Geoff Tordoff (1928-2019)

Last week we learned the sad news that Geoff Tordoff had died. This is a personal tribute and assessment of his life as a Liberal. Geoff was essentially a very nice person. He had a modest even self-effacing manner and invariably had a smile on his face and a chuckle in his greeting, but his Liberal commitment was deep and his impact on the party’s organisation and strength was significant indeed for over half a century. Geoffrey Johnson Tordoff was a politician who made friends rather than enemies.

Geoff started life in Lancaster and was educated at Manchester Grammar School and Manchester University. When I first turned up in Manchester he was working in the city for Shell and he and Pat were already living in Knutsford and bringing up their five children. This was the time in the early 1960s when the charismatic Jo Grimond was Liberal Party leader and the revival of the party as a progressive centre-left force, with a lot of new policy development and more effective election campaigning, was bearing fruit in its strength on the ground.

Manchester was regaining its traditional role as a centre of Liberal thought and activity, focusing initially on a resurgent Young Liberal network called MRYLO (the Manchester Region Young Liberal Organisation) led by Dennis Wrigley, Alan Share, Mary Mason and their friends, and a rather more traditional group of members of Manchester liberal professional circles loosely based round the Reform Club with which Geoff got involved. Many of the leading lights joined up with young Merseyside campaigners such as Gruff Evans (who became a life-long close friend and colleague of Geoff’s in the Liberals and the Lords) and Peter Howell Williams to set up the North West Liberal Candidates Committee with such pioneers as Muriel Burton, Sam Crilly, Alan Cooper and Geoffrey Vaughan Davies. They were a source of energy and development in the regional party. Geoff and colleagues also worked on policy and published pamphlets, notably the pioneering Regional Government for the North West.

Members of these groups went out as candidates into constituency parties in Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Merseyside and gave them a new lease of life. In 1964 Roger Cuss turned Cheadle into a winnable seat and Geoff stood in Northwich, moving in 1966 to his home seat of Knutsford when I was his agent. Geoff held on to the 1964 second place with about a quarter of the vote, a good result in those days, and stood again in the more difficult election in 1970.

The later ‘Sixties and ‘Seventies were difficult times for the Liberal Party as the electoral boost of the Orpington era faded and the resurgent Young Liberal Movement, in the spirit of the youth politics of the late 1960s, challenged the party establishment from the campaigning left. There was a real danger that the party would crumble apart. Geoff became one of a group of people who played a major role in preventing this from happening. His approach to aggressive and argumentative Young Liberals was to respond with respect, interest and engagement. Much of the radical drive in the early 1970s came from the Radical Bulletin group based around a number of “ageing Young Liberals” and the first wave of new community activists. Geoff was one of the key party managers together with such as Philip Watkins who recognised the need to harness and work with the new radical energies rather than try to knock them back, and to bring together the Trevor Jones style populist electioneering with YL community politics.

But after the renewed electoral revival of 1972-74, the Liberals were hit by the Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott scandal which again threatened to blow the party away. Once again Geoff’s calm but steadfast and utterly principled approach helped to save the day. As chairman of the party he declared, “I am of course the creature of this Executive” and proceeded in his usual genial and respectful way; listening, guiding, understanding the temper of a meeting to enable it best to deal with its business in an effective way in a reasonable time – to keep people onside, keep them together, authoritative but never authoritarian. And, with Richard Wainwright, Gruff Evans and Michael Meadowcroft, willing to tell truth to the party when it really mattered.

Geoff’s new job with Shell had taken him to London which made it easier to work for the party at national level. He occupied a number of senior positions in the LPO (the Liberal Party Organisation) structure. He became active in the Assembly Committee, the elected body which organised all aspects of the party’s annual gathering, and chaired it for a number of years during which he successfully managed a number of difficult conferences. Crucially, in 1976 at the height of the Thorpe affair, he became chairman of the National Executive and of the party.

David Steel appointed Geoff to the Lords in 1981 and he was deservedly elected as Liberal Party President in 1983-84. He steadily moved his time and energies to building a more effective Liberal presence in the Upper House and was the first full time Liberal Chief Whip at a time when most of the Liberal peers were still hereditaries and attendance was variable. He spoke on transport matters and, working with the Liberal Lords’ secretary Celia Thomas (now Baroness Thomas of Winchester), enjoyed organising late evening “ambushes” on the then Thatcher government, working with a somewhat reluctant Labour party– the Conservatives had of course a large inbuilt majority in the Lords before the cull of most of the hereditaries in 1999. Geoff’s talents for working with people helped to bind the Liberal and SDP Alliance presence in the Lords during the 1980s.

In many ways the Lords were a natural habitat for Geoff and his diligence on House committees was legendary – the official website lists no fewer than 22 of them that were graced with his presence at some time! Before the House got its own Speaker instead of the Government-appointed Lord Chancellor, the highest position it elected was the Chairman of Committees, traditionally ping-ponged between the two largest parties. It was a tribute to Geoff’s standing throughout the House (and the strength of the Liberal Democrat presence by that time) that he was able to hold this position for 18 months in 2001-2002. One of his first self-imposed tasks was to visit every committee, the first time any holder had thought to do so.

Geoff and Pat had returned to the north of England to live at Beverley to be closer to their family who worshipped them and were deeply loved in return. Pat sadly died after a long illness during which Geoff had spent much time looking after her, following which he retired from the Lords in 2016 and moved to supported accommodation in Ilkley. Heather and I were privileged to be able to attend Geoff’s 90th birthday party a few months ago. It is difficult to overstate the debt that Liberals today owe to what Geoffrey Tordoff did for our cause.

