Among the images that flashed across the world after the London terrorist attack, photographs of Britain’s Middle East minister Tobias Ellwood tending a dying policeman have become engraved on countless minds.
His forehead, hands and suit bloodstained, the former army captain is seen kneeling by the side of PC Keith Palmer, who had been stabbed after the assailant, Khalid Masood, breached the perimeter fence of the Palace of Westminster.
Surrounded by emergency teams, the minister placed his hands on the constable’s chest, attempting mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and tried to staunch the flow of blood from his wounds. And in some pictures, his dejection on realising the 48-year-old officer is beyond further help, is plain.
While the familiar landmarks, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, create a striking backdrop to the shocking scenes, there is undeniable drama and poignancy in the sight of one man’s forlorn efforts to save another human being.
In comparison to many terrorist outrages, the attack caused mercifully few fatalities. Three other innocents also died, and many more were injured. But Masood had used a rented Hyundai 4X4 to mow down pedestrians on one of London’s busiest river crossings: Westminster Bridge; it is a wonder the death count was not closer to the 86 killed when a lorry was driven into crowds in Nice last July.
The instinctive response of Ellwood, whose ministerial duties normally find him working on Middle East security issues and diplomacy, drew widespread admiration. Britain’s prime minister Theresa May had him in mind when she said the aftermath of the attack revealed humanity at is best.
Fellow parliamentarians put aside political differences to pay tribute, too. Ellwood was swiftly elevated to membership of the Privy Council, a body of senior politicians, royalty and clerics that advises the United Kingdom’s monarchs, and there are calls for him to receive a knighthood. Many feel an honours system that marks the achievements of footballers and pop stars should also reward the minister.
Ellwood, 50, married with two sons, served with the British army’s Royal Green Jackets in Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Kuwait, Germany, Gibraltar and Bosnia. He has been vice chairman of the UK’s all-party parliamentary group on Afghanistan, is an authority on conflict and has tragic experience of the impact of terrorism.
Elwood’s older brother, Jonathan, director of studies at an international school in Vietnam, was among 202 killed in the bombings in Bali, Indonesia, in 2002. He could identify the charred body only after turning it over and noticing an old operation scar.
Born in New York to British parents working at the United Nations, Tobias Ellwood attended schools in Austria and Germany. He then obtained an MBA from City University, London, and later completed a senior executive course in national and international studies at Harvard. On leaving regular military service – while remaining an active reservist – he worked as a researcher for a leading Conservative politician, Tom King, before obtaining executive posts at the London Stock Exchange and the law firm Allen & Overy.
Since he entered parliament in 2005, representing the safe Conservative constituency of Bournemouth East, a gradually rising career has taken him from junior defence and Europe roles to his appointment in 2014 as parliamentary undersecretary at the foreign ministry with three portfolios: the Middle East, Africa and counterterrorism.
Ellwood campaigned for the losing Remain camp in last year’s referendum on leaving the EU, but takes a pragmatic approach to the outcome. Addressing Arab ambassadors to the UK at a reception during the Conservatives’ annual conference in Birmingham last year, he spoke of Britain’s enduring bond with the region, which he expected to grow following Brexit. “We want to build on the ties we have across the world,” he said. “We want to further our relationships – and no more is that the case than with our Arab friends.
“Of course there are challenges in the Middle East: Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Syria and so forth. But there are also huge prosperity opportunities. Look at the skyline of London. It reflects massive investment from across the Middle East. It shows that these are good friends ... historical friends.”
He does his job well, one Conservative official who has worked closely with him tells The National. “He’s a really good Middle East minister with a great grasp of what is happening in the region, going above and beyond to ensure he is clued-up and sensitive to all issues.”
Dealing with terrorism is a major feature of his work. “With Daesh [ISIL] on its doorstep in Iraq and Syria, one of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s key aims is to defeat [its] murderous ideology,” Ellwood told the Oxford Business Group think tank last year. “And the UK is standing with the GCC at the forefront of international efforts to defeat Daesh.
“We’re doing this through military support to the global coalition, by working to squeeze Daesh’s finances and continuing to clearly and publicly condemn Daesh propaganda and its perversion of Islam.”
Ellwood has also shown himself ready to ruffle feathers. Despite being “a long-standing friend of Israel”, he condemns the threatened demolition of the Palestinian village of Khan Al Ahmar as part of the programme, against international law, to resettle Jews in the West Bank.
The minister has visited the village, met local leaders and warns Israel that pursuing its contentious “land-regularisation” policies threatens the viability of a two-state solution.
For all his attention to regional issues, however, Ellwood – a qualified pilot and enthusiastic saxophone player – will long be remembered for what he did in the heart of London on Wednesday, March 22.
He describes himself as “deeply humbled and overwhelmed” by messages of support. In parliament, he quietly accepted the stream of plaudits from all sides.
But he rejects suggestions of heroism, offering the more modest thought that he merely applied his military training.
Ellwood is keen to make contact with the family of the murdered officer, who was married with a 5-year-old daughter.
In a moving statement on his website, he underlined his sorrow at the absence of a happy ending. “I am heart-broken,” he wrote, “that I could not do more for PC Keith Palmer, who gave his life in holding the line against terrorism and defending democracy.”
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