I was very sad to learn of the death of Sir Peter Tapsell. I had known him for over fifty years, ever since I corresponded with him when I was a young schoolboy and he was selected as parliamentary candidate for the then seat of Horncastle. He served from 1966 until his retirement in 2015, the seat variously changing shape and name (East Lindsey, Louth and Horncastle), his continuous service making him in 2010 Father of the House. He was first elected in 1959 for Nottingham West, losing the seat in 1964. Had he served continuously from 1959 he would have become Father of the House much sooner.
He was one of those Members who made his mark as much behind the scenes as in the chamber. He was a regular at meetings of the 1922 Committee. His stance on various issues did not always endear him to the party leadership. When Edward Heath was PM, Tapsell predicted what would happen as a result of his U-turn on the economy. The fact he was proved correct did him no favours. Although he had been a neighbour of Heath in the Albany, Heath thereafter never spoke to him.
In his later years in the House, he was very much a grand figure, basically raising a cheer when he rose. However, he was no Sir Tufton Bufton. His questions were often barbed and prescient. He was a self-made man and a remarkable character. In 2011, he gave one of the Speaker’s Lectures covering eminent parliamentarians in the century since 1911, selecting as his subject his hero F. E. Smith. The talk was remarkable: well informed, but also extremely witty – and very long. The lectures normally started at 7.00 or shortly thereafter, finishing by 8.00 and followed by questions. By 8.40, Sir Peter had not even reached F. E. Smith’s ministerial career! For reasons of time, people started drifting away, but some of us saw it through to the end. It was certainly an occasion. I subsequently edited the lectures given that year (Eminent Parliamentarians, published by Biteback): his lecture still reads well, and there are points where it is difficult not to laugh out loud at his asides.
He never quite achieved the advancement he perhaps deserved, serving under leaders with whom he was not always in agreement. Although knighted and later made a Privy Councillor, a rare (but not unknown) honour for a backbencher who had never served in ministerial office, and becoming Father of the House, he did not make the transition from one House to the other. He would have been a natural in the Lords, but it was not to be. I last saw him, some time after he retired, at a church service at St James’ Parish Church in Louth. Although using a walking stick, he looked his usual robust self. He will be sadly missed.