Rightwing thorn in the side of Blairism

The Conservative party has lost a parliamentarian of the first order in Eric Forth, who has died aged 61.

Eric Forth, who died last night, was someone I am proud to call a friend. Indeed, Eric was the most loyal friend you could wish for - and the mark of a loyal friend is that he will tell you the truth, even when it is uncomfortable.

I am sure his career will be covered in many other obituaries, so I will restrict myself to some personal observations. I first met Eric at a Bournemouth party conference in 2002. He, David Davis, Eric's American-born wife Carol and I went for dinner at a restaurant Eric knew in Poole. Until then, I only knew what I had heard about Eric. He turned out to be a wonderful dinner companion and a great raconteur and, slightly to my surprise, I found him to be a great strategist with an acute political brain.

Eric had a 19th-century approach to constituency politics. He never, ever held a surgery, yet his majority increased at every election. He believed he was in politics to be a parliamentarian, not a quasi-social worker; and even his most bitter opponents would admit he was a parliamentarian of the first order.

He knew how to work the system and how to hold the executive to account. He and John Bercow did more to hold the 1997-2001 Blair administration to account than anyone. Together, they proved to be a real thorn in the side of many a Labour minister.

The job Eric loved more than any was his tenure as shadow leader of the House of Commons under IDS. He was a true House of Commons man and he made business questions a "must attend" session for MPs of all parties. He knew the writing was on the wall when Michael Howard became leader and took his departure from the shadow cabinet with good grace.

Eric loved America. He and Carol had a holiday home in Florida, where they spent an increasing amount of time.

He was hardly what one would call a classic "Cameroon", yet I know he and David got on rather well. It is to Eric's credit that over the five months of David Cameron's leadership he largely kept his reservations to himself. David made a point of talking to Eric and explaining what he was doing, and Eric respected that. His views on such things as the "A-list" were more or less unprintable, and it is deeply ironic that it is from the A-list that his successor will be chosen. Part of me thinks he would be chuckling at that - as well as throwing his garish ties out of the pram.

I have not spoken to David Davis yet, but I know he will be utterly devastated: Eric was his most loyal friend in politics. That quality of friendship is rare. Eric was one of the few MPs who would tell DD to his face exactly what he thought. He was very critical of DD's decision to stand aside in 2003 and allow a Michael Howard coronation, and to this day believed it was the wrong thing to do.

Eric decided that he should not play much of a role in the 2005 contest because he felt his divisive reputation would damage David. So he took a back seat. DD and his allies have lost a great friend today.

My lasting memory of Eric will be from a dinner David Davis held in January to thank all those at the centre of his leadership campaign. Such a dinner would not have been a proper celebration without Eric.

During his speech DD issued a rallying call to everyone to ensure that David Cameron received their full support, and this received a genuine cheer. He ended up proposing a toast. Everyone raised their glasses. "To the end of Blairism," said DD. "To the end of Blairism," bellowed everyone else. "Especially in the Conservative party!" trilled Eric Forth. A moment I will treasure.