Today I should be attending the funeral of Ernie Horth in Norwich. And I feel incredibly guilty that I won't be there to pay tribute to someone who to everyone involved in Norwich Conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s was an absolute legend.
Pic: From left to right - Joan & Ernie Horth (constituency chairman), Patrick Thompson & Kathleen Thompson, Iain Dale, Audrey Barker, Margaret Clarke (front)
Ernie was born 97 years ago, in 1922. He served his country in the Second World War and spent his working life as a butcher in Norwich. Ernie certainly loved his meat, and had a real appetite!
I first met him in 1983, when he headed up the City part of Norwich North Conservatives. He was deputy chairman of the Norwich with Broadland Conservative Association and later became the chairman.
He was real Norfolk, and even though he over 60 when we first met, he always appeared rather older than he actually was. He wasn't exactly a thin man and on our regular canvassing outings we'd hear him splutter, "Cor Blast, I'm out of breath".
Left to right: Simon Moore, me, Deborah Slattery (party agent), Ernie Horth.
Ernie was such a kind man and would help anyone. But he was a man of certain views. If he took against someone, they would never be able to persuade him that they weren't a wrong 'un. He never plotted, he hated internal Conservative power struggles and was utterly devoted to four things: his wife Joan, returning a Conservative MP in Norwich North, and Margaret Thatcher, and to his charity work. Well into the 2000s, every year I'd get a Christmas card from him with the message: "What would Maggie think about things now?"
Ernie was usually cheerful but could also feel the burdens of gloom and doom in local and national politics. His cachphrase was "It's terrible", or as Ernie would pronounce it, "tarrible".
He stood as a candidate for Norwich City Council in the Coslany ward every year, always knowing he didn't stand a chance in hell of being elected. Part of me seems to remember he did get elected once, but I may be imagining that!
Ernie and me in Blackpool, around 1989
In 1983 Norwich North elected a Conservative MP, Patrick Thompson, who held the seat until 1997. Ernie was his most loyal servant, and I know Patrick appreciated that. Audrey Barker, who was Patrick's agent for the 1987 election, and Deborah Slattery who succeeded her for the 1992 election both appreciated his solid support for their endeavours in an Association which could be 'challenging' to manage on occasion.
Deborah to this day can get hysterical with laughter with anecdotes about Ernie and in particular his visits to party confereces. On one occasion in Blackpool someone had booked us all into a guesthouse which turned out to be run by a couple of very camp gay men. Ernie genuinely believed he was about to be raped and regaled us with tales of how he had wedged a wardrobe against his bedroom door in order to prevent said rape from taking place. "I came across them types in the war," he spluttered. We all thought it was hilarious. So, in truth, did he.
On another occasion, we had all eaten in the hotel. Ernie said he'd have an early night while we all went out to some political meeting or other. An hour later we were walking past a restaurant and what did he we see? Ernie, tucking into a second evening meal. Boy could that man eat.
If there was any justice in this world, Ernie would have got an OBE for services to politics or the Conservative Party. Like so many others he was an unsung hero. He never expected thanks or reward, but he deserved both.
Everyone who knew Ernie will remember him with great affection. I hope he gets a good send-off at the Christchurch Centre, just a few hundreds yards away from the home he shared with his devoted wife Joan on St Clements Hill in Norwich. I'm just sorry that I can't be there, and I know Deborah and Mike Slattery who now live in Spain, will be thinking of Ernie today, just as I am.
I'm grateful to Patrick and Kathleen Thompson and Eve Collishaw, another Norwich Conservative stalwart, who will represent me.