On Friday afternoon the Sunday Telegraph asked me to write a tribute to him for today’s paper. What you will read below is an expanded version of what they printed today. I also decided to donate the fee from this article to one of David’s favourite charities, The Music Man Project, which helps people with learning disabilities enjoy music.
Back in May I interviewed David for an hour for my All Talk podcast. You can download it as a podcast wherever you get your podcasts from, or watch it HERE. It’s David at his most entertaining best.
“I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to turning the tables on you,” he chuckled with that characteristic glint in his eye. Those were the last words Sir David Amess spoke to me at the Conservative Conference earlier this month. He trotted off chuckling to himself. On Friday night I had been due to be the guest speaker at a dinner organised by Southend West Conservatives, where David was going to quiz me about, well, anything he fancied. It wasn’t to be.
At 12.29 yesterday lunchtime I was on my way to Goudhurst in Kent to have lunch with Sian Williams, the broadcaster. I’d been looking forward to it for a while but half-way there I received an email from the organiser of the Southend West Conservatives event. I quickly read the contents exclaimed in horror: ‘Oh My God’. She had explained that David had been stabbed multiple times but she didn’t know his condition. She was adamant that David would want to event to go ahead. I thought she must have missed out the word ‘not’. She was right, though. He would. But as time passed, the fact that he was being tended to by medics on the scene rather than having been taken to hospital made me fear the worst. And so it came to be. It was a speaking engagement I would never fulfil.
In a very sad irony, David was supposed to be interviewing me on my book ‘Why Can’t We All Get Along’, all about the state of public discourse and the state of our politics. In a further twist, the last tweet David ‘liked’ was one of mine early on Friday morning in which I was encouraging my followers to watch Jacqui Smith and I on Good Morning Britain.
David was elected to the House of Commons in the Thatcher landslide of 1983 at the age of 31. Nowadays it would not be unusual for someone from an East End working class background, to be elected as a Conservative MP. In those days, it was more of a rarity. He blazed the trail for others, as in so much that he did in his 38-year-long parliamentary career.
I first met him not long after he was elected, when I was working as a researcher for his Conservative colleague Patrick Thompson. I was only ten years younger than him, and we immediately hit it off, bonded by a mutual love of West Ham United and Margaret Thatcher. He never lost that puppyish, youthful demeanour and the thought that he couldn’t quite believe he was a Member of Parliament and doing his dream job. He died doing the job he loved – helping his constituents. But it wasn’t just them that he inspired. His fellow Essex MP Kemi Badenoch told me yesterday: “He lived to make others happy. That was him. He sent so many people encouragement. Like he lived to make his olleagues happy. If you got a promotion, he wrote congratulations. If you got sacked, he wrote to commiserate and say how fantastic you were. Just a fabulous man. He was like a godfather to us new Essex MPs.”
The former Corbyn-supporting Labour MP Chris Williamson, now expelled from the Labour Party also paid tribute, tweeting: “When I was suspended from Labour he sent me a private message, as he did when I lost my seat.” That was the mark of the man. Compassion for all, even his most vociferous of opponents. A friend of mine emailed me just now saying: “When I was younger I was very anti-Tory. David was one of the first people I realised you could be a lovely, kind person, but not have politics I agreed with.” David would have loved that.
David was a great campaigner on all sorts of issues, but particularly animal welfare and raising awareness of the medical condition endometriosis. If you were a Labour MP wanting to run a campaign, you knew that if you got David onside your campaign was more likely to succeed. His decade long campaign to get a statue erected to commemorate Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary ended in success in 1997 and was a model of how to use the art of persuasion, cajoling, and sometimes shaming, to get your own way.
When booking MPs to come on my radio show, sometimes young producers can get short shrift from politicians. Not David. My producer Corey Froggatt tells me: “Whenever we spoke to Sir David Amess on LBC, he was unfailingly kind and warm to everyone backstage. A properly decent bloke. My thoughts go out to his parliamentary team – my memory of Sir David will always be him laughing with them like they were family.” And that’s what they were. They loved him.
His former researcher Ed Holmes tweeted: “When he heard someone he knew in the constituency was seriously ill, he would call everyone he could think of. I remember listening to him late into the evening on the phone to some of the most senior medics in the land- nagging, cajoling, pleading for them to intervene. Even when they were clearly fed up of him- and even when it was clearly a hopeless case – David never stopped trying. No votes to be had, no cameras in sight. I think that’s when I admired him the most.”
David was not alone in this kind of ‘go that extra mile’ service to his constituents, and perhaps those of us in the media should think a bit more about covering this aspect of politicians’ lives and work, rather than just report the disagreements and rows.
Despite being a PPS to Michael Portillo for ten years, David never made it to ministerial office, something which I never really understood. Neither Margaret Thatcher, nor John Major, recognised his talents. I quizzed him about this in May in an hour-long interview for my All Talk podcast about his book Ayes & Ears. “I wasn’t driven by ambition. Maybe I should have been pushier,” he said.
This wasn’t a normal murder, if such a thing exists. It was an assassination. Just like the brutal killing of Jo Cox five years ago. There is much talk of how MPs can be protected, but the ugly truth is that it is impossible to provide protection in a constituency surgery without ruining that very personal relationship that exists between the MP and their constituent. No MP would want to sit behind bullet proof glass or have a police officer standing six feet away. So there will be lots of talk of inquiries and the calls for ‘something to be done’ will be loud, but in the end there will be no meaningful change without making MPs appear even more remote and out of touch. The truth is that meeting people from all walks of life at constituency surgeries is the very thing that keeps them in touch. Most MPs also visit people in their own homes to learn, give advice, provide solace. And David was brilliant at this unreported aspect of an MP’s work. Even if in the end he was unable to help, people knew he had done his best.
The best tribute to David would be for the government to make his dream come true and make Southend a city. And for the statue of Dame Vera Lynn to be erected on the white cliffs of Dover – something he was leading the campaign for.
What will his legacy be? It was Theodore Roosevelt who said you have to be ‘in the arena’ to make a difference. David said in his interview with me: “My pride and joy is when you can make a real difference for someone’s life.” He did. For thousands of people. That is his real legacy. I was, and am, proud to call him a friend.