David Mitchell was an MP for more than 30 years and the minister connected with the railways who was involved in the planning and building of the Channel Tunnel – the largest engineering project ever undertaken in the UK.
At an early stage of the negotiations, Mitchell appeared before a Commons committee chaired by Betty Boothroyd – the future Speaker. A quip was made that by using the Tunnel Madame Chairman would be able to buy her perfume more easily. Mitchell then sent Boothroyd some perfume with the note: “Hope it is not Channel No 5.”
He was deeply involved in the preservation of the historic Settle-Carlisle railway line and, as a businessman, he had inherited from his grandfather the celebrated wine bar off Fleet Street, El Vino, the haunt of many journalists over many years.
He was a councillor in St Pancras before being selected to represent Basingstoke for the Conservatives in 1964. He proved an excellent MP and after 1983 was the member for North West Hampshire until his retirement.
David Bower Mitchell attended Aldenham School in Hertfordshire but left at 15 as a result of financial difficulties in the family. He spent five years on a farm before joining El Vino, where he became managing director with his brother Christopher and became an expert in the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
He married Pamela Haward in 1954, though they later separated and she died in 2005. Together they had two sons and a daughter. Their eldest son Andrew is MP for Sutton Coldfield and was chief whip from 2010 to 2012 before he resigned over the Plebgate affair.
As an MP Mitchell did much to champion small businesses and was appointed by Mrs Thatcher to head her Smaller Business Bureau. When she came to power Mitchell was made minister for small businesses in her first government. Significantly, during the Three Day Week in 1974, Mitchell had pleaded with the Prime Minister, Edward Heath, for emergency help to keep small firms afloat.
He remained loyal to Mrs Thatcher throughout the years of her rigorous monetary policy. In a speech, he once observed: “It is not true to say that monetarism has been tried and found wanting. Monetarism has been tried and found difficult.” In 1986 he became a Minister of State with particular control over the rail portfolio. He had an excellent working relationship with Aberdonian Sir Bob Reid, the enthusiastic and successful chairman of BR. The two had some agonising decisions to make, notably, closing the Swindon plant and the financing and electrification of the Edinburgh-to-London line.
But the major project was the Channel Tunnel. After it had been aborted by the Labour government in 1975 Mitchell had to restart the project and getting the Bill through Parliament required immense tact.
He also had to answer the concerns of the inhabitants of Kent and outer London and did so with much courtesy. Mitchell, knighted in 1988, is survived by two sons and a daughter.