Deborah Ross talks to virginia bottomley
SO, to the House of Commons, to meet Virginia Bottomley, once "The Most Hated Woman in Britain", but now nothing very much in particular, which she claims to adore. "I feel so liberated", she says. Really? To most people she is just another backbench MP which, yes, does provide a certain amount of schadenfreude, I'm ashamed to report.

Anyway, through the police at security, where my steel toe-capped Dr Martens excite the body scanner thing into a terrific frenzy of bleeping. I am thoroughly frisked, which is nice, because at my age with my looks it's about as close as I ever get to having a good time these days. "This place gives great frisk," I even say to Mrs Bottomley, when she meets me the other side. She blinks blankly. "Have you come far today?" she finally asks politely. This is the brilliant thing about Mrs Bottomley. More often than not, she just doesn't get it.

Now, to her office, which isn't a big posh thing, like the ones she had when Secretary of State for Health and then National Heritage. It's down this corridor, then down that one, then down yet more steps, right into the bowels of the building. It's a tiny office, with a single little window. She claims to love it, though. "It was part of my exit strategy," she says. Your what? "A year ago, I decided on an exit strategy, which included having this office, which used to be Paul Channon's, and Peter Shore's place - third bench from the back - and becoming deputy chairman of the British Council, and I got them all." Clever you! "I am rather pleased, yes," she says, looking rather pleased.

So, a year ago, you knew the Tories were on their way out, then? No, she says, she knew she was on the way out. Whatever the outcome of the election, she continues, she'd decided she didn't want to be a minister any more. "I'd done 10 years of it - 10 years of working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I'd done all I could as well as I could. I wanted to redeem the true Virginia Bottomley." Who she? "She's someone who pursues the causes she cares about." And you couldn't do that as a minister? "I went into politics to achieve my goals, but a lot of other people go into it because they are fascinated by the intrigue." What are you saying here, exactly? That, in Government, less time is spent on policy than shafting each other? "There is a lot of superficial manoeuvring, yes." She never expected it and never got used to it, she adds. "I was very innocent when I first went into Parliament. And Peter (Bottomley, the MP and her husband) was no help at all. He's very other-worldly. He hasn't a clue what's going on around him most of the time." He's fairly barking, your husband, isn't he? "He is actually a very innovative and creative man," she responds, loyally.

There doesn't seem to be a great deal of difference between Virginia in-power and Virginia post-power, although she claims otherwise. "I feel so liberated now,' she cries. I first met her about five years ago, when she was Secretary of State for Health, and I described the experience as rather like being on Family Fortunes. Everything she said began with: "Our survey says...." Mrs Bottomley, how does it feel to be the most hated woman in Britain? "Well, our survey says that 80 per cent of people are more satisfied than ever with the NHS...." Mrs Bottomley, how can you justify closing so many of London's great teaching hospitals? "Well, our survey says that most of the medical profession are in favour...." Mrs Bottomley, what did you have for breakfast? "Well, according to a survey of myself by myself, I had toast which, according to the latest figures, is reckoned to be quite a tasty way to start the day." No, not really. But you get the gist.

Now, though? Now she is separated from her beloved surveys, and the civil service briefs she enacted with such murderous efficiency, what does she actually amount to? Is she bright? Does she have depths? Is she a person of substance? Can she even think for herself? Certainly, she takes an age to answer any question for which she isn't prepared. What do you do now you've got so much more free time?, I ask her. Not an especially difficult question, I'm sure you'll agree. But she bites her lovely lip for a good 40 seconds - 40 seconds! - before she replies with: `I've been blitzing our garden, and having lots of bonfires." There may be a lot less to Virginia than meets the eye.

What does meet the eye is quite lovely, that's for sure. She is part Angela Brazil heroine and part Julie Andrews at her most adorably sanctimonious. She has a truly dazzling smile. Her looks have always attracted as much attention as anything else which, she says, has always irritated her enormously. "I am not a glamour girl, and have never been a glamour girl. I always admired Keith Joseph very much. Once, I went up to him in the Commons because I wanted to discuss a serious issue with him. He said: `Virginia, what a lovely dress you are wearing today'."

Anyway, a bell goes, and I must excuse her while she goes to vote on the fox hunting business. No, she doesn't care one way or the other, frankly. "Wild mammals are not what I came into Parliament for," she says irritably. While she's out, I inspect the big, framed photograph of the 1992 cabinet on her wall. I try to decide who I would sleep with if I absolutely had to. This turns out to be quite a frightening exercise because, in 1992, the cabinet not only included Michael Howard and Michael Portillo, but also David Mellor. When Mrs Bottomley returns, I ask her who she considers the most handsome. "Gosh,' she says. Then, after looking at the photo for what seems an age, she finally announces: "Robin Butler. A gorgeous man. Terribly nice, too. Who do you think the most handsome?" Well, I say, caught on the hop rather, because I had already decided I would prefer to have all my limbs amputated and my eyes gouged out rather than have anything to do with any of them, "Ken Clarke's always seemed like a good bloke." "Yes! Ken's smashing. So punchy. No malice in him. Never bears a grudge." Poor Robin, I say. Dumped, just like that. You little heartbreaker, you. She blinks blankly again.

