Sir Edward du Cann, who has died at the age of 93, was one of the most extraordinary, elusive personalities in the financial and political history of Britain in the 1960s and 1970s.
Of his importance there is no doubt: as chairman of the 1922 Committee, he played a considerable role in helping to elect Margaret Thatcher to the leadership of the Tory party. In the City, he was a pioneer in linking life insurance to unit trusts, thus promoting the then-alien idea of personal investment in the stock market.
But his career was marred by a curious political waywardness and the habit of backing losing – if not devious – horses in the City: perhaps the result of a streak of self-destructiveness in his character, shown by his capacity to make errors of timing and judgement throughout his career. His last years were darkened by ever-deepening financial problems, which eventually led him to bankruptcy.
His character was opaque and, although he was charming, his manner was best described as oleaginous. To his enemies he was known as “Oily du Cann”; to his friends “Eduardo”, a nickname that captures his smooth yet faintly raffish manner, making many observers feel that he was two-faced – if not downright shifty.
His elusiveness was well illustrated by his capacity to make a stirring speech or striking intervention at a meeting, but not to follow up the initiative he had gained. He was obviously conscious of the impression given by his opaqueness and his lack of loyalty, and naturally attracted more than his fair share of (probably apocryphal) stories. His closing remark to one conversation was reported to be: “Anything more I can mislead you about, dear boy?” And when asked the time, he is alleged to have replied: “What time would you like it to be, dear boy?”
His background was modest. His father was a writer who became a barrister, studying in the trenches of World War 1, while his mother worked as a shop assistant. When he was nine, she divorced her persistently unfaithful husband – a bold step in those days – and despite their poverty managed to send Edward to Oxford and his brother (later an eminent QC) to Cambridge.
Edward went to a grammar school and at the tender age of 17 studied law (not that successfully) at Oxford, where he contributed a poem to a review edited by Philip Larkin. After a spell in the RNVR in motor torpedo boats, Du Cann started as a clerk in a run-down hotel in Mayfair before moving to work for…