Sir Nicholas jokes on as the laughter dies
Even the sympathy card fails to win the day
Tuesday 03 December 1996
There wasn't a spare seat in the house and I didn't expect a dry eye by the end of the evening either. Despite protestations that "We'd rather not be here", the audience appeared to be loving every minute of it.
But the clapometer didn't give the game away. The one hour and 40 minutes meeting was punctuated by enthusiastic clapping and cheering - mostly in support of Sir Nicholas. It seemed to me that he was going to win hands down.
Standing in his Last Chance Saloon, Sir Nicholas told the faithful "exactly what happened" on that fateful night in Bournemouth - in contrast to the "rumours, contradictions and distortions" in the national press. Apologising "most profusely" for the embarrassment he had caused them, he made a grab for the sympathy vote. He announced he had never before succumbed to pain- killers and was therefore been completely in the dark about the "extremely damaging" side- effects. To an audience raised on stiff upper lips, this seemed to go down well.
After what seemed to me to have been a pretty convincing performance, Sir Nicholas sat down to rapturous applause and awarded himself with a slug of his favourite fizzy tipple. One constituent told the meeting, "Many of the nicest people I've known have enjoyed a drink. You may remember Winston Churchill. Thank God he wasn't dismissed."
But then came the turning point. A certain Adrian Fitzgerald from Church Ward took to his feet. The crowd gasped in anticipation. I didn't know what to expect, but clearly more long-standing members knew something I didn't. He spoke of how Sir Nicholas was a "laughing stock", someone with the support of the KGB and Mr Mellor. "You judge people by their friends, Mr Chairman. I need say no more." Gales of laughter hit the roof as the audience spontaneously burst into applause, this time at Sir Nicholas's expense.
Next, a woman appealed to everyone to leave "superficialities". "He should go to a clinic to get properly dried out with the proper medication and have his medication monitored by the executive," she said. Again the audience collapsed into hysterics. "No, I'm serious," she stammered. "We're here to talk about a drinking problem . . . not a party one."
Whatever the problem, the constituents weren't having it. They heard Sir Nicholas out. He spoke of his "experience" in government but that was not good enough. They wanted answers to their questions and they didn't get them.
The floor took it in turns to ask questions. As a doctor, Elizabeth Armstrong found it "alarming that [he was] prescribed tablets that didn't contain a warning about drowsiness."
Sir Nicholas agreed. "Bearing in mind what happened later," he replied, "I would have appreciated one."
In his summing up speech, Sir Nicholas played his last card - humour. All at once, his serious pledge to be a teetotaller for the rest of his days in office was reinvented as a joke. "It's been said sometimes that I'm a Wet. I'm dry from now on," he said.
But no one else was laughing. The silver haired, silver tongued MP's charm was not working. It sounded more like an alternative comedian at the Comedy Store with an audience dying on him, desperately trying not to be booed off stage.
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