British Conservative politician
Born 1951 Died 2009
Piers Merchant was the Conservative Member of Parliament for Newcastle-upon-Tyne Central (1983-1987) and Beckenham (1992-1997) until he was obliged to resign in October 1997 following a 'sex scandal'.
Piers Rolf Garfield Merchant was born on the 2nd January 1951, the son of a schoolmaster named Garfield Frederick Merchant and his wife Audrey Mary Rolfe-Martin. Educated at Nottingham High School, he attended the University of Durham where he read Law and Politics, followed by a master's degree in Political Philosophy. After leaving university in 1973, he joined The Journal in Newcastle as a reporter and spent the next nine years working his way up through the ranks to become News Editor in 1980. Some two years later in 1982 he left to become the editor of Conservative Newsline where he remained until 1984.
Naturally, as the editor of the Conservative Party's official newspaper his political sympathies lay in that direction; and therefore when he sought to enter politics he did so as the Conservative candidate for Newcastle-upon-Tyne Central at the General Election of 1979 but came nowhere, being how that seat was then a Labour stronghold. However following a favourable boundary reorganisation he was returned with a majority of 2,228 at the next General Election in 1983 only to be defeated in 1987 by a similar margin. He then found employment as the director of corporate publicity at NEI plc (1987-90), and then as the director of Public Affairs at the Advertising Association (1990-1992) as he looked around for another seat. He was eventually adopted as the candidate for the far more reliably Conservative seat of Beckenham, and was returned at the General Election of 1992 with a majority of 15,285.
Generally regarded as a reliable Thatcherite, he spent the next five years as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security, until the Conservatives were swept aside in the General Election of 1997. Despite however the scale of the defeat at the election, Merchant managed to retain his seat, although with a much reduced majority of 4,953.
It must be said that Merchant's political career had been largely unremarkable up to this point. However it was during the General Election campaign in March 1997 that everything changed when The Sun accused him of indulging in "an open-air sex romp" with a "glamorous blonde Soho hostess" named Anna Cox and gleefully published photographs of him embracing Ms Cox in a public park in his constituency. As it happened Merchant was comparatively sanguine about this development and announced that whilst it "may well be me kissing her in the picture ... I see nothing wrong with that" and that he was sure his wife would "not be the slightest bit concerned". It was presumably in order to confirm this latter claim that Merchant then appeared with his wife on the doorstep of their home and kissed her with a passion at least equal to that he'd exhibited with Ms Cox.
Merchant also claimed that he was the victim of a 'tabloid sting operation', a claim which oddly enough turned out to be perfectly true. The Sun had recently switched its support from the Conservatives to the Labour Party and, anxious to prove its new political credentials Neil Wallis (The Sun's deputy news editor) had indeed recruited Ms Cox from a Soho club and sent her along to a local Conservative meeting. There she had approached Merchant and asked if she could accompany him as he canvassed the constituency, and then suggested they take a detour through a local park where The Sun had conveniently secreted a photographer.
That might have been that, except that Merchant then contacted Ms Cox in order to confirm the truth of her relationship with The Sun, befriended her, and subsequently decided to employ her to assist him in the task of researching a book he was intending to write on the subject of parliamentary sex scandals. Nature took its course and an affair developed which was consummated during a visit the couple made to the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool and at a flat in York owned by his former researcher, Anthony Gilberthorpe. However unbeknownst to Merchant, Gilberthorpe had already been recruited by the Sunday Mirror for a fee of £25,000, and the flat had been equipped with concealed video surveillance which captured every detail of what took place during his visit.
When the story subsequently broke, he issued a statement which categorically insisted that "Piers Merchant and Anna Cox are NOT having an affair"; which strictly speaking was accurate, since the affair had ended by that time, but nevertheless was also highly misleading. After the Sunday Mirror duly splashed the photographs on its front page, Merchant finally gave up, announced his intention to stand down, and formally resigned from the House of Commons on the 21st October 1997. It was a testament to the depth of Conservative support in Beckenham that the Conservative Party retained the seat at the resulting by-election held on the 20th November 1997.
With his political career now apparently at an end Merchant found employment as the managing director of the Cavendish Group plc (1998-2000), and then worked as an executive director for Made in London (2000-04) and as the director of campaigns at the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (2001-2004). Between 2002 and 2006 he was also a political advisor to Roger Knapman, then Leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and briefly re-entered the political arena. He was the acting Chief Executive of UKIP in 2004 and contested North-East England for UKIP in the European Elections of 2004. He was subsequently to be found campaigning on behalf of UKIP in the European Elections of 2009, at a time when many noted that he appeared to be unwell.
It was later in June that year that he was diagnosed with multisite metastatic cancer, He subsequently died on the 21st September 2009, leaving his wife Helen, (who had remained faithful to him despite his transgressions) and his two children Rolf and Thea.
- ‘MERCHANT, Piers Rolf Garfield’, Who's Who 2009, A & C Black, 2008; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2008
- Obituary - Piers Merchant, Daily Telegraph, 23 Sep 2009
- Dan van der Vat, Obituary - Piers Merchant, The Guardian, 23 September 2009
- Cancer claims former MP Piers Merchant, Kent News, 25/09/2009
- Daily Mail Reporter, Piers Merchant: Tory sleaze MP dies of cancer, Daily Mail, 25th September 2009
- Obituary - Piers Merchant: former Tory MP, The Times, September 25, 2009