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News > Deaths & Obituaries > TAPSELL, Sir Peter Hannay Bailey

TAPSELL, Sir Peter Hannay Bailey

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TAPSELL, Sir Peter Hannay Bailey

Died on 18 August 2018, aged 88. The following obituary was published in the Telegraph:

Sir Peter Tapsell, who has died aged 88, was one of the last and possibly the wealthiest of the Tory grandees in the Commons, where he served with one short interruption for 54 years, eventually as Father of the House.

Never a minister, though briefly an Opposition spokesman, Tapsell – a generally liberal Tory – owed his lack of advancement to his independence of mind and success in the City. For more than 30 years he was a partner in the stockbrokers James Capel, eventually taken over by HSBC. His assiduous networking in the world of finance ensured that his views commanded global respect, if not always that of the House.

The immaculately tailored Tapsell reckoned his opposition to the Maastricht treaty the high point of his Westminster career. He took pride also in having been the first Tory MP in half a century to vote against a Tory budget when he opposed Sir Geoffrey Howe’s deflationary package of 1981.

But his most effective action was to second his Oxford friend Michael Heseltine’s leadership challenge, which ousted Margaret Thatcher – with whom he profoundly disagreed – in 1990. Had Heseltine won, Tapsell was down for a senior job, but he got nothing from the winner, John Major.

He could be deadly in debate. When David Owen as Foreign Secretary declared that “history will judge” the wisdom of one of his policies, Tapsell crushingly asked: “Has the Right Honourable Gentleman not considered that history may have something better to do?”

In 1993 the Spectator named him Backbencher of the Year, stating: “He is exactly the sort of backbencher the whips cannot tolerate. He is a completely independent man and demonstrates this by frequently asking the questions the prime minister least wants to hear.” Eleven years later, he was named Parliamentarian of the Year.

He seldom refrained from giving advice. He encouraged the Chancellor Anthony Barber to float the pound weeks before he did so. He urged Edward Heath not to call the disastrous February 1974 election. He warned Gordon Brown not to sell off the Bank of England’s gold at what turned out to be the bottom of the market.

He claimed to have been the first MP to suggest Saddam Hussein might not have weapons of mass destruction. And he told friends that if ministers had followed his advice on the poll tax, the Exchange Rate Mechanism, Maastricht and the Gulf War, New Labour would never have come to power.

As investment adviser to central banks, finance houses and trading companies around the world, Tapsell developed an awesome network of clients; his guests atop Toronto’s CN Tower in 1982 included three serving prime ministers and several central bank governors. He cultivated leaders from the president of Nauru to the emirs of Kuwait and Abu Dhabi.

His trenchant opposition to racism made friends of many rulers in post-independence Africa and the Caribbean. He demanded the release from jail of Dr Hastings Banda in his maiden speech, greeted Kenneth Kaunda at the prison gate and was close to Jonas Savimbi, leader of the Unita guerrillas in Angola. When Nelson Mandela visited London after his release from prison, it was Tapsell he sat next to.

Crucially, in 1960, Tapsell got to know the Sultan of Brunei. He became an honorary member of the Brunei Government Investment Board – overseeing $14 billion in reserves – and married his second wife in one of the Sultan’s palaces. He was also for almost two decades a member of the highly influential Trilateral Commission.

A clue to the finances at Tapsell’s beck and call was given by the donations he could summon up: £1 million for the Oxford Union from the Mitsubishi Trust and Banking Corporation and £1.5 million to Merton College, where he was an honorary Fellow, from a Japanese golf course developer.

His other contribution to Oxford was as an honorary postmaster (scholar) of Merton, with Duncan Sandys, Minister of Housing, to stop a bypass being driven through Merton Meadows.

Tapsell, in the words of the Sunday Telegraph’s Patrick Hutber, combined “a suave manner and awkward integrity”. He insisted when seeking a council grant to convert stables at his country house into a cottage for his parents that “talk of my being rich is absolute nonsense”. All of this was a world away from his boyhood ambition to become world heavyweight boxing champion.

He opposed the outlawing of foxhunting and smoking in public, and resisted liberalisation of the law on homosexuality. But nowhere was he more resolutely old-school than in his dealings with constituents.

Campaigners to save Skegness hospital petitioned the Queen to remove his knighthood because of his alleged rudeness. And when it was suggested that he install a webcam in his office, Tapsell declared: “I have a surgery once a fortnight and have done for 47 years. People want to meet face to face, not over the web.”

Peter Hannay Bailey Tapsell was born at Hove on February 1 1930, the son of Eustace Tapsell, late of the 39th Central India Horse, a rubber planter in Malaya who went on to farm sisal in Kenya; his mother, the former Jessie Hannay, told him he was conceived in the Raffles Hotel, Singapore.

But his father was unemployed in the 1930s and, interviewed by Peter Oborne in the Telegraph in 2014, Tapsell recalled his mother “crying in the kitchen” because the family did not have money for rent.

Brought up by his grandfather, Peter was sent to Tonbridge School. After National Service in the Middle East as a subaltern with the Royal Sussex Regiment and working on the groundnuts scheme in Tanganyika, he took a First in Modern History at Merton.

Rejected by the Foreign Office, he joined the Conservative Research Department, and in the 1955 election was personal assistant to the prime minister, Sir Anthony Eden.

