A Kensington kind of person

With famous family rows behind him and a criminal case to come, Sir Nicholas Scott, MP, has won selection for one of the most desirable constituencies in England.
Click to follow
Smiling across the mahogany in his Westminster office, The Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Scott, KBE, MP, exudes the very essence of Establishment. A bright battery of presentation silver arranged on a side table reflects a long and comfortable career. On the walls, framed photographs of ministerial line-ups - row upon row of smiling public men frozen in bloodless handshakes - hang alongside Jak's political cartoons and an illuminated script of Kipling's If. Paintings of aeroplanes attest to the young Sir Nicholas's stint at RAF Fighter Command. Ornamental cricket balls and a portrait of WG Grace recall his term as a Committee Member of the MCC. In the midst of his knick-knacks - enough to stack a small theme pub - the honourable member himself looks in danger of metamorphosing into a Toby Jug.

Scott is a thoroughly traditional, old-style consensus Tory, and this day, spruced up for the Queen's Speech in crisply tailored pinstripe and Garrick Club tie, with his collar length silver curls and shiny slip-ons, he strikes an agreeably rakish note. He is the sitting Conservative member for Chelsea, with a majority of 12,789. He is also, more enviably still, parliamentary candidate at the next election for the newly-drawn constituency which combines his Chelsea seat with the best part, and only the best part, of Kensington. His is a lot that many conservative politicians would, indeed did, dream of.

When the constituency was first announced, Sir Nicholas, 21 years the Chelsea man, and Dudley Fishburn, his opposite number in Kensington, both threw their hats into the ring. Then, in a shock announcement, Fishburn stood down to accept a full-time directorship of Barings Bank, declaring superbly that present- day politics was no job for a grown man. Even six months ago, Sir Nicholas would have seemed the heir presumptive, and yet when he finally did accede to it on 10 November, it was after fierce opposition, much public surprise and not a little outrage.

Sir Nicholas is as personable and comfortable a politician as ever kissed a baby. But on 1 June, when driving away from a constituency party, he had been in a less than cordial entanglement with a young constituent. The MP allegedly shunted his Volvo into a parked car in Sydney Street. As a result, a toddler in a pushchair was briefly trapped between two cars. The boy, Thibault Perreard, the son of a foreign businessman living in the neighbourhood, was treated in hospital for shock, but was otherwise unhurt.

It was reported that Sir Nicholas failed to stop to apologise to the boy's parents and walked away from the scene of the accident, urged on by his female companion, later identified as his secretary Patricia Sill-Johnston, who allegedly verbally abused the frightened Swiss family, with cries of "French scum". Sir Nicholas, formerly distinguished by his extreme affability, was characterised in the press as a crazed Bluebeard, mowing down small children in his path, and was called upon to consider his position.

On 28 September, he was formally charged with three counts of drink driving, careless driving and failure to stop after an accident. He intends to contest the latter two charges "very robustly" and, at the selection meeting for the parliamentary candidacy, he explained briefly that the excess alcohol in question amounted to one glass of wine. His case is tabled to come before Horseferry Road Magistrates Court on 11 December.

It was while he was on bail, awaiting trial, that the selection process began.

Without the pushchair affair, and with Fishburn gone, Sir Nicholas might have assumed the candidacy uncontested. As it was, on 6 September, the constituency voted against endorsing Sir Nicholas unopposed and opened up the selection to all comers.

The news that this plum seat was up for grabs provoked a Klondike rush of carpet-bagging candidates. From ex-ministers and knights of the realm to beardless boys clutching letters of introduction from their local Young Conservative Club, City whiz kids and women candidates frustrated by the sexism of the Shires, more than 300 applicants pressed their suit on Kensington and Chelsea. Political high rollers, including Sir John Wheeler and Alan Clark, were knocked out in the early rounds. (Asked if he had any skeletons in his cupboard, Clark confessed to "graveyards full of 'em".) By 10 November, the shortlist was down to Michael Fallon, a former Education minister; John Maples, former Deputy Conservative Party Chairman; Joan Hanham, the well-liked Leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council; and, of course, Sir Nicholas Scott. Sir Nicholas, according to one observer, "managed to look both boyish and elder-statesman-like all at once" and gave the speech of his life, emphasising the need for loyalty and party unity and carrying the vote on the third ballot.

Sir Nicholas's victory came as a shock to many outside the constituency and not a few insiders. On a political level, runner-up Michael Fallon, a member of the far-right No Turning Back group, was thought to be more in tune with the mood of the constituency. Sir Nicholas is not best known for the energy of his opinions. "There is a degree to which the Conservative Party and its grass roots does not become obsessed with the minutiae of political argument," he says, with the gently reproving air of a man who has seen the harm opinions can do. "They're there because, broadly speaking, they believe the country is in safe hands under a Conservative administration, they believe in the traditions of the country as a whole and feel that we ought to be standing more for continuity and stability rather than upheaval."

Curiously, this "bland leading the bland" attitude to government, which closely echoes Kingsley Amis's endorsement of the Conservative Party as "the party of non-politics, of resistance to politics", is being hailed in some quarters as a radical move. Julian Critchley, MP for Aldershot, sees the Kensington and Chelsea Association's decision as "a welcome change against the trend of moving rightwards. Kensington and Chelsea is a sophisticated electorate. The activists would be of a much higher level, educationally and socially, than the general run of Conservative associations. There must be a high proportion of people in Nick Scott's constituency who might not have agreed with his brand of Toryism, but were well served by him over the years and found him to be eminently likeable, which is not unimportant in politics. And it's not just a matter of charm. It's application. One cannot begin to add up the functions he must have attended over the years. If you turn up at functions on time and are polite, you'll make friends. Fallon, a run- of-the-mill right-winger, whose prejudices might well have been those of the majority of the people voting, might have won the candidacy. But it's hard to beat a bloke who's popular and assiduous, who has had a fine ministerial career and, just recently, some bad luck."

