Nicholson runs the party gauntlet

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Indy Politics

"With a string in his nose like a pig going to market" was Emma Nicholson's most graphic description yesterday of the pull of the Tory right on the Prime Minister.

That damning put-down - delivered on ITN's lunchtime news during a packed day of media appearances - ranked, if anything, higher on the Richter scale of Tory disapproval than anything she said about her more obvious enemy, Michael Portillo. The Defence Secretary was, to paraphrase, a cowardly gangster, or cowardly creep, depending on the broadcast.

The Devon West & Torridge MP had risen at 6am with a steely determination. Within the hour she was at the BBC Radio 4 Today studio, pouring scorn on Mr Portillo and lashing out at the "Portillo gang" which was dragging the Tory party behind it.

Like Admiral of the Fleet Lord Hill-Norton, she thought him "something like" a creep, only a cowardly one as well because he didn't like the flak.

Several interviews later, it was back to her Pimlico flat for a hairdo, before meetings with her secretary, Barbara Stevens, and Archie Kirkwood, the Liberal Democrat chief whip.

On the way to an 11.30am photocall at the St Stephen's entrance to the Palace of Westminster came a chance encounter with Alan Howarth, the defector to Labour. "Prepare to run a very unpleasant gauntlet," he warned.

Miss Nicholson urged erstwhile Tory colleagues: "Come on in, the water's lovely. Once you have swum through the filth spewed out by Central Office, you find you're in clean water and you can swim freely and say what you think."

Eschewing what the Liberal Democrats decided would be a "tacky" grand entrance to the Commons chamber, the MP was quietly escorted in at prayers by Mr Kirkwood and Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs and defence spokesman.

She remained in her seat through defence and Prime Minister's questions until after the Home Office minister Ann Widdecombe had completed her statement on the shackling of pregnant Holloway prisoners.

Only Nicholas Soames, the defence minister, felt moved to make a joke at the expense of a beleaguered government. "May I wish you a happy new year, Madam Speaker," he told Betty Boothroyd "as indeed do all wings of the Tory party".

Ms Widdecombe's performance served to reinforce Miss Nicholson's belief that all the bile and opprobrium from former colleagues had been worth it. "I found [the statement] quite shocking in its divorce from the feelings of most people in a civilised society," she said afterwards. "She just kept repeating like a mantra that the medical profession could recognise when labour was about to begin as if that were somehow a justification. I almost felt I was living in Nigeria.

"On the opposition benches you can see the harshness and the somehow galling laughter of some of the men behind her."