Election '97: A man used to booking his seat early

Alan Watkins in Horncastle with Sir Peter Tapsell, a Eurosceptic and an admirer of Keynes

Sir Peter Tapsell's face must be one of the best known in modern politics. Tanned, dark, bald but youthful for 67, usually wearing a white shirt and displaying a pocket handkerchief, he sits immediately behind the Prime Minister. He is a fixture at PMQs on television. If he is not there his constituents in Horncastle wonder whether he is ill or what he is up to. So Sir Peter makes a point of being in his usual place every Tuesday and Thursday at 3.15. To accomplish this he has to turn up at the House at nine every morning to put a card in the little holder at the back of the seat.

Modern Conservatives will not respect a set placement. There is only one exception: Sir Edward Heath, in his place on the front bench immediately below the gangway. The Labour Party, by contrast, allows its members to sit in their usual places without the need to reserve them, though we shall have to see whether this more relaxed approach survives under a Blair government.

But if Sir Peter's is one of the best known faces on television, he is not one of the best known politicians. He is a politician's politician. He was one of the most highly regarded in the House that has just been dissolved.

And yet, he might have been a cabinet minister too. After 1975 Margaret Thatcher had a high regard for him. But in 1978 he resigned his Treasury post on the opposition front bench in circumstances that are still slightly mysterious. He says he will tell the full story one day. Probably as an unrepentant Keynesian he simply did not like the monetarist direction which his party's policy was taking.

He is still a follower of J M Keynes, a believer in public expenditure and the welfare state. That is why he objects to being called "right wing", as he usually is these days because he is opposed to our membership of a single currency. This really has nothing to do with whether someone is right or left wing. In his election address he says:

"An independent nation must control its own currency and its armed forces and its national frontiers - all would be lost in a federal Europe. If we abolish the pound, give up control of our interest rates and send our gold reserves to Frankfurt (Maastricht treaty, stage three) we cease to be an independent self-governing country. We would be a province in a United States of Europe but without a democratically elected president... our real leader would be the German Chancellor."

Strong stuff, stronger - certainly less carefully written - than the words Denzil Davies used in his address to the electors of Llanelli. But they seem to be making some impression on the electors of Horncastle.

When I was there, Europe had been an "issue" - had been on television - for a whole week. The vast constituency, home of the poet Tennyson, contains many large farms. There is a good deal of coastline as well. There were several questions about the Common Fisheries Policy. The constituency extends to the suburbs of Grimsby, where Sir Peter held a meeting on Tuesday evening.

There were 12 people there, which he said was better than par for the course. Next time, if there is a next time - "You're not still with us, are you?" a woman said while he was canvassing - he does not intend to hold any indoor meetings at all. "I've been adviser to the Central Bank of Botswana for 25 years, improbable though that may sound," Sir Peter told his audience on this occasion.

For he does not hide his light under any bushel. Why should he? He could probably have been a historian but chose instead to become a stockbroker. He possesses a widely admired collection of fine old English banknotes, in addition to a beautiful early Georgian house near Wood- hall Spa and chambers in the Albany off Piccadilly (to omit the "the" is a vulgarism).

Nor is he backward about proclaiming the regard in which he is evidently held by an even richer man, Sir James Goldsmith. Sir James is not only refraining from putting up a Referendum Party candidate in Horncastle. He has also written to all the members of his party in the constituency asking them to vote for Sir Peter.

When the editor asked me to set out on a few rural rides during the election, I thought I should at least see some people for whom I had both a personal liking and a political admiration. As things turned out, they fell into a pattern.

All three, John Biffen, Denzil Davies and Peter Tapsell, came from backgrounds that were not at all affluent: Mr Biffen's father was a small farmer, Mr Davies's a quarry blacksmith and Sir Peter's a rubber planter, but a poor one. All had distinguished themselves at Oxford or Cambridge. All were ferociously independent. All, as it happened, were hostile to our membership of a full European union. And all had been qualified to become Foreign Secretary or Chancellor of the Exchequer. But for various reasons none had done so.

The members who will shortly enter the House of Commons may accordingly write them off as failures or, at any rate, their careers as disappointments. They would be wrong. If they attain the standards of Mr Biffen, Mr Davies and Sir Peter they will have done well.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific