relevant, and to squash any suggestion that Mr Major had any other objectives than Margaret Thatcher’s re-election… By lunchtime, about 80 Major supporters had spoken to Mr Bright – an impressive total considering that Mr Major’s friends had done no canvassing, and that he himself was not a candidate.”

Major, at home near Huntingdon, remained adamant that he would stick with Mrs Thatcher if she remained a candidate. But, on the afternoon of the day she would accept the numbers were stacked against her, Cranley Onslow, chairman of the 1922 Committee, told Bright that if Major were to stand a chance he needed to get to Westminster the following day.

Instead, once Mrs Thatcher had withdrawn from the contest Bright drove to Major’s home with the nomination paper for him to sign. He then returned to Westminster, arriving less than half an hour before nominations were to close.

Disaster nearly followed. In a Commons lift en route to hand in Major’s nomination, Bright let go of the paper, which fluttered dangerously toward the lift’s open-grille door. Had the nomination fallen into the lift shaft, the contest would have been a straight fight between Heseltine and Douglas Hurd, but Bright’s late grab for the paper was successful.

Bright went on to anchor Major’s successful campaign, manning the phones in the Gayfere Street house lent by his Commons colleague Alan Duncan. With Major in Downing Street, Bright stayed his PPS – also becoming the prime ministerial family’s unofficial photographer on a visit to China and Hong Kong.

Bright (1989): his Private Member’s Bills cracked down on video nasties and acid-house parties
Bright (1989): his Private Member’s Bills cracked down on video nasties and acid-house parties - David Fowler/Alamy

Himself a devotee of golf, Bright found that a crucial part of being Major’s PPS was keeping him up to date with the cricket scores. He confided: “It’s all right when he just asks for the score; I can manage that. But when he wants to know what it means – who’s out, who’s got the wicket and so on – I’m stumped.”

Bright and Major maintained a mutual loyalty as he acted as the prime minister’s “eyes and ears” in the Commons, notably through the rebellions over the Maastricht Treaty. When Major did replace him with John Ward in 1994 amid suggestions that Bright was losing his touch in this respect, he had him knighted and made a party vice-chairman.

Bright’s personal legacy is two Private Member’s Bills that passed into law. The first cracked down on “video nasties”, the Video Recordings Act 1984 requiring all commercial video recordings offered for sale or hire within the UK to carry a censors’ classification. Bright said he had been “physically sick” after watching videos showing cannibalism, rape and mutilation – but resisted Thatcher-inspired pressure to ban their sale completely.

His second legislative success was the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act of 1990, often referred to as the “Acid House [Parties] Act”. He promoted both these measures with the aim of protecting young people.

The burly Bright – son of a farm labourer – shared his colleagues’ chuckles of irony that he had made his fortune developing the sweetener Sweet ’n Low; he used the pink packets as visiting cards, carrying a hefty supply in his pockets.

Politically he was pro-European, favoured capital punishment but opposed caning, supported ties with white South Africa, and signed motions against foxhunting. He championed the Vauxhall and Bedford plants around Luton, and pressed for Luton Airport to be awarded scheduled as well as charter flights, opposing the expansion of Stansted at Luton’s expense.

Graham Frank James Bright was born at Chadwell St Mary, Essex, on April 9 1942, the son of Robert Bright and the former Agnes Graham. He left Hassenbrook Secondary Modern, Stanford-le-Hope, at 15 to join the food processing firm Pauls & White, continuing his studies at Thurrock Technical College. He was a factory manager at 20, and sales and marketing manager at 24.

Made redundant in 1970 with the business in trouble, he took over the remains of Dietary Foods, a subsidiary of Pauls & White, and turned it into a thriving business, with Sweet ’n Low his great success. From the 1980s, he also chaired Cumberland Foods and Mother Nature.

The only Tory in a Labour-voting family, Bright in 1958 was founding chairman of Thurrock Young Conservatives. He was national YC vice-chairman from 1970 to 1972, and Eastern area president from 1981 to 1998.

From 1966 to 1979 he was a Thurrock borough councillor, and from 1967 to 1970 an Essex county councillor. He chaired the Eastern area Conservative Political Centre from 1977 to 1979.

Bright fought his home seat of Thurrock in 1970 and February 1974, losing heavily both times to the Labour veteran Hugh Delargy. For the October 1974 election, he crossed the estuary to contest Dartford, Labour’s Sydney Irving increasing his majority.

For the 1979 election he was selected to take on another Labour MP, Ivor Clemitson, ousting him by 847 votes as Mrs Thatcher came to power.

At Westminster he rallied support for small businesses, becoming vice-chairman of the Conservative backbench committee and from 1989 to 1991 director of the Small Business Bureau. In 1988 he told the party conference that the Thatcher revolution had so far benefited big businesses rather than small ones.

His career as a PPS began after his election for the new Luton South constituency in 1983, again defeating Clemitson. He gave up his post at the Home Office to get his Bill on video nasties through, but he soon returned; in 1988 he moved on to become PPS to Lord Caithness at the Department of the Environment.

That July, Bright was rushed to hospital after collapsing in the Finance Bill committee; his recovery was allegedly speeded by his agent telling him that three people had rung to apply for his seat.

When Major as Chancellor first appointed Bright his PPS, he looked set for a long stay at the Treasury. But weeks later he was inside No 10. When in February 1991 an IRA mortar bomb blew out the window of the room he was working in, Bright paused only to put on his coat against the icy draught.

At the 1992 election, he held his seat against expectations with his majority cut from 5,115 to 799. That November, he conveyed to Major the news that the hard-Right leaders of the 92 Group would give him the “benefit of the doubt” in the Maastricht Treaty paving vote. Soon after, he joined the Positive Europe Group.

That Christmas, Bright played Santa at No 10’s party for handicapped children – sidestepping a seven-year-old’s demand that he leave by the chimney.

As the temperature rose in the party over Maastricht, the strain began to tell on him. In February 1993 a stomach operation put him in intensive care for three days.

At the 1997 election, he lost Luton South to Labour’s Margaret Moran by 11,319 votes as Major’s government suffered a crushing defeat.

This was not quite the end of his political career. He contested the East of England in the 1999 Euro-elections, and in 2012 was elected Cambridgeshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner, calling for a crackdown on “anti-social” and “dangerous” cyclists. He served until 2016.

Bright chaired the Former MPs’ Association from 2010 to 2015, and from 2008 to 2013 chaired the governors of his old school, now Hassenbrook Academy.

Graham Bright married, in 1972, Valerie Woolliams. She survives him, with their son

Graham Bright, born April 9 1942, died January 19 2024

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