©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
Sketch

The House mirror

Sir David Amess showed MPs what they should be

“Pretty much everything about David has been said,” Iain Duncan Smith began as he paid tribute to Sir David Amess. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t repeat it.”

The House of Commons had met in a mood of shock at the murder of a man liked by all. As the chamber filled ahead of Boris Johnson’s tribute, there was the air of the crowd gathering outside a funeral: the quiet nods, the pats on arms or shoulders, the brief, muted exchanges. Andrew Rosindell, like Amess an Essex Tory, walked to his seat without his usual bounce. There were so many shades of black on display, from Rishi Sunak’s ultra-thin — of course — charcoal grey tie to Priti Patel’s pitch-dark suit. 

Behind the Speaker’s chair, Johnson himself waited for his moment, fidgeting with his speech, glancing up at the gallery, a prime minister more comfortable with times of dancing than times of mourning. 

His speech, though, rose to the occasion. As with his tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh six months ago, it was a reminder that, when he can be bothered, Johnson has a fine way with words. 

“The passing of 72 hours has done little to numb the shock and sadness,” he began. The murder was “a contemptible act of violence” which violated “the sanctity both of the church in which he was killed and the constituency surgery that is so essential to our representative democracy”.

Politics was toxic and Amess was kind to everyone he dealt with, but there was very little attempt to link the two thoughts

Gathered after Prince Philip’s death, the chamber had been heavy with a sense of the public duty to mark the passing of a great figure. For Amess, the feeling was one of personal loss. He had been, the prime minister said, “one of the nicest, kindest, and most gentle individuals ever to grace these benches.”

And as at any funeral of a beloved friend, the mood began to shift to one of fond remembrance, as Johnson paid tribute to “a seasoned campaigner of verve and grit, whether he was demanding freedom for the people of Iran or courting votes in the Westminster Dog of the Year contest, whether he was battling for Brexit or fighting his way to the front of the Parliamentary Pancake Race.”

By the time Johnson had got to Amess’s now-famous campaign to get city status for Southend, there was genuine laughter, and when the prime minister said that this had now been granted, MPs cheered and waved order papers as though he’d announced the sinking of the Bismarck.

“This country needs people like Sir David, this House needs people like Sir David, our politics needs people like Sir David,” Johnson said as he finished. “Dedicated, passionate, firm in his beliefs but never anything less than respectful for those who thought differently.” It was a theme to which others would return, as were his next words: “There can be few among us more justified in their faith in the resurrection and the life to come.”

Replying, Keir Starmer recalled how much his party had been hurt by the murder five years ago of Jo Cox. “I want to reach across the aisle and acknowledge just how deeply the pain is felt on the benches opposite. Of course our differences matter, after all, that’s what democracy is about. But today we are reminded that what we have in common matters far more.” On the Tory benches, Sir Graham Brady looked close to tears. Sir Bill Cash seemed pressed down by the weight of grief.

The first backbench tribute came from Mark Francois, who said he had lost his “best and oldest friend in politics”. Amess had encouraged him to make his way up through politics in Basildon, “the only local authority where at council meetings the councillors heckled the public” and a place where a voter had told Francois he wouldn’t vote Conservative, he would vote for David Amess. 

It was Sir Bernard Jenkin, right at the close of the tributes, who finally tackled the point

It was a heartfelt tribute, delivered by a man raw with grief. Nadhim Zahawi wiped away a tear as it went on. Francois said his friend had in recent years become concerned at the level of abuse levelled at politicians. He called for new laws so that “while people in public life must remain open to legitimate criticism, they could no longer be vilified or their families subjected to the most horrendous abuse.”

But as Francois listed the awful things said about MPs and others in public life, and indeed when the SNP’s Ian Blackford said that “somewhere along the way” the political culture had been “badly diverted”, there was a nagging thought. It isn’t just anonymous online trolls that are in the habit of accusing their opponents of treachery, is it? Throughout the tributes, there was much made of the toxic nature of politics in general, and a great deal said about how kind Amess had been to everyone he dealt with, and very little attempt to link the two thoughts.

It was Sir Bernard Jenkin, right at the close of the tributes, who finally tackled the point. “Which of us in this House can honestly say that when we have looked across this chamber, or even at our own parties, that we have never fallen prey to feelings of contempt or lack of respect or unkindness to those who oppose us?” he asked. “Which of us can honestly say we cannot do better?”

In memory of his friend, he said, he would try to be kinder. And let us finish by returning to Amess. “Across this House, there is clearly nothing but affection for his memory,” Sir Roger Gale said. “That must speak volumes.” 

We should all wish to be so spoken of when we are gone.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover