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There was an empty space on the packed Conservative benches where Sir David Amess used to sit. Which was as it should have been, because he was there in spirit if not in person. Parliamentary sessions where MPs remember colleagues who have died can sometimes feel somewhat formulaic – dutiful, even, with the sense that MPs are rather going through the motions, with their speeches saying as much about themselves as the departed. The farewell to Amess was very different. It was as close to a wake as the House of Commons is likely to see, with every MP doing their best to rise to the occasion. To find the right words that summed up a life and career well lived. And much loved.
Amess was one of those politicians who these days often slip beneath the media radar. Someone who throughout his 38 years in Westminster never once looked on becoming an MP as a stepping stone to higher office. If he dreamed of a ministerial career, he kept it extremely well hidden, preferring instead to become the model backbench MP, devoted both to the interests of his constituents and cross-party causes in which he believed. And it was these often undervalued qualities to which his friends and colleagues tried to give voice.
The opening speeches from Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer were heartfelt and well judged; tributes on behalf of their parties to a man they and most others did not know well, but whose public service and close family ties they instinctively recognised.
Johnson highlighted causes Amess had backed – animal welfare, fuel poverty and women with endometriosis – before announcing that Southend was to be made a city in his honour. In nearly eight years of sketching, I can’t remember a single contribution from David in which he had failed to shoehorn in an appeal for his constituency to be awarded city status. The tragedy is that he had to pay such a high price for his dream to reach fruition.
The Labour leader said it was an attack on our country and our way of life; that the tragedy inevitably brought back memories of Jo Cox, who had been killed five years earlier, and highlighted the need for a renewed focus on MPs’ safety. “We lean across and reach out to the opposite benches,” he said. What the parties had in common mattered far more than what divided them.
But it was when Amess’s close friends began to speak that proceedings began to feel more real, more intimate. Old muckers remembering him with gags and anecdotes. Anything to keep his memory alive. This was possibly Mark Francois’s finest hour. The Tory MP hasn’t always endeared himself to either Labour or many in his own party with his outspoken, combative brand of politics, but now we got to see a different side to him, both funny and touching.
Francois began by talking about how Amess had sponsored him to be an MP – clearly David had seen qualities in him that many others were to miss – back in the days when Basildon council was so rowdy that it was the councillors who heckled the public gallery. He ended by talking about Amess’s timekeeping. “He was notorious for always being late for everything,” he said. His voice then broke as he tried to hold back the tears. “Now he is the late Sir David Amess.” Nadhim Zahawi and Suella Braverman also dabbed their eyes.
The jokes and stories came thick and fast from other friends, such as James Duddridge, Jackie Doyle-Price and Iain Duncan Smith. How Amess, a devout Catholic, had once accidentally got a boiled sweet blessed by the Pope. How David had never gone out of his way to disabuse voters who were under the impression he was a Labour MP. How he had once led a conga round Basildon town hall.
How he had ridden across Southend on a horse after being knighted. How he would cheerfully go along to every “opening of an envelope” – probably because he had written the invitation that had been inside it. How Amess had introduced IDS as the man who had slid down the greasy pole at a function shortly after he had been sacked as leader of the Tory party. Being leader of the opposition isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, he confided to Starmer. Keir had the grace to smile.
But all the laughs could not hold back the sadness. The sheer pointlessness of a good and decent man being allegedly killed by a man with a knife in what police suspect could have been a terror attack, while doing his job at a constituency surgery. That was brought home by the contributions of both Stephen Timms, who had been wounded in an attack in 2010, and Kim Leadbeater, Jo Cox’s sister, who now represents her old seat.
From time to time, some MPs would try to make some kind of sense of Amess’s death. They would not live in fear. Democracy wouldn’t be defeated. Politics must be conducted in a kinder way. Love must prevail. All of which were true. But the lasting feeling was still one of senselessness. Of a family robbed of a loving, gentle husband and father. Of a Commons numb at having lost one of its own in such horrific circumstances. Of an MP who had been in parliament for nearly 40 years and was still – to those who knew him – very much in his prime.