She says she has always been "earnest", which I can well believe. While still at school, she spent her holidays helping out people with "learning difficulties", which can't have provided many laughs, much less any cash to spend on under-age fags and Dubonnet. She is, of course, the product of a dynasty of public service. Her father, John Garnett, ran the Industrial Society. Her mother was a teacher who joined the Jarrow marches. Her aunt, Peggy, was a Labour member of the London County Council and married the Labour Cabinet Minister, Douglas Jay. He once said: "In the case of health and nutrition, just as in the case of education, the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for people than they people know themselves." So, not so much do-gooders as people who, via a sense of their own superiority, felt it was only proper they should impose their will on others. This isn't quite the same thing as displaying humanity, although Mrs Bottomley seems to think it is.

She is constantly referring to her Good Works which, frankly, makes them seem less like Good Works and more like pegs on which to hang an ego, perhaps. There was the Ugandan family she allowed to live in her house for 18 months. ("The Jettas. The boy's a doctor now.") There are the hopeless constituents she always makes time for. ("My secretary gets very irritated, but I won't tell them to get lost.") There was the Maltese family who lived in a single room above a dilapidated shop in Bethnal Green, and whom she tried to save from eviction. "I went into court and got very cross on their behalf." Did you win? "No." So what happened to the family? "They got moved to a council flat, which was actually much nicer," she says.

Virginia was educated at Putney High School, then went to Essex University to study sociology. Although Essex was immensely left-wing back then, it was this experience which, ironically, took her from her Labour roots and turned her into a Tory. "All these students, going about complaining they were oppressed. I said to them: `You're not oppressed. Other people are paying for you to be here'." I'm not sure this is an entirely convincing explanation. Later, she says in relation to something else, that she couldn't stand the power of the unions at that time. This is more like it. A born bossy boots, she could never have allowed herself to be bossed.

At 19, she married Peter Bottomley - son of the diplomat, Sir James Bottomley - and her first and only boyfriend. She met him when she was 12 and he was 16, at a party given by an uncle of hers. She and Peter danced "the eightsome reel", whatever that may be, then partnered each other for a quiz. They won. What sort of quiz was it? "Oh, questions like, name all the four-lettered stations on the Northern Line." I see. "Oval" Pardon? "Oval. A four-letter station on the Northern Line." Oh. Yes. Great party, by the sound of it. No wonder she grew up with such an abundant sense of fun.

They married, of course, when she was six months' pregnant with their first son, Joshua. Deliciously, this fact only emerged when Virginia was Health Secretary, and had just launched a campaign against teenage pregnancies. Did you anticipate being exposed? "It's a private matter, and something that happened 25 years ago," she says.

The strangest thing about this business, it's always seemed to me, is the thought of Virginia getting carried away sufficiently to fall into bed with someone without working out the statistical chances of pregnancy, taking a look at Peter, and deciding against it. She doesn't strike one as especially passionate. Indeed, for someone who has always provoked such fierce emotions, she seems quite emotionless. No, she doesn't regret not spending more time with her three children - Joshua, plus Celia and Adela - over the last 10 years. "I once said to them, do you mind mummy working? And there was this look of terror in their eyes. Oh no, mum's going to stay home." She is "less than useless" at cooking. She is 50 this week, and will be celebrating with a big, family, Sunday lunch. Celia will cook. She's a good cook, then? "She's a doctor. She knows about anatomy." She just doesn't make much sense sometimes.

Before entering Parliament, she put in 10 years of Good Works, first as a psychiatric social worker and magistrate at Lambeth Juvenile court, then as a researcher with the Child Poverty Action Group. She was elected as MP for Surrey South West in 1984, and has been their MP ever since. Her political career outstripped Peter's right from the start. He chopped and changed in junior ministerial posts, until Thatcher finally booted him out in 1990. He was generally regarded as, if not mildly barking, then at least not very steady. He once said of himself. Virginia seems terribly devoted, though. `Peter and I argue about all number of issues, but ultimately we share the same sense of purpose. He didn't mind when I asked that Maltese family for lunch one Christmas.'

Virginia's rise was steady. Parliamentary Private Secretary to Chris Patten. PPS to Geoffrey Howe. A junior post in Environment. A better one in Health. Then Health Secretary when Major became Prime Minister. She is still a great admirer of John. "A man of great decency and integrity with no affectations. Not like Tony Blair, who is all glitz and showbizzy parties."

Her period at Health was fraught with rows, particularly over plans for London, where the teaching hospitals fell victim to her reforms. In truth, she was only carrying out the policies inherited from her predecessor, Ken Clarke, a politician known to be adept at getting moved before the chickens come home to roost. But, still, she became a national hate figure. She was "Mary Poppins on Crack". She was "Nurse Matilda." Her name, it was discovered, could be re-arranged to spell Main Vile Tory Bigot. Hurtful? "I never got a single letter from anyone in the medical profession saying the reforms were a bad idea and..." NO, Virginia, watch my lips. Hurtful? Personally? "It hurt my children". Is she even capable of feeling hurt? Perhaps not. Perhaps, even, that's why she got the savaging she did. Could we make her bleed somehow? We never did.

Anyway, she has to go. She's got some paperwork to do, then it's off to her constituency. I ask if I can pretend to have an another appointment with her first thing Monday, just so I can get another good frisking. "Shall I show you out?" she asks politely.