Well-connected Conservative MP for Truro who was one of the last visitors to Churchill’s deathbed
PIERS DIXON, who has died aged 88, was a Conservative MP with exceptional connections who lost his seat at Truro after just four years to the Liberal David Penhaligon.
He arrived at Westminster in 1970 surrounded by an aura. His wedding to Sir Winston Churchill’s granddaughter Edwina Sandys, the social event of 1960 after Princess Margaret’s nuptials, had been attended by six Cabinet ministers including the bride’s father. Despite Churchill’s absence after a fall, it was one of the largest-ever family gatherings. Bizarrely, it took place after dark, with the 500 guests ferried to the Savoy in a fleet of coaches.
Dixon had also published an acclaimed biography ( Double Diploma, 1968) of his father Sir Pierson Dixon, who had been British ambassador in Paris and at the UN and had advised Churchill at Yalta. And on the eve of the Truro campaign, Dixon’s wife had withdrawn as candidate for East Ham South to support him, after what she ambiguously termed “strong representations”.
Their marriage was over by 1973. Edwina Sandys embarked on a new career as an artist, and Dixon went on to marry in 1976 Janet “Tiger” Cowley, who had been divorced by the 5th Earl Cowley weeks before his death, and who said she was “tired of idling on yachts”. This marriage was brief, a fact Dixon’s bride attributed to her habit of sleeping in “my father’s old balaclava and shooting socks”. Dixon would marry twice more: Anne Cronin in 1984 and Ann Mavroleon in 1994.
Right-wing on the economy and immigration but relatively liberal on law and order, Dixon contrived to be a member both of the Monday Club and the Bow Group. He appeared too gilded for the meritocratic era of Edward Heath, yet colleagues elected him vice-chairman of the Conservative backbench finance committee and chairman of the party’s group on Western Europe.
Dixon was the only MP to complain to Anthony Barber when the Chancellor exempted children’s clothes from VAT. He also, during the brief session of 1974, got through the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, under which convictions are “spent” over time. The product of a review by Justice, the Howard League for Penal Reform and Nacro, it enjoyed wide support in Parliament, but was attacked by the Justices’ Clerks for making it a crime for them to tell the truth.
When Dixon won Truro, Labour were the opposition, having previously come close to taking the seat. Dixon’s majority was 8,210, but in February 1974, with the Liberal tide running strongly across the country, the charismatic Penhaligon, the postmaster at Chacewater, increased his party’s vote two and a half times, cutting the majority to 2,561.
That October enough Labour voters switched for Penhaligon to capture the seat by 464 votes. He would hold it until his death in a sleeping car fire in 1986.
Born on December 29 1928, Piers Dixon was a scholar at Eton and an exhibitioner of Magdalene College, Cambridge, going up after National Service with the Grenadier Guards. From Harvard Business School he went into merchant banking in London and New York in 1954, then after a decade joined the stockbrokers Sheppards & Chase.
Dixon and his bride dined with Sir Winston when they announced their engagement, and on January 16 1965 were among the last visitors to his deathbed.
Looking for a seat, Dixon failed to secure Wandsworth Central, where his wife was a councillor, but in 1966 took on Labour’s formidable Marcus Lipton at Brixton.
When Geoffrey Wilson, the MP for Truro, stood down, Dixon was chosen from 70 applicants after the last eight – and their wives – were interviewed.
In the Commons he adopted a low key, save for arguing in favour of selling arms to South Africa. In 1971 he resigned from both the Bow Group and the Monday Club, applauding the “middle course” Heath was taking. Dixon was confident Heath – and he – were there for the long haul, applauding rising living standards after hard years under Labour.
The wave of dock strikes in protest at Heath’s Industrial Relations Act halted Cornwall’s china clay exports, and in August 1972 Dixon, clay company executives and 6,000 workers marched through St Austell in protest; dockers were advised to stay away for their own safety.
After losing his seat, Dixon became resident economist at the Centre for Policy Studies, the think tank founded by Sir Keith Joseph that developed many of the strands of Thatcherism. He tried several times for another seat – Truro having got through three other Tory candidates in short order – but was unsuccessful.
In later years he devised a board game based on 18th-century Westminster. Dixon explained: “A game based on the present House would be terrifically dull, because MPs tend to vote with their party instead of accepting bribes.”
Dixon’s son Hugo became speechwriter to Robert Maclennan, briefly leader of the SDP. Hugo helped draft the policy statement, nicknamed the “Dead Parrot” after its release early in 1988, which nearly derailed the party’s merger with the Liberals. SDP negotiators claimed it was the Dixon clan’s revenge for his defeat by Penhaligon 14 years before.
Piers Dixon is survived by his wife, two sons from his first marriage, and one from his third.
Dixon taking part in a march with clay workers at St Austell in 1972