In 1957 he fought a by-election at Wednesbury occasioned by the resignation of the pro-Suez Labour MP Stanley Evans. John Stonehouse easily took the seat, Tapsell polling a frustrating 9,999; in the mid-1970s, after Stonehouse’s faked death and reappearance, Tapsell would defend his right to speak in the Commons.

He started work that year as a stockbroker, and in three years was a partner in James Capel. When David Rockefeller, president of Chase Manhattan, came to London, Tapsell chaired the dinner in his honour.

Tapsell was 29 when he defeated Labour’s Sir Tom O’Brien by 164 votes in 1959 to become MP for Nottingham West. He was among 15 Tories to support Anthony Wedgwood Benn’s plea to be heard at the bar of the House, having been excluded because he had succeeded to his father’s peerage, and criticised Harold Macmillan’s sacking of Selwyn Lloyd as Chancellor.

In 1964 he lost his seat to Labour by 2,292 votes. He was beaten to South Worcestershire by Sir Gerald Nabarro, but was then selected for Horncastle, the Lincolnshire constituency he would represent in varying forms for nearly five decades, holding it in 1966 by 5,735 votes. That December he voted with Labour for sanctions against Rhodesia, saying the terms offered to Ian Smith by Harold Wilson went as far as any British government could honourably go.

When the Conservatives returned to power under Heath, Tapsell advocated a prices and incomes freeze, and Heath eventually imposed one. Following Heath’s defeat in February 1974, Tapsell called for a coalition government; Heath followed suit.

When Jeffrey Archer gave up his seat at Louth, Tapsell urged that Enoch Powell – with whom he disagreed on almost everything – should take over. And in 1975 he voted to reintroduce the Prices and Incomes Board, saying: “The Right will have to stop regarding state intervention, state finance and state shareholdings as an automatic sin against the Holy Ghost.” He was also one of the first Tories to advocate a referendum on devolution. Yet in 1976 Mrs Thatcher made him junior foreign affairs spokesman.

Tapsell’s connections and expertise proved valuable when the next year he switched to Sir Geoffrey’s economic team. He landed some telling blows as Denis Healey tried to recover from the IMF crisis, but quit at the end of 1978, telling colleagues that the monetarist policies being followed would put three million people out of work.

Reckoning Tapsell an unreconstructed Keynesian, Mrs Thatcher did not offer him a job in government. He warned – to Labour cheers – that a “purely monetarist approach” could be ruinous for the economy, and claimed the day before the 1981 Budget that Sir Geoffrey had lost the confidence of the City.

He would later blame Mrs Thatcher’s approach for destroying British industry: “The whole of the West Midlands was wiped out and has never recovered.”

His regular rebellions angered Downing Street, and his attacks on Sir Geoffrey led one Thatcherite client to threaten to withdraw his business from James Capel. But his real influence was behind closed doors, over lunch with tycoons, bankers – and the odd Cabinet minister.

Tapsell also nursed his constituency. When boundary changes prior to the 1983 election merged most of it with part of the Louth division as East Lindsey, he had no difficulty securing the nomination over Michael Brotherton, the member for Louth. (In 1997 his constituency was again redrawn as Louth and Horncastle.)

He seemed to have put himself beyond the pale when in 1984 he told Mrs Thatcher that “wet” economic policies in the United States had worked better than hers, yet the next year he was knighted. Returning from a constituency function he found his 18-year-old only son, James, dead in his car; an inquest concluded that he had killed himself over a failed romance and the pressure of exams.

With Nigel Lawson at the Treasury, Tapsell’s critique mellowed. Yet he supported Heseltine’s challenge to Mrs Thatcher with alacrity, appearing 35 times on television as campaign spokesman. Thatcherites in his constituency reacted by making their one serious effort to get rid of him.

Tapsell took an increasingly Eurosceptic line because of his concerns about the impact of monetary union; in July 1993 he helped bring about the defeat over Maastricht that forced Major to seek a vote of confidence.

He also warned that British military involvement in Bosnia could become another Vietnam, and accused John Redwood, whose leadership challenge Major defeated, of “going after foreign gods” in borrowing ideas from America’s neo-conservatives.

As the longest-serving Conservative MP after Heath’s retirement, Tapsell was heard with respect even by those who disagreed with him. He became increasingly concerned over the consequences of British military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, describing it as “madness”.

As Father of the House after the 2010 election, Tapsell chaired the session that re-elected John Bercow as Speaker, disgruntled Tories not forcing their objections to a vote. Under the Coalition, he was one of 91 Tories who rebelled in 2012 to kill Nick Clegg’s plans for Lords reform.

He was in favour of leaving the EU, saying in 2014: “If we had a referendum and the country votes to stay in then we’re finished as a country because we will just be gobbled up into the German empire.” He retired from the House in 2015.

Tapsell, one of whose several homes was in Barbados, had been chairman of the British-Caribbean Association, and a Vice-President of the Tennyson Society. He was an honorary life member of 6 Squadron RAF, and served on the United Nations Business Council and the council of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. He was sworn of the Privy Council in 2011.

Peter Tapsell married first, in 1963 (dissolved 1971), Cecilia Hawke, daughter of the 9th Lord Hawke. He married again, in 1974, Gabrielle Mahieu.

(MH 43-47)

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