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Geoff Tordoff

Many readers of Liberator will have heard the phrase "Grimond Liberal" without knowing precisely what it meant, not least because the Jo Grimond era ended fifty-two years ago - except for a brief few months as interim leader when Jeremy Thorpe finally resigned in 1976. Jo was a superb orator, an intellectual Liberal who wrote numerous books and a charismatic leader who attracted a great cadre of highly competent individuals into party membership and, in due course, into party positions, both in public elections and in party offices. Geoff Tordoff became one of the latter. Jo's attraction for instinctive Liberals like Geoff was his innate anti-Conservatism coupled with a determination to take a firm Liberal line on controversial issues, such as the Suez invasion, and a rejection of statist socialism, instead promoting a progressive alternative to both other parties which chimed with many politically minded individuals at the time, including Geoff Tordoff.

I first met Geoff at the Warrington by-election in April 1961 where he was introduced as the only known Liberal in the constituency. This was not entirely true but at least it enabled me to sign him up for the party - a fact that he regularly blamed me for committing him to the lifetime of political struggle that ensued. He soon became a candidate, fighting Northwich in 1964 and Knutsford in 1966 and 1970. After that he devoted himself to party management for which both his temperament and his particular skills well suited him. He was invariably good humoured, often very whimsical but with a great political awareness of what had to be done and how to achieve it. He was a "fixer" who could usually persuade party rebels that a different course of action better suited their and the party's ends. He began his party management chairing the Assembly Committee (1974-76), running the annual conference, but crucially he began a three year term as party chair in 1976, a key post at an extremely difficult time: the final months of the Jeremy Thorpe affair and the eighteen months of the often fraught Lib-Lab pact which sustained the Callaghan minority Labour government, rather than allow Margaret Thatcher to succeed in a vote of no confidence - which she did after the end of the pact.

The Thorpe affair did considerable damage to the party. Liberal MPs had been aware of the allegations of a homosexual affair against him for some years but it only became public knowledge when his accuser, Norman Scott, mentioned Thorpe in a minor court case. In party terms it came to head when he was finally persuaded to resign the party leadership and David Steel was elected in his place. Then about to go on trial for conspiracy to murder Scott (a charge on which he was subsequently acquitted - Thorpe promised David Steel that he would not attend the party conference in 1978. Inevitably he broke the promise and arrived, effectively hijacking the conference. Party members were unaware of all the earlier problems and a candidate moved a motion censuring the party officers for their treatment of the previous leader. Geoff Tordoff as Chair, Gruffydd Evans as party president and myself as Chair of the Assembly Committee, decided that it was time that members knew the full facts and that if the motion was carried, we would all resign on the spot. The motion was taken in closed session and delegates were amazed at what was revealed - the treatment of party staff, the existence of private funds and his preference for attending elitist functions rather than giving attention to party campaigns etc. The motion was forthwith withdrawn without a vote.

During the Lib-Lab pact Geoff was the eyes and ears of the party leader, David Steel, and Geoff's advice on how far the party would allow him to go was invariably respected. One "safety valve" which Geoff engineered was the special party assembly in February 1978 in which the party made it clear that it expected the pact to end within a few months but gave Steel a mandate to determine the exact date.

After his three years as party chair he took on the Campaigns and Elections Committee (1980-82) and then became party president, (1983-84). He was appointed to the House of Lords in 1981 and became Chief Whip of the party in the Lords, 1983-88 - post for which he was admirably suited. He had achieved numerous promotions within Shell chemicals, despite some antipathy from his bosses, but he resigned in order to do the Whip's job full-time. Geoff typically helped to smooth the relations with the SDP during the alliance period.

Following the merger between the Liberal party and the SDP, Geoff became Chief Whip of the Liberal Democrat peers, 1988-94. He subsequently took on important non-party roles in the Lords from which he retired in 2016, suffering from ill health. His wife, Pat, was herself a keen Liberal but suffered from long-term ill health up to her death in 2013. They are survived by three daughters, two sons, six granddaughters, two grandsons and a great grandson!

My long friendship with Geoff involved a particular party piece at each Liberal Assembly - the "Bold Gendarmes" duet from one of Offenbach's lesser known operas. Just a few months ago, when Geoff was living at a retirement complex in Ilkley, he asked the organiser of musical events there if I could possibly come and reprise this duet. I did so and enjoyed a final meeting with a much respected friend and colleague.

Geoff Tordoff, born 11 November 1928, died 22 June 2019