During the 2015 European elections I was the guest for the weekend of Stuart Wheeler at Chilham Castle, his splendid home near Canterbury. The BBC were keen for me to do an interview about UKIP on a Sunday lunch-time show and I agreed to them sending a radio car to the square just outside the castle gates. I have to admit that I was a few glasses to the good by the time the radio car arrived. Lunch with Stuart was rather like that. I sat down in the radio car and gathered my thoughts on the political landscape for the coming election. Here I was, the guest of UKIP’s principal financier and the first question was an open-ended “what do you think of UKIP?” I had to admit that I had never been so well disposed.
Stuart had lots of friendships across political lines because he was hospitable, funny and keenly interested in politics and argument. He, and his lovely wife Tessa, liked Chilham to be full of people at the weekend. I knew him through his daughter Charlotte, who married a good friend of mine, and we were there on a number of occasions.
We first started visiting Chilham just as my two boys were starting to read PG Wodehouse. They were amazed and delighted to discover that they were in the presence of a man who actually knew Wodehouse. For them this was like meeting a visitor from a distant time. In fact, Stuart didn’t just know Wodehouse. As he recounts in his charming memoir Winning Against The Odds, he taught him to water-ski. Absurd, incongruous anecdotes like that teemed out of Stuart and they were all true. He really did play backgammon with Lord Lucan at the Clermont Club two days before the latter disappeared. He really did lose a fortune to Jimmy Goldsmith on the toss of a coin in Aspinall’s on his first date with the woman who would become his wife.
My elder son was interested in card tricks and was enchanted to discover that Stuart had been asked to leave the Vegas blackjack tables because he was too good. I can still see them, a 12-year-old and an 81-year-old chatting away about the odds like old friends. My favourite people always retain a sense of child-like pleasure and Stuart always had that capacity for wonder.
He also had political passion. A little-known commitment, to which he donated a great deal of money, was the campaign against torture. But the passion for which he was best known was antipathy to the European Union. Stuart became Britain’s largest donor when he gave £5 million to the Tories but when they proved insufficiently sceptical, transferred his money and his affection to UKIP. He was jubilant when Britain voted to leave the EU and, though I don’t share the conviction, I admired his commitment. The last time I saw Stuart was the launch of his memoir. He was being interviewed on stage by Dominic Cummings and he was in fine form — funny and self-deprecating as ever.
It is how I shall remember him — kind, amusing, eccentric, hospitable, interesting and generous. I do not know what the odds are on there being another world, somewhere else, but Stuart will. He will have the odds all worked out.