Interview: Deborah Ross talks to JULIAN CRITCHLEY
Sir Julian Critchley lives with Prue Bellak and has done since 1992. In fact, in a few days it is the fifth anniversary of their moving in together. To celebrate, Prue is going to do calves' liver and onions for lunch.

"My mother was a terrible cook," says Julian. "She always made liver taste like old boot. But Prue cooks it beautifully. Before Prue, I had no idea liver could taste so exquisite."

However, although an obvious whiz with offal, he has no plans to marry her. Apart from anything else, he is still married to his second wife, Heather, while Prue is still married to John Bellak, former chairman of the Severn Trent water company. Divorce would be messy all round; plus "Prue would lose her handsome pension, and we can't have that."

So, yes, they are living together "in sin", but that's OK because, as he puts it: "There isn't any stigma attached to this sort of thing now, is there?

"Times have changed a good deal since I was a young man. One of my daughters is a single parent, but it doesn't occur to me to think of my grandson as illegitimate.

"Prue and I haven't encountered any hostility whatsoever. She gets on very well with people. I am moderately distinguished. We've made more friends in the last five years than I've made in the last 25 years."

What, though, of their spouses and children? What do they make of it all? "Ah, hmm, better not say anything there. Might give offence all round."

Certainly, their happiness has been a long time coming. Prue and Julian met in 1951, when they were students at the Sorbonne in Paris. They fell in love, courted for a year, and petted a lot.

"We never made love properly, because in the first instance we had nowhere to go, and, in the second, contraception was both risky and risible. So we made do with necking, much French kissing and many happy back-seat fumblings."

They split soon after Julian went up to Oxford. She jilted him. "She said we were too young to be so involved. I was absolutely heartbroken, the unhappiest I have been. But I always loved her, and always carried a torch for her. I kept two photographs of her, which subsequently my wives always found and tried to tear up."

They did not meet again until 1988, when he happened upon Prue and her husband in the lobby at the House of Commons. They arranged lunch. Then they arranged another lunch. All at the expense of The Daily Telegraph, as he was their food critic at the time. "Wonderful job, and one usually reserved for the editor's mistress, or so I believe."

Eventually, they both left their long-established marriages to be with each other. A fairy-tale ending? Perhaps. Or at least would be, if only Julian were in better shape.

On the health front, he isn't faring very well. He suffers from a very painful paralysis of the leg, the result of a polio infection when he was 19. He can walk only with crutches. In 1993, he was diagnosed as having prostate cancer. He couldn't have an operation because he wasn't deemed fit enough. Radiotherapy, while gruesome, was ineffective. He is 12 months into a 15-month course of hormone injections intended to "keep the beast at bay".

What, I ask, happens at the end of the 15 months if the beast is still on the rampage? "I don't know," he replies after a pause. "I am much too frightened to ask."

He is sitting at the kitchen table, making a salad dressing to go with lunch. A teaspoonful of Coleman's mustard goes "plop-splash" into a bowl. The plop-splash sounds very loud because we have all fallen silent in that very English kind of way. Eventually, Julian breaks the silence himself, by quipping: "The worst thing is that the hormones have the same effect as chemical castration. I must be the only Tory MP not to have felt any sexual urges in recent years." We all laugh. No, it wasn't that funny. It was a relief, though.

We should all be well used to Julian and his quips. If he is moderately distinguished, as he claims, it is only the quips that have distinguished him. It was Julian who described Margaret Thatcher as "the great she-elephant" and Kenneth Baker as "a man who struts even when sitting down". But that's the sum of his achievements. In all his 30 years as an MP he has never been promoted, has never held office, has never been invited into 10 Downing Street, not even for drinks. He would say this was because he was too independent, too much of a maverick. Others would say it's because he's all quip and no substance. Is he, though?

Certainly he is vain. But as he says, name him a politician who isn't. "Politicians as a whole are not strangers to vanity. In my own case, I write well (he dabbles in journalism and has written three books) and I've survived."

Certainly he's a wonderful snob, maybe among the last of the wonderful snobs, Yes, Michael Heseltine, with whom he was at school, has done well for himself. "He's worth pounds 70m and has a lovely wife and lovely daughters," he accepts. But, that said, "I'm told he has his initials carved into the iron gates leading to his house. I find that most vulgar, don't you?" No, I suspect there may not be hidden depths to Sir Julian Critchley.

He lives in Ludlow, Shropshire, in a Georgian house bang in the middle of the high street and stuffed with antiques. Is it rented? "No. Prue bought it outright," he replies gaily.

Julian's first wife, Paula Baron, was the daughter of the people who owned Craven A cigarettes and made a fortune selling out to Rothmans. His second wife, Heather, was the niece of Sir John Moores, the pools multi-millionaire. Paula and Heather and Prue all went to Cheltenham Ladies' College. I think it would be fair to assume that Julian has never been tempted into running off with a waitress from a Happy Eater. Obviously, he is attracted only to women of means. But, that said, he would like to make it clear that he has never gained financially from his marriages. "Heather's cousin, Lady Grantchester, is richer than the Queen, but we never got anything out of her."

