Saturday 24 March 2018

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith

Prominent Tory whose career was dashed by contacts with bank robbers

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith, who has died aged 86, was a charismatic television reporter who switched to politics and enjoyed a 41-year career in the British House of Commons.

A respected figure on the Conservative benches, he seemed destined for high office. But his prospects were dashed when it emerged that he had held a meeting while army minister with the bank robber and self-styled MI6 agent Kenneth Littlejohn.

A party vice-chairman under Edward Heath, Johnson Smith was unfailingly loyal to the leader of the day. He served on the 1922 Committee executive, keeping Margaret Thatcher, John Major and William Hague in touch with backbench feeling. When Mrs Thatcher lost the leadership in 1990, he held the line for her until the last minute; and when Major came under attack from rebellious Euro-sceptics, he found his task depressing.

The most humane of Tories, he once appealed in vain to the party's Central Council not to vote to bring back the birch. He was a consistent opponent of capital punishment, and one of the first MPs to defend the banned novel Fanny Hill. He was consistently pro-European.

The controversy that halted his rise broke in August 1973, when Kenneth Littlejohn (an ex-paratrooper who had been discharged for theft and jailed for robbery) and his brother Keith were sentenced in Dublin for their roles in a £67,000 bank hold-up. They claimed the robbery was part of a British intelligence operation in the course of which they had infiltrated the IRA. They produced a letter from the Ministry of Defence confirming that Johnson Smith had, in 1971, met Kenneth Littlejohn, then using the name of Austen, to receive information -- later found to be bogus -- about the Provisionals' sources of arms. The minister had reported what he was told to the "relevant authority". The Littlejohns claimed that following the meeting -- which took place while Kenneth Littlejohn was on the run from the West Midlands police -- they were recruited as spies.

Geoffrey Johnson Smith was born in Glasgow (a city of which he was always proud) on April 16, 1924, the son of an electrical engineer. He joined the Royal Artillery straight from Charterhouse in 1942, and after war service was demobilised as a captain.

He joined the BBC's current affairs unit as a producer, and in 1954 went in front of the camera, quickly establishing himself as an accomplished and personable interviewer, appearing five times weekly in the Highlight magazine programme.

After the Bloody Sunday killings of January 1972, he mounted an uncompromising defence of the Parachute Regiment: "It is bad enough for our troops to have to run all the perils and be shot at by gunmen without having their pain increased by smears in this House."

In November 1972, Heath moved him sideways to the Civil Service Department. His time there was dominated by the Littlejohn affair.

He was knighted in 1982 and sworn of the Privy Council in 1996.

He is survived by his wife, Jeanne, and their two sons and one daughter.

Sunday Independent

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