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UK Politics

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.