He is 67, and, although once quite handsome in a dapper, Fifties Tory kind of way, lack of exercise has made him portly, while lack of being able to go anywhere has understandably made him lax on the dress front. Once voted the best-dressed MP by the MPs' secretaries - "I was given a trouser press as the prize" - he is today wearing a pair of baggy old cords, a shirt with stains up the sleeve and a sleeveless navy sweater with holes and long runs in it.

Mostly, he spends his time lying on a day-bed in the front room. Here, he writes in the morning and naps in the afternoon before watching telly. He says he likes "Ofrah Winfrey".

In the past six years, there have been only three days when he hasn't needed painkillers. By early evening "I am sucking opiates like sweets."

To his credit, he is never self-pitying, but he does say that if it weren't for Prue, "I'd have given up a couple of years ago."

Prue makes us lunch. No liver, unfortunately, but there are salad nicoise, strawberries and a bottle of chardonnay which, yes, does very nicely, thank you.

Prue, who must be the same age as Julian or thereabouts, is still very beautiful. Tall, with black hair and big, violet-blue eyes, she carries herself in a graceful, Audrey Hepburn kind of way. However, she is more right wing than Julian, which makes for quite a few interesting spats over the strawberries. She is anti-Europe; he isn't. She will be voting for Christopher Gill, Julian's replacement in Aldershot; he'll be sitting on his hands. "He's a manufacturer of pork pies. No, of course I don't hold that against him. He's just too anti-Europe for me."

I wonder if Julian would have succumbed if he'd ever been offered cash for questions. "I wouldn't have. I was never important enough." But what if he had been? "Well, every man has his price." At this, Prue howls. "Darling, how could you?" Julian goes all sheepish. He'd better buck up if he's going to get that liver.

He was born in north London, to Edna, a Shropshire working-class girl who became a nurse and married Macdonald Critchley, "the brightest doctor on the ward". Edna was always aware of her upwardly-mobile status and was possibly a bigger snob than her son turned out to be. Although the family lived in NW6, West Hampstead, Edna always put NW8 at the end of their address. NW8 was St John's Wood - much posher. Yes, their mail was always a couple of days late. But Edna considered that a small price to pay.

Macdonald Critchley was a brilliant man. At 15, he was accepted to Bristol University, where he graduated with a double first in medicine. He became a leading neurologist. But he was remote and distant, a god-like figure who never had much to do with his son. He took Julian by train to his first day at Shrewsbury school. They didn't exchange a word during the journey. Julian doesn't remember ever being kissed by his father. Or hugged. Or even praised. "Although, when I was elected an MP, he did buy me a leather briefcase. God, I haven't thought of that for years."

His mother's favourite phrase was "your father is such a clever man", the implication being that Julian wasn't. He always felt grossly inferior to his father. Still does.

His father is still alive at 97. But although he lives in Somerset, Julian hasn't seen him for four, maybe five years. He says it is his father who discourages their meeting up. He hates being so old, and hates people seeing him so old. I wonder, though, if this is the whole picture. I wonder if Julian finds it easier not to see him. Moderately distinguished as he is, he knows he disappointed his father. Although, that said, he got a knighthood, whereas his father got only a CBE.

"No, I don't know what he thinks about that. A K is better than a CBE, of course, but I'm not sure a political K is better than a medical CBE." You can be sure Julian has spent a great deal of time weighing the distinctions up.

Anyway, his parents' marriage was not happy. His mother, he says, was a bright spark with a roving eye, and was always off gallivanting with boyfriends. In response, his father retreated into his work. From an early age, Julian must have learnt that it's every man for himself. And attention's as good as achievement. They may even be the same thing.

He became a Conservative because, he says, "when I left Shrewsbury I had a year to wait before National Service and my mother got fed up with me going to Swiss Cottage Odeon twice a day and hanging round the house eating my head off. So she marched around the Hampstead Young Libs, Young Socialist and Young Tories, and announced: 'The girls at the Tories are much the nicest. You shall join them.' So I did, and spent my time at the back of the hall holding hands with various women. I don't think I intellectualised my choice at all; I fell into it because of class, social and family reasons."

With regard to his private life, it's always read like a cross between a Carry On film and An Affair to Remember. After being jilted by Prue, he married Paula "on the rebound". He left Paula when he discovered she was knocking off the man next door, but returned to her after six months because he was lonely. Then, in 1962, Heather, a friend of Paula's from Cheltenham, turned up at the door. Julian fell for Heather and left Paula. He had two children by Paula and two by Heather. He left Heather for Prue, who has four children by John Bellak and a way with liver.

No, the irony of waiting 40 years for a woman whom he couldn't make love to in 1951 and can't make love to now - although for very different reasons - is not lost upon him.

"It's a dreadful irony," he wails. But he loves her very much and will, he insists, always love her very much.

"Yes, I was very much in love with my wives when I married them. But time is the great enemy of love, isn't it? With Prue, we've divided it in two." And as regards time, no one can be sure how much of that is left. Or, as he puts it, "John Wayne said he beat the Big C, but I don't think anyone beats the Big C, do they?"