REPRODUCED BY KIND PERMISSION OF THE GUARDIAN
OBITUARY – Sir Gerald Vastleigh-Small CBE (1963-2039)
It is little known that Gerald Vastleigh-Small came from an ordinary background; born on a comfortable Surrey housing estate in 1963, his parents were Reginald Small, a local government officer, and Phyllis, a care assistant. But that proved no impediment, and from St. Anthony’s College secondary school he won a scholarship to read progressive studies at the University of West Walsall. It was only much later that he changed his name to Vastleigh-Small, an act entirely in keeping with his quiet and self-deprecating sense of humour, and unconnected with his knighthood at the comparatively young age of 41, an honour that had been leaked during the trial of four Bulgarian rent boys, who were later acquitted.
His friend Lord (Keith) Smith described Vastleigh-Small in his memoirs. ‘I first met Gerry (as we knew him then!) at a low-key gathering at Tony and Cherie’s house in Islington during the early nineties. He was clearly a star in the making and impressed Peter (Mandelson, who had a twinkle in his eye!) and Sally (later Baroness, Morgan) enormously with a short but witty discourse on the role of management frameworks in implementing the socio-economic agenda. To us old-school politicos he seemed something of a magician, but while I entered parliament the following year (and, indeed went all the way to the House of Lords!) Gerald took a different path, perhaps better suited to his huge charisma.’
By the early nineties, Vastleigh-Small was addicted to the aura of what his lover at the time, the Welsh journalist Evans Davis, called the ‘elite metropolitan circles in which we move, mind’. In a 2025 interview for the BBC’s Exposure programme Vastleigh-Small said, ‘It was the nineties and Islington was a hotbed of radical compassionism. We were all on something – advisory boards, tribunals, arbitration panels, NGOs – you name it. A lot of my friends worked for the BBC, others were political advisers. Any sort of quango. You just had to know the right people. We knew we were different – and we had a mission.’
Having served time as a foot-soldier in the National Forum on Tooth Enamel (experience that proved invaluable in his subsequent role as chair of the Orthodontic Council) Gerald was appointed chief executive of the newly formed Dried Skimmed Milk Standards Board; he quickly re-branded it Skim4Kids, and engaged in aggressive campaigning, fighting hard on issues such as Palestinian land rights and fox-hunting.
Thereafter, with a growing media profile, Vastleigh-Small gathered similar positions at a diverse collection of statutory agencies and charities. In 2001 he was concurrently on the board of the British Pewter Association, the RSPCA advisory panel on the rights of non-indigenous wild animals, was parachuted in as a lay member of the clinical board of the scandal-hit NHS Mid Stoke Prosthetic trust, and chaired the High Pay Unit’s sub-committee on third sector salaries (which controversially recommended a statutory £85,000 minimum salary for executive officers of state-funded organisations).
He was briefly deputy chairman of the Combined Council of County Councils (CoCofCoCo), but, in an all-too-rare instance of the buck stopping near the top, resigned with no stain on his character in the wake of an accounting error involving building work in Devon. News of his honourable departure was gleefully headlined in the Daily Mail as ‘Abdication Of The Quango Queen’, prompting a heated argument on Twitter between Quentin Letts and Dame Suzi Leather, who felt such a sobriquet more properly belonged to her.
Despite his many responsibilities, Vastleigh-Small, by instinct a private man, once confided on his Facebook page that the role which gave him the greatest pleasure was being a director of his home-town football club, Woking FC, which is perhaps the truest reflection of this ‘modest man of the people’, to use his own words.
However, it was the disastrous economic policies of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition of 2010-2015, and Labour’s victory at the general election, that brought Vastleigh-Small his final and most important job. With over 20 million people living in poverty, Ed Miliband had identified the national imperative for government to tackle the cost-of-living crisis by controlling the means of supply. Disregarding the protests of self-serving interests in the City, and those who said he hadn’t mentioned the plan in Labour’s manifesto, on Christmas Eve the prime minister announced the immediate nationalisation of the supermarkets.
Standing next to Miliband in Downing Street was Vastleigh-Small; he was to be the first chair of the new body established to become the nation’s grocer, the Board of Commissariat, which the tabloids memorably dubbed ‘Big Cheese’. Vastleigh-Small would later describe to friends his mild disappointment that the epithet did not refer to him personally!
Perfectly suited to the job, being unburdened with commercial experience, Vastleigh-Small lost no time in persuading Len McCluskey to become chief executive. McCluskey, who sensibly remained head of the Unite super-union, brought great energy to the task of restructuring the vast new organisation. With high-profile support from the chairman, the Board struck a series of ground-breaking agreements with the 250,000 employees, including the so-called 11/4 Rule, which stipulated working hours of 11.00 am to 4.00 pm, for a maximum of eleven days in any four-week period. This measure was widely admired and copied across the EU (particularly in France), and remains a model for industrial relations on the Continent.
Despite the sporadic, if violent civil unrest caused by early teething troubles in the Commissariat, it was a surprise when Michael Gove led the Tories to a nine-seat majority at the second election of 2016. Nevertheless, despite his own misgivings, Vastleigh-Small was persuaded by the new prime minister to remain in post to see Big Cheese back to the private sector, and reluctantly accepted an improved compensation package. As he said at the time, it was ‘vital to pay market rates in order to attract the best talent.’ To prove this point, Len McCluskey returned to his duties at Unite, and Vastleigh-Small recruited Stephen Hester (formerly of RSA and, before that, RBS) to replace the union man. A tentative timetable was set for the sell-off, and as he noted in his diary (later published as Pathways and Pathogens: My Life), ‘I told the PM it would take three years to do it, and I was right – it took fifteen.’
Feeling that it was time to hand the Board of Commissariat to a younger person (preferably a Left-leaning woman, he said), and grief-stricken by the death of his mother, who tripped and fell during a scheduled black-out at the time of the bread shortages in 2017, Vastleigh-Small retired from all public life in 2019. He died suddenly of a suspected heart attack at his cottage in the Devon village of Vastleigh, and is survived by his civil spouse, the Belgian counter-tenor Theo Vastleigh-Small. The couple had no children.