Mrs Thatcher's ultimate fixer, Lord Wakeham, famed for his hangdog expression and fondness for big cigars, has been the first British casualty of the Enron scandal.

He has stepped down from his role as head of the British media watchdog and flown to the United States as part of the investigations into the American energy giant's collapse.

He could be facing ruin, but he has been in many tight spots before. As Chief Whip in the most turbulent Thatcher years, he could be seen padding through the corridors of the Commons with a difficult rebel Tory MP for a quiet word over a whisky in the leather chairs and fug of the smoking room.

"Leave it to me; it will be sorted," was his maxim. Although some Tory MPs did not trust the old fox sitting on the sofa opposite them, it usually was sorted. Lord Wakeham once said: "I am a fixer, and proud of it. That's what I have to do - fix it if I can."

Lady Thatcher made good use of his abilities. Skilled with an iron fist in a velvet glove, he handled all the big problems that beset her Government, from advice on whether Cecil Parkinson should return to office after the scandal of his love child, to the privatisation of the energy industry.

His worst moment came in the dust and debris of the Grand Hotel, Brighton, after IRA bombers attempted to assassinate the Thatcher Cabinet. His wife was killed, and he nearly lost both his legs, which were crushed in the collapsing masonry. He was nursed by his secretary, Alison Ward, and they later married.

A friend recalls: "He was in hospital for six months. When he came back to the Commons, he simply walked to his seat on the front bench and sat down. The whole House broke into applause, even the Labour opposition. That is a mark of how well he was liked."

He still has a slight limp, but his eyes have lost none of their sparkle. The son of a major, and educated at Charterhouse, he always appeared to have more affinity with the clubbable grandees who were classified by Thatcher as the "wets". To outsiders, he seemed a living embodiment of the fictional chief whip Francis Urqhart, as portrayed by Iain Richardson in the TV drama series House of Cards. Lord Wakeham's friends quibble with the comparison, saying he lacks Urqhart's malice.

It was no surprise when Margaret Thatcher asked him to "fix it" for her in 1990 after she failed to defeat Michael Heseltine in the first ballot of the Tory leadership contest. Lord Wakeham was to take over the running of her campaign from George Younger.

He hesitated, and urged her first to ask her Cabinet to back her. It was a terrible gamble, and she lost - he may have known his limitations and shrewdly judged her position to be impossible. Some Thatcherites blame Lord Wakeham for her downfall. "He knew very well the answer she would get from the Cabinet - that she shouldn't carry on," one said, but it was Kenneth Clarke who took the flak for plunging the knife in.

John Major, who had been spotted by Lord Wakeham as a rising star, transferred his trust to him after the leadership battle, later giving Wakeham a life peerage and his most senior role as Leader of the House of Lords.

But the ultimate accolade as a Whitehall operator came when he was appointed by Tony Blair to chair a review of the House of Lords. The Prime Minister chose a less democratic option for the Lords, and has paid the price for refusing to heed Lord Wakeham's advice.

It was in another role, as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission from which he stepped down after the Enron scandal, that Lord Wakeham was able to show his prowess as a fixer, defusing the continuing battles between the tabloids and Buckingham Palace, placing a restraining hand on editors here, holding back politicians there from legislation to impose new privacy laws on the press.

But it was his role as a City wheeler-dealer that exposed him to the glare of publicity, as he boarded the plane for New York at Heathrow. The collapse of Enron, the United States' seventh-largest company, late last year resulted in thousands of employees lose their jobs. As a non-executive director and a member of Enron's auditing committee, paid a reported £80,000 ($272,000) a year, Lord Wakeham was meant to ensure that the company's accountants were happy with the way that it was reporting to Wall St. He is to give evidence to as many of the 14 separate Congress inquiries into the Enron affair as he is required to do.

Some in the City play down the role of non-executive director - one accountant presumed Lord Wakeham "was just a name on the letterhead, turning up every few months for lunch and reading the reports in the taxi". But Kenneth Lay, Enron's then chief executive, welcomed him into the firm in 1994 as an "individual whose accomplishments are highly regarded worldwide ... [His] unique background of business and government strengthens our board's ability to assess global opportunities for Enron."

Five years before he joined Enron, John Wakeham was Margaret Thatcher's Secretary of State for Energy, presiding over the privatisation of the electricity industry. Enron was the first US firm to benefit from his work. Lord Wakeham personally approved the company's plan to build Europe's largest gas-fired power station on Teesside. His reputation as the consummate Whitehall insider also enabled him to collect directorships of 12 firms and charities.

Lord Wakeham's tangled web of directorships included an investment bank that advised Enron on the takeover of Wessex Water. He was a director of NM Rothschild & Sons when it was the official financial adviser to the fallen energy giant in 1998, when the utility was bought. He later joined the board of Wessex Water as a non-executive director.

He's also the president of a recruitment consultant, the Michael Page Group, whose clients include Andersen, the accountancy firm that compiled Enron's books and has been accused of shredding thousands of sensitive documents.

There is no suggestion that Lord Wakeham used his links with either Enron or Rothschild to influence or comment on the purchase of Wessex Water. But British MPs said it was extraordinary that Lord Wakeham had held directorships with both the company bidding for Wessex Water and its adviser, and then Wessex Water itself.

"People will be stunned by the way that a former minister can go so quickly into so many posts representing not just the purchaser but the adviser and later the purchased," said Matthew Taylor, the Liberal Democrats' Treasury spokesman.

"Meanwhile, this ex-minister was still in Parliament with very top contacts."

"Wakeham is a thoroughly decent chap. I imagine he is appalled at what has been going on at Enron and I've no doubt that he was blissfully unaware of it," said an ally. "It was no surprise that he stepped down from the PCC to fight it. It was the advice he gave to other ministers when they were in trouble."

Last year, on the PCC's 10th anniversary, an A-list cast - headed by Prince Charles, Camilla Parker Bowles and Prince William - of PCC complainants were invited to a party at London's Somerset House. The event was a real publicity coup; more importantly, it seemed to vindicate Lord Wakeham's strategy for handling the tricky relationship between a hungry press and a publicity-shy young prince, created by the death of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales.

But cracks began to show. The great fixer, always treading a fine line between Fleet St, St James's Palace and Downing St, had tried to protect the rich and the famous from intrusions into their privacy while allowing newspapers to report on their lives. He did not please all the people all the time.

Charles Moore, editor of the Daily Telegraph, said it was time for a "new era" at the PCC, accusing the body of having a "collusive" relationship with some newspapers. According to The Spectator's media commentator, "the PCC is as frightened of upsetting the Prime Minister as some newspapers are of writing about Lord Wakeham."

Lord Wakeham, 69, lists yachting among his private pleasures. He has a small cruising yacht, and is a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron. He likes to go to Cowes when he can.

Union leaders representing the workers who lost millions in pension funds with the collapse of Enron are threatening to sue him for failing to fulfil his supervisory role.

There are rumours at Westminster that he does not have the protection of liability insurance. These are big seas and, for the first time in his life, Lord Wakeham could find himself washed overboard.

- INDEPENDENT