Eric Ward, who died on 16 May at the age of 74, typified that cadre of professional party agent that has become almost an endangered species, much to the detriment of British political life. On leaving school at the age of 16, Eric Ward initially worked as a chemist at Courtaulds in Coventry but quickly developed an interest in Conservative politics, so much so that he was a municipal candidate in Coventry at the age of 21. Two years later he took the decision to become a full time agent, initially in Stoke on Trent and, in 1959, in Uxbridge.
Ward had met his wife, Pat Gibbs, in the Young Conservatives in 1950. Her father was for many years the agent for Anthony Eden in the Warwick and Leamington constituency and she herself also trained as a professional agent before her marriage in 1958. Ward moved next to the marginal seat of Rugby where he was agent at three general elections, before being promoted to become Conservative Central Office's Deputy Agent for the East Midlands area.
Four years followed as Deputy-Agent for the North West, based in Manchester, before his final move to Leeds in 1979 as Central Office Agent for Yorkshire and Humberside. Although he retired in 1994 he continued as Secretary of the Yorkshire Area Conservative Association until 1997.
Eric Ward was regarded as a by-election specialist and was often drafted in to a difficult constituency regardless of location. One of his most painful experiences was at Lincoln in February 1973 where Dick Taverne had resigned his seat to fight a by-election to challenge the leftward trend in the Labour party. The Conservative candidate was the right winger, Jonathan Guinness, and Ward had to rebut allegations that his somewhat idiosyncratic candidate had been deliberately chosen in order to assist Taverne's chances.
Later, in March 1976, Ward was in charge of the Conservative campaign at the Wirral by-election for David (now Lord) Hunt, achieving a 14% swing to the Conservatives. Harold Wilson resigned as Prime Minister five days later.
Ward played a part in directing volunteers and media representatives to the Brighton hospital following the IRA bomb attack on the Grand Hotel at the 1984 Conservative conference. Mrs Thatcher, seeing Ward with a plaster cast on his lower arm, enquired solicitously as to the extent of his injury. As it happened he had sustained a broken thumb the previous evening, having stumbled during a night out with Denis Thatcher. Ward managed to avoid admitting the cause of his injury to the Prime Minister.
Ward anchored the Conservative party's presence in Yorkshire for fifteen years, taking pride in his thorough professionalism which was respected by friend and foe alike. His conviviality and popularity ensured that leading party figures were always prepared to come to Yorkshire, not least to mix informally with electors in a local pub or restaurant.
Eric Ward was awarded the CBE in 1989. He and his wife remained in Yorkshire after his retirement, though Pat died in January 2005. He leaves two sons, Nick, who is a Sergeant in the Royal Artillery and who has served three recent tours in Iraq, and Tim, who is with a Leeds based insurance underwriting business.