Tory in vintage muddle over car club

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The Independent Online
KENNETH CLARKE'S announcement in last week's Budget that he was abolishing road tax for vehicles more than 25 years old was warmly welcomed by owners of classic cars across Britain. Nowhere was the welcome warmer than in the House of Commons Classic Car Club.

On Thursday the club's honorary secretary, Miss C Seymour, faxed a press release to Popular Classics, a monthly magazine for classic automobile fans, praising the Chancellor.

On House of Commons Classic Car Club notepaper, displaying the Commons crowned portcullis logo, she also singled out the efforts of the Government's Deputy Chief Whip, Greg Knight, the MP for Derby North, for "his untiring efforts to bring this concession about".

She wrote: "I believe Mr Knight made forceful representations to the Government on behalf of all classic car owners and we are delighted that these have been successful. For the first time we have a Chancellor who appreciates the needs of the vintage and classic car movement and I have no doubt that this is largely due to the work of Mr Knight and his undoubted influence as Government Deputy Chief Whip."

The press release, accompanied by a photograph, continued: "Pictured is the Rt Hon Greg Knight, MP, attending a meeting of the House of Commons Classic Car Club with two of his classic cars, a 1968 Rover P5B Coupe and a 1949 Buick Roadmaster."

Mr Knight, a flamboyant former rock drummer and recording studio owner, is a serious classic car enthusiast. Aged 46, he has one for every decade of his life. He has been in trouble with the Serjeant at Arms for parking his collection in the Palace of Westminster car park.

But what is this? Another press release was faxed from the club on the same subject last week to another car publication, Classic Car Weekly. Identical notepaper. Identical message. Different messenger.

The club's honorary secretary, according to this release, is not Miss C Seymour. It is Mrs T Sothcott. Mrs Sothcott, however, has very similar views to Miss Seymour about the new tax concession, especially the part played in securing it by Greg Knight.

She writes: "I believe Mr Knight made forceful representations to the Government on behalf of all classic car owners and we are delighted that these have been successful. For the first time we have a Chancellor who appreciates the needs of the vintage and classic car movement and I have no doubt that this is largely due to the work of Mr Knight and his undoubted influence as Government Deputy Chief Whip."

Who, then, is the honorary secretary of the House of Commons Classic Car Club? Miss Seymour or Mrs Sothcott? There was no telephone number for the club on either fax.

The Independent on Sunday asked the House of Commons pass office - who know everyone entering the Commons - to trace both women. Of Mrs Sothcott, there was no trace. There is a Mrs - not Miss - Camilla Seymour, who works for the Foreign Office and occasionally uses the Commons. When contacted she laughed and said: "I have never heard of the House of Commons Classic Car Club."

We asked Sir David Steel, the Liberal Democrat elder statesman and a classic cars fan, if he had heard of the club. He said: "There isn't one." Sir David's secretary said an attempt had been made to set one up a year ago, but nothing had happened.

Britain's foremost expert on classic cars is Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. Asked about the House of Commons Classic Car Club, he said: "It does not exist." He added: "We have been working on the abolition of excise duty for a year through the Federation of British Historic Car Clubs - and we have not heard of it. It must be a hoax."

The House of Commons switchboard had no knowledge of the club.

We decided to ask Mr Knight himself. He is not a typical Tory MP. He has a background in the livelier side of life, especially music. He wrote a song for the 1983 election campaign called "Maggie Will Always Be Around". He once placed a lonely hearts ad in Private Eye which read: "Slim leggy lady seeks active mate with prehensile tail." It was for his pet squirrel monkey.

His classic car collection is his pride and joy. Earlier this year he angered fellow MPs by bagging spaces in the Commons underground car park for his fleet. While MPs are allowed just one space each, Mr Knight had a Jensen, a Studebaker, a Chevrolet and a vintage Rover on display. He was ordered by the Serjeant at Arms to move them.

It is a passion he has pursued as he has risen: as Deputy Chief Whip he is now one of the most powerful figures in the committee corridors, responsible for his own MPs' seemly behaviour, and carrying a ceremonial title of substantial dignity - Treasurer of Her Majesty's Household.

Was he also a member of the House of Commons Classic Car Club? Mr Knight replied: "Um. Well. Sort of."

What did that mean? He said: "It means that I'm so busy that I go to events when I can."

How long had the club been in existence? "Oh, about five years, I think." How many members did it have? "I think it's about 20 or 30."

Was there an annual subscription fee? "Well, this is a matter for the secretary. Give me your extension and I'll try and get someone to ring you. I'm not involved in the day-to-day working of it."

The secretary was a "Mrs Stannard", he said. So why had separate press releases referred to two other secretaries: a Miss C Seymour and a Mrs T Sothcott?

Mr Knight said: "I don't know why they have faxed you twice. Of course it's a time of AGMs, so whether they are changing secretaries..."

Told that the only Ms C Seymour at the House denied all knowledge of the club, and that Mrs T Sothcott was untraceable, Mr Knight said: "They both exist, because I have met them."

When asked if he had their phone numbers, he said: "I'll have to get someone to ring you. I don't like the tone of this phone call. I don't know what you are trying to say."

It was pointed out that the faxes sent out by the club praised his forceful representations to the Government on behalf of all classic car owners - and came with his picture - yet the sender or senders were untraceable.

He said: "The picture was taken in Derby at a classic car event I was opening. I have quite a few pictures taken at quite a few events."

Mr Knight was asked: "Did you send the faxes yourself?"

"I did not," he replied.

"So who did send the faxes?"

"Well, I have no idea."

Mr Knight declined to discuss the matter further - in fact, he put the phone down rather sharply.

If anyone else knows a way of getting in touch with what sounds like one of the most enthusiastic, enterprising and generous-in-its-praise House of Commons societies, please let us know.

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