* Tony Greaves is a backbench Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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This entry was posted in Obituaries.


  • That’s a lovely tribute, Tony.

  • Iain Brodie Browne 1st Jul '19 - 8:11pm

    I was a Young Liberal back in the early 70s. Geoff Tordoff was a senior party figure who we all greatly respected. He managed to be approachable, supportive and in the difficult times Tony recalls -principled. I was saddened to hear of his death. Tony’s piece captures the spirit of him. The party was fortunate to have the services of this good man.

  • Tony Greaves 1st Jul '19 - 9:07pm

    Just to say – I am not a party spokesperson on anything nowadays!

  • Chris Rennard 1st Jul '19 - 9:32pm

    I enjoyed hearing much of this story from Tony one afternoon last week. This David Steel’s obituary of Geoff from the House Magazine this week:

  • Nobody could ever hang a “soggy Liberal” label on Geoff Tordoff. His understanding of strength is much needed in today’s politics. At conferences he was firm and fair – and seemed to be blessed with the voice for it! Thanks Tony.

  • Rita Giannini 2nd Jul '19 - 10:00am

    It would be good to have some recognition of the work Geoff and Pat did in the West Country; without them we wouldn’t have had our first Liberal Democrat member of the European Parliament!

  • David Rogers 2nd Jul '19 - 11:01am

    Whilst not so closely involved at that time in NLYL or party affairs generally at national level, I too recall Geoff’s approachable yet authoritative manner, at annual assemblies and otherwise. Thank you Tony for this comprehensive tribute to him, and I fully agree with comments already made above, especially that of Iain.

  • Julian Ingram 2nd Jul '19 - 11:56am

    Thank you, so well said Tony. Its interesting to compare Geoffs manner and ability to find common ground with the nature of public debate today. I wonder what he thought about it? Perhaps we should recognise the value of his style with an award in his name?

  • Sandy Walkington 2nd Jul '19 - 12:12pm

    Geoff (like Gruff) was always kind and generous with his time and respect. I last met him in Queenstown, New Zealand where he was visiting his daughter.
    The impact at Shell of his getting a peerage was a hoot. If you became boss of Shell worldwide you might become ‘Sir’. The boss of Shell UK might get a CBE. When Geoff’s peerage was confirmed, he thought he should tell the boss of Shell UK (John Raisman CBE I believe) whom he had only met once. He went into Raisman’s office. Raisman did not look up and just carried on dealing with correspondence. Geoff coughed and said ‘I think you ought to see this letter’ and put the confirmation under Raisman’s nose. The effect was electric, ‘Come and sit down, coffee, biscuits’ while all the time presumably thinking ‘who is this man? What did we miss? How come he’s got a peerage?’ In a hierarchical organisation like Shell Geoff’s deserved elevation was like throwing a bomb into the millpond. Great stuff, a truly great Liberal.

  • William Wallace 2nd Jul '19 - 12:24pm

    Thanks, Tony. Newer members of the party may not understand how difficult it was to manage the Liberal Party in the 1960s and 1970s. Apart from the radical Young Liberals in the late 1960s, there were radical (political) nonconformists who enjoyed dissenting from majority opinion, ‘free thinkers’ for whom party ‘discipline’ was an illiberal idea. My memories of Liberal Party Council meetings are of cheerful chaos. Geoff was supremely good at reconciling different views, holding the emotional levels of disagreement down, and leaving everyone happy with eventual agreement, in party assembly after assembly.

  • Roger Billins 2nd Jul '19 - 4:59pm

    A life well lived and a true Liberal.

  • chris moore 3rd Jul '19 - 11:11am

    @ Sandy Walkington” The boss of Shell UK might get a CBE. When Geoff’s peerage was confirmed, he thought he should tell the boss of Shell UK (John Raisman CBE I believe) whom he had only met once.”

    I’m amazed to see John Raisman mentioned on here. A wonderful anecdote. Thank you for posting it.

    As a young boy, I attended parties at John Raisman’s house in Tokyo in the early 70’s. He was then the head of Japanese Shell, Shell Sekiyu. My late father, a research chemist, ran Shell Sekiyu’s laboratory. (Quite a feat, given my father intially spoke no Japanese and the rest of the researchers and admin staff were Japanese; a few spoke passable English.)

    (I believe my father may also have bumped into Geoff Tordoff, as father worked previously at Shell’s Thorton Research Centre in Cheshire and was relatively well-known in the company as an upcoming reseracher.)

    Please forgive these memories.

  • Meral Hussein-Ece 3rd Jul '19 - 12:39pm

    Thank you Tony for sharing your memories of Geoff. I got to know him when I went to the Lords, and found him to be a lovely, wise and supportive person. I was privileged to have been able to spend time hearing anecdotes from the past, and it was a loss when he retired. He was much respected by Peers on all sides of the House.

  • chris moore 3rd Jul '19 - 4:41pm

    @ Joseph Bourke

    here are some more memories. In the early seventies, it was still possible for British companies to rent an executive home in Tokyo at a reasonable cost. By the late 1980’s even Shell might have balked at the prices.

    Yes, that’s right. John Raisman’s company house had quite a large garden, a real luxury in space-poor Tokyo.

    And thank you for the long post, Joseph. Japan’s boom peaked in the late 80’s. The subsequent stagnation has been underpinned by demographics – ageing population – and social conservatism.

    Attempts to re-float the economy have involved asset buying by the central bank, negative interest rates and so on. (Public debt is above 200% GDP. Economy still pretty stagnant.)

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