Daughter’s death fired MP’s legacy
TOBY Jessel was one of the most energetic MPs of the last century, a passionate campaigner who would not allow partisanship to deflect him from what he believed was right. His greatest Parliamentary legacy was born of his greatest personal tragedy. He persuaded Labour transport minister John Gilbert to legislate that wearing seatbelts be made compulsory in 1976 after his only daughter, Sarah, died following a crash on the M4.
His passionate speech, telling MPs Sarah – who was five – might have survived had she been strapped in, even saw off opposition from the formidable Enoch Powell.
The son of Royal Navy Commander Richard Frederick Jessel, DSO, DSC, OBE, who had taken charge of three destroyers during the Second World War, Jessel followed in his father’s footsteps to become a cadet at Dartmouth and remained a sub-lieutenant in the RNVR after National Service.
He went on to read philosophy, politics and economics at Balliol College, Oxford, and was president of the university Conservative Association during the Suez Crisis.
Four decades after graduating, he was a leading opponent of Balliol’s decision to establish a fellowship in European Thought with a donation from Dr Gert-Rudolph Flick, because his wealth was based on the Nazi exploitation of slave labour. After graduation, he set up a City firm advising prospective exporters and became a director of finance companies owned by his elder brother Oliver.
He was elected to Southwark council in 1964 but was defeated in Peckham in that year’s General Election. While serving on the London County Council’s housing committee in the early 1960s he supported government moves to restrict the “uncontrolled tide of immigrants” from the West Indies because of its impact on inner London’s housing stock.
In 1965 he was chosen to contest the marginal Hull North by-election that might have halved Harold Wilson’s Commons majority of four.
He set a cracking pace, apparently meeting 104 voters in an hour at one point but Labour increased its majority to 5,351. Wilson called a General Election as a result and Labour won by a landslide.
Jessel finally reached the Commons in 1970, winning Twickenham, which he would serve for 27 years, and increasing the Conservative majority to 11,621. Within weeks of taking office he was being sued for slander by a gynaecologist over his pointed opposition to the use of a local clinic for abortions.
It was the first of many disputes for a man who became renowned for his battles. In 1973, as Britain joined the EEC and replaced Purchase Tax with VAT, Jessel was one of eight Tories who told Chancellor Anthony Barber they would not support VAT on children’s shoes. Barber extended the exemption to children’s clothes.
Jessel was not immune to criticism. He told the 1978 Heathrow Terminal 4 Inquiry that aircraft noise was affecting the sex lives of his constituents. It emerged he had managed to have the flight path diverted away from his own home. Jessel also attracted unwanted attention in 1983 when 12 police cars pursued him for two miles through red lights. He was trying to reach the Commons for a vote while over the drink-drive limit and was banned from driving for 15 months.
He was an accomplished musician, performing Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann piano concertos, and raised £40,000 for the NSPCC from one concert in 1994.
A member of the parliamentary ski team and a championship croquet player, Jessel married Philippa Jephcott in 1967. They were divorced in 1973. In 1980 he married the operetta singer Eira Heath, who survives him.
ENTHUSIASTIC: Long-standing Conservative MP Toby Jessel