HOW WE MET : LORD HOLME AND EMMA NICHOLSON

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The Independent Culture
Politician, publisher and businessman Richard Holme, 60, was born in London. He was made a Liberal Democrat life peer in 1990 and is currently the chairman of the party's general election campaign. He lives in London and West Sussex with his wife, and has four grown-up children. Emma Nicholson, 55, was born in Cowley, and became a Conservative MP in 1987. In December 1995 she crossed the floor to join the Liberal Democrats, and is now the party spokesperson on human rights and overseas aid. She lives in London and Devon with her husband, the businessman Michael Caine, and is a foster mother and guardian to Amar, a 15-year-old Iraqi boy

RICHARD HOLME: Even before I met Emma I knew of her and, like most people, very much admired her. I knew about her work with the deaf, as well as with Muslims in Iran. So the main thing I thought was: here is a lady who is into a lot of good causes. And I was slightly intimidated by her deliberate and dignified way of public speaking, which is partly caused by her deafness. I thought of her as a strong person who was definite in her enthusiasms, her likes and dislikes.

Then about autumn 1995 Paddy Ashdown told me he'd heard through Nick Harvey MP that Emma was pretty unhappy with the way things were and he'd like it if we could have a chat. I approached a great mutual friend of the Caines and asked him to arrange a private talk with Emma.

Emma and I met at my office away from Westminster, as we didn't want people gossiping about seeing us together. There's an element of cloak and dagger in talking about someone's potential move from one party to another; like most things in life, you have to trust each other. We decided we could trust one another pretty quickly: Emma's a very warm person and I think we found that we liked each other, quite apart from having this difficult problem to discuss. I remember we talked mostly about Europe - both she and I are pro-Europe and very disappointed with the growing tide of Euro-scepticism. We also discussed sleaze, which very much concerned her, and I realised the depth of her disillusionment with the Conservative Party. We found we were getting on extremely well and had lots of interests in common; then I said to her: "If you think it's worthwhile pursuing this conversation let me know and we'll get together again." After she'd thought it over, we met in the Meridien Hotel for afternoon tea; it was at that point that I said: "You really do need to meet Paddy Ashdown."

By the third meeting the relationship, as well as being one of mutual respect and trust, became fun as well - we began to laugh at the same things. I remember warning her that the Conservatives would be unpleasant and wouldn't take her move graciously. I asked her, "Have you got a thick enough skin?"; she replied, "I don't know; I'm going to have to find out", and laughed about it. I thought: "This is quite a lady."

Our friendship was indissolubly sealed when we actually announced her move - that's when I spent two or three days non-stop with her and her husband Michael, an outstandingly supportive man. For about 72 hours we lived in each other's pockets. My flat is just along from the Caines's house in Westminster and we were batting to and fro writing articles, working out who she should talk to. It was really a very intense time; there was a media barrage and the street outside was full of journalists. We'd send out for lots of meals; Michael was a one-man support system worrying about everyone having a drink. I think at the end of that we were either going to be friends for life or unable to stand each other.

Emma and I both have quite a strong sense of the ridiculous; we both share a sense of irony at some of the more preposterous aspects of politics. We see each other pretty regularly - once every week or two - to talk about life and share notes. I'm always delighted to see her - in our election campaign she's one of my leading ladies.

I don't think either of us feel we have to be careful with each other. We just say what we think. Emma and I are both interested in opera and literature - Michael's a great book man, too. As couples we get on very well: the four of us will see each other at parties and cleave together, then stand there gossiping until we're broken up. We also have a lot of friends in common - in particular the one great friend who introduced us. Every time we see him we tease him and say: "You didn't realise what you were doing when you got us together, did you?"

I think Emma's greatest strength is her sense of conviction, which comes from the heart, not just the head. I also admire her extraordinary directness. She always says what she thinks and has a good rapport with all sorts of people. When you get to our age you don't expect to make new friends in quite the way you did as a 21-year-old. So a new friend is very precious. I think we get on well because we're both politicians who aren't consumed by politics - that's what we recognise in each other. Denis Healey has this phrase which I very much agree with: if you find a politician with no hinterland they're a lesser person for it. We both find we have a really good hinterland outside politics and we enjoy sharing that.

EMMA NICHOLSON: I first met Richard at his office just before Christmas 1995. A very close business colleague of my husband had passed on a message to say Richard had just lunched with him and he'd enjoy a political discussion with me, if I'd like one.

When we met in his office, my first impression was that he had a dreadful cold and I wasn't sure I should be bothering someone who was a touch under the weather. He clearly wasn't well and I was a little concerned about launching into politics when I thought he had a temperature. For the first 15 minutes or so we talked about mutual acquaintances, music and literature - I studied music at the Royal Academy and he's a great reader. But my overwhelming desire was to talk politics. I said to myself: "That's what I'm here to talk about and I must open up the discussion." So I raised the key issue for me, the gravest dislocation between myself and the Conservatives - which was Europe.

This immediately sparked Richard off and he absolutely came to life. We seemed to have a similarity of purpose and I thought Richard had a spark- ling mind; he came across as someone with a very creative, acute political perception. It was like meeting a respected senior colleague who I'd known for a long time, and I wanted to explore his thinking.

We left it that at some point we'd continue the discussion. I thought about it as I travelled back to the office, and then arranged to meet him a couple of days later at the Meridien Hotel in Piccadilly. I remember we couldn't find anywhere to sit. The manager eventually took pity on us and slipped us in between the harpist and the incoming Japanese Christmas shoppers. It was enormously funny - we both sat and laughed. So our second, deeply political discussion was set against a background of tourism and harp-playing. After that I thought he was clearly a most delightful man with a terrific sense of humour. His jokes are very funny and he just has a nice eye for when something is amusing. He's very quick-witted.

Those two conversations were quite determining for me, although we only scratched the surface on a large number of political issues. At the beginning of the parliamentary session I had not set out to change parties, so I had lots of questions on my mind. That first meeting was the opening of a door that led me straight across the floor of the House - without any doubt it was one of my most important introductions. Soon after the second meeting I met Richard's wife Kathleen, who's a darling. She's very elegant and quiet - one of those wives who encourages her husband to get on with it. Then I re-introduced my husband to Richard. They both get on very well and see eye-to-eye; they're keenly interested in literature and both have the same political approach.

My friendship with Richard is a strong one, based on professional respect. What I admire most in him is his political far-sightedness. He's a long- term politician, and that demands a lot of patience, will power, skill and intellect. It's short-term politics that have brought Britain to its knees, whereas Richard is a clear example of someone with the long view of politics.

I'm not self-analytical - life's too short. I judge myself by what I achieve and what I don't achieve; that's my benchmark. That's why I like working for Richard very much indeed: because he achieves a very great deal for other people and that's the mark of greatness. It's very easy to be self-centred in the modern British world. Thatcher's children have taught us that greed can flourish all too easily; like a weed in a garden it can smother everything else. And Richard's views aren't like that.

I see Richard most weeks, one way or another. I always look forward to meeting him. He's highly intelligent, enormous fun and he's a politician. Those three attributes are vital to me. I like seeing a good politician in action; even more so when they're on my side. I think we'll always be working with each other one way or another, until we both drop dead.

If I didn't see him for a long time I'd certainly miss his constant stream of ideas; his creativity is a gift. Working with him I find his ideas bounce off mine and mine off his. In Richard I found someone whose intellect and approach, personal character and ethics gave me the chance to move forward, and for that I'm eternally grateful. !

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