The Scott Controversy: The Minister: Tory 'wet' with real social conscience

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The Independent Online
IT IS an irony that if his old friend Chris Patten was a less fastidious politician, Nicholas Scott would not this week have been in the Commons at all, let alone admitting that he had misled the House.

Shortly after the 1992 general election, during which Mr Patten lost his seat in Bath, Mr Scott made a generous offer. He would stand down in his safe seat of Chelsea to allow the party chairman to fight a by- election and return to the Cabinet. Having been rejected by the electors of Bath, Mr Patten, now Governor of Hong Kong, decided - among other things - that this would look too like carpetbagging. Mr Scott stayed where he was.

The point about this story is that it helps to locate Mr Scott, 61, within the Tory party. It is unlikely that he would have given up his seat for, say, Michael Portillo.

He has always been on the left of the party, an unreconstructed one-nation Tory. He founded Nick's Diner, an extant left-wing group within the party, which Kenneth Clarke described - at the group's 20th anniversary dinner - as formed to 'prevent Ted Heath becoming too right wing'.

Once a protege of Iain Macleod, he was the first Tory MP to come out and attack Enoch Powell's notorious 1968 speech on immigration.

Although in many ways a classic Tory wet, he was also, especially in the 1970s, an imaginative generator of ideas - advocating, for example, in 1976 the then unfashionable notion of discounted sales of council houses.

In the late Seventies, Mr Scott had every reason to expect that he would rise to the top in politics. But Margaret Thatcher, while she did not sack him once she had appointed him as a minister, did not promote him to the Cabinet either.

There had been an omen in 1979 when she punished his adherence to Ted Heath by leaving him out of the Government, before James Prior took him to Northern Ireland as one of his junior ministers in September 1981 - part of the deal he negotiated with Mrs Thatcher for agreeing to his exile, as he saw it, to Northern Ireland.

Mr Scott stayed in post for six years, becoming the longest serving minister since direct rule (until another anti- Thatcherite, Richard Needham, overtook him). But like Mr Needham he is one of a small group of Northern Ireland ministers who threw himself into the job. He was one of the backroom architects of the Anglo-Irish agreement, making enemies of many Unionists in the process.

An irony, some might even say a tragic irony, of last Friday's shabby episode, is that Mr Scott's social conscience, and his genuine concern for the disabled is not in doubt. When the 1988 social security Bill was passing through the House, several of the Labour MPs on the committee were impressed at his ability to listen, and on occasions, adapt to their arguments.

As recently as yesterday morning, one of the Labour MPs pressing most actively for his resignation mused in private that the 'problem is that it couldn't be happening to a nicer guy'.

He is a popular man across the political divide; a bon viveur with a lot of charm, a sense of humour, a nice line in gossip, and a fondness for parties. He was married twice, the second time to the former wife of the Tory MP Peter Tapsell. He has one son, one daughter and three step-children.

The question of his long tenure at social security is this: how did he put up with a succession of changes and squeezes to the benefit system, some with all of which, loyal as he was, he probably did not agree?

His defenders would argue that his presence in the department tempered some of the excesses of his bosses - not least the hapless ultra-Thatcherite John Moore.

His critics would argue that it might have been better if he had resigned earlier in one of what must have been many moments of weariness with the direction taken by the Government.

He voted for Douglas Hurd in the 1990 leadership contest. But it was the successful candidate, John Major, who saved his job yesterday.

(Photograph omitted)