Sir Nicholas is practised in rolling with the punches of political life. Last year, as minister for disabled people, he scuttled a private member's bill, the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. To his embarrassment, the outcry against the killing of this widely supported Bill was led by his daughter, Victoria, press spokesperson for Radar, a campaigning society for disabled rights. Sir Nicholas accepted his relegation to the back benches and his consolatory knighthood with equal grace. "If you can't take a joke," he reasons, "you shouldn't be in politics."

Nevertheless, the sheer boldness of standing for selection while on criminal charges suggests either extraordinary sang-froid or staggering arrogance. "I certainly don't think it is arrogant," he argues. "I was very conscious of the problems it had given a number of people and the embarrassment that it had caused my supporters in Chelsea. But people came to me and said 'Stand again. Don't let this incident, which was blown up, distorted and twisted by the public prints, put you off.'"

In the end, Sir Nicholas's success at the final ballot seems to come down more than anything to his talent for parties and an extraordinary facility with finger food. "All our final candidates would have fitted the social profile of the constituency," insists Barbara Lord, agent and secretary of the Kensington and Chelsea Conservative Association, "but yes, Sir Nicholas is particularly good at that side of things."

Certainly, Kensington and Chelsea is a relentlessly social association with a packed calendar of buffet suppers, ploughman's lunches, partnership bridge evenings and "Hot Supper Quizzes" (with half bottle of wine). "The constituents here have, perhaps, a high opinion of themselves," says Mrs Lord, smoothing a crisp strand of peach-coloured hair from her brow. "They are politically sophisticated and so they want a candidate with some experience of Parliament. Sir Nicholas has been in the House for so long that we can nearly always get a Cabinet minister to come to our special events."

"Look, it's like this," says another, less beglamoured observer, one of the constituency ward chairmen, "if we had been offered the third son of the Duke of Buccleuch, there would have been no contest. As it was, Nick Scott was the nearest thing we had to a toff."

Actually Sir Nicholas, though plausibly plummy, makes no attempt to play the patrician. The son of a policeman, he was educated at Clapham College, City of London College and the City Literary Institute - a far cry from the standard Charterhouse-Cambridge trajectory of his peers. Conservatism did not run in his blood. "With the slight danger of being flippant," he says, twinkling to beat the band, "I'll admit that I joined the party because I was told that the prettiest girls were in the Young Conservatives."

Sir Nicholas's eye for the ladies has not always served him well. "Can a man who breaks his marriage vow be trusted as a politician?" thundered an outraged Chelsea councillor on the occasion of Sir Nicholas's divorce from his first wife. There followed a well-publicised dalliance with the glamorous model Mynah Bird before his marriage to Cecilia Tapsell, in 1979. However, Sir Nick and the pretty girls have grown old together and the sizeable contingent of Association ladies d'une certaine age are reportedly a large part of his power base. The Conservative Women's Constituency Committee luncheon followed by a talk on "The Forests of India by Elephant" may be standard ladies' fare, but there can be few political associations in the country offering demonstrations on "How to look ten years younger by having a non-surgical face-lift".

Perhaps Scott is, indeed, the perfect man. The Boundary Commission has shorn Kensington of its northern end - the less affluent streets of Notting Hill Gate and its left-leaning environs. Mrs Barbara Lord thinks they got it absolutely right. "The top half of Kensington", she says, "bears no relation to the bottom half; they are simply worlds apart. Whereas the bottom half of Kensington mixes well with Chelsea. The people mix well, the style of the architecture, the housing, they are as one. And the north of Kensington, you see, marries in with somewhere like Paddington. I think it's a natural division."

This newly-sanitised Kensington and Chelsea is not brimming with the kind of social issues that make headlines. Recent controversies include the Red Route issue, which divided the community between those who wished to make a speedy weekend getaway to the country and those who were reduced to buying their Sunday lunch pheasant from Lidgate the Butchers and needed to park in Holland Park Avenue. Back in 1992, the Blitz spirit flared briefly when Kensington residents were faced with the prospect of a memorial to the late gay icon (and local householder) Freddie Mercury on public land. Kensington and Chelsea Council, while open to the idea "in principle", did not look forward to flurries of flamboyant fans soiling the stucco- work. "We are worried," said Joan Hanham, leader of the council. "We don't want it turning into Jim Morrison's grave in Paris which is covered in graffiti. And it can't be like the Elvis Presley shrine in America." "Memphis", Hanham, memorably reminded us, "is rather different to Kensington High Street." Other worthies were less circumspect. "Mr Mercury may have lived in the Borough," sniffed a near neighbour of the deceased, "but one could hardly call him a Kensington person." Clearly that could not be said of Sir Nicholas.

There are plenty of conspiracy theories to explain the reselection. The whole selection circus, and the apparently magnanimous decision to throw the seat open, was, say cynics, an elaborate set-up to divide anti-Scott feeling three ways and divert attention from the coming trial. Others claim that he is merely keeping the seat warm for Chris Patten when he returns from Hong Kong. (In fact, the very unwieldiness of the Tory selection procedure militates against this.) As for the man himself, he is saying nothing. In a fulsome kind of way.

"In this game, something is always lurking round the corner. It could be success and it could be disaster. If you can treat those two imposters just the same," he goes on, swivelling a graceful nod to the illuminated Kipling, "you'll get on and survive. If you can't you shouldn't be in the game.

"Politics", cautions Sir Nicholas, surveying immaculate fingernails, "is a dirty old business."