Daugh­ter’s death fired MP’s legacy

Daily Express - - Lives Remembered -

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.

Pic­tures: REX/SHUTTERSTOCK; PA

EN­THU­SI­AS­TIC: Long-stand­ing Con­ser­va­tive MP Toby Jes­sel

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