Sir David Amess: Father of five, veteran MP and animal rights campaigner

Attack is chilling reminder of assaults on Jo Cox and other MPs at constituency surgeries

Sean O'Grady
Friday 15 October 2021 23:11
MP David Amess ‘stabbed multiple times’ at constituency surgery

Sir David Amess was one of Westminster’s longest-serving MPs and known as a passionate champion of his Southend West constituency and a colourful and amiable presence in the House of Commons.

For almost forty years he represented “Essex Man”, not just as the member for two seats in the county – Basildon from 1983 followed by a move to Southend in 1997 – but also as a living embodiment of the kind upwardly mobile, skilled working-class patriotic voter in the south that drifted away from Labour in the 1980s and embraced the kind of aspirational politics advocated by Margaret Thatcher and his fellow Essex MP Norman Tebbit.

A sincere and long-standing Thatcherite and Eurosceptic, as well as something of a shameless showman in his constituency campaigning, Sir David was almost a prototype for the avowedly populist Conservative party of today.

Those with long memories for political trivia will remember the campaigning song he once wrote, “Vote, Vote, Vote for David Amess!” to the tune of “Ally’s Army”, a half-forgotten Scottish football supporters chant.

One of his charms was that he so often displayed a sense of self-deprecating irony, as in his indefatigable efforts to secure full city status on Southend-on-Sea.

To understand Sir David’s special place in the affections of the Conservative Party it’s necessary to go back to the night of 9 April 1992.

It was when Amess’s seat of Basildon declared for the Tories that John Major and his party knew for certain that they’d won the general election against the odds and against the run of the opinion polls and the exit polls, which had projected a hung parliament with Labour the largest party and Neil Kinnock in Downing Street.

Basildon was not lost, after all, partly due to Amess’s flair as a constituency personality.

It was a night of bitter disappointment for Labour, but blessed relief for the Tories, and Amess was their grinning good-luck mascot. It was a psephological accident that Basildon was the first key southern marginal to declare the result, but the Tories had won their fourth election in a row, and Labour appeared finished for good: a momentous moment.

Perhaps high ministerial office was not for him, but he was “one of us” during the long Thatcher ascendancy, and was recruited as an aide to Michael Portillo, himself regarded as the heir apparent to the Thatcherite crown (though that was not to be either).

True to form, Sir David was a family man, and devotedly so. He and wife Julia had one son and four daughters, including actress Katie Amess, and his career was notably free of personal scandal, though he, like many others, was caught up in the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2010-11.

By then any hopes of office were long gone, but he carried on with parliamentary committee work and constituency hobby horses. He used the freedom of the backbenches to pursue personal concerns such as animal welfare, banning fox hunting, helping support those with endometriosis, and fighting fuel poverty.

He ushered a bill banning cruel tethering of horses and ponies onto the statute book, and he was a regular fixture at Westminster’s annual dog of the year contest. He took his causes seriously, but not always himself too much.

Throughout his career he cheerfully championed the interests of “white van man”, the aspirational working classes – and made a point of being open and available to all his voters.

Indeed, his stabbing was a chilling reminder of the vulnerability of MPs who meet members of the public to discuss their concerns at constituency surgeries, usually on Fridays when they are free of parliamentary duties.

It came after the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox as she left a surgery in her West Yorkshire constituency in 2016, the stabbing of East Ham MP Stephen Timms as he spoke to constituents in 2010 and a samurai sword attack on Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones, which killed an aide in Cheltenham in 2000.

Many MPs have only recently restarted face-to-face meetings after 18 months in which coronavirus restrictions have limited them to phone and video discussions.

Amid growing concern about their vulnerability to attack by terrorists, political opponents or angry members of the public, some have chosen to hold surgeries only in their own offices, where staff are present and panic buttons may be available.

But Sir David advertised his surgery in a Leigh-on-Sea church on social media, inviting all-comers to book a meeting with him.

He was liked. Fellow MPs described him as an affable and effervescent figure, who was respected by colleagues from all sides of the house for his parliamentary expertise and his dogged determination to shoe-horn references to Basildon and latterly Southend into debates and questions.

As one of the most experienced MPs in the Commons, he served as a member of the Panel of Chairs, chairing committee sessions and Westminster Hall debates.

An economic liberal, Sir David was, unfashionably by the time David Cameron became leader, a social conservative: a devout Roman Catholic, he voted against liberalisation of laws on abortion and assisted suicide and consistently opposed same-sex marriage.

He was a long-standing Eurosceptic and campaigned for Brexit in the 2016 EU referendum. As recently as last month, he spoke out about anti-social behaviour and violent crime, joining other MPs to warn of the dangers around one-punch assaults, which he said could have “a devastating and often life-threatening impact”.

His opposition to the evil wrought by drugs led him to be embarrassingly spoofed in a 1997 episode of the satirical TV show Brass Eye, when presenter Chris Morris hoodwinked him into filming a warning against the fictional drug “cake”, and even asking a question about the supposed menace in the Commons.

Most of his campaigning was rather more worthwhile, and he deserves to be remembered appropriately: he was knighted in 2015 for services to politics and public service, and in due course, as is traditional, a coat of arms will be placed in the chamber of the Commons commemorating his life and work.