Profile: Backbencher with real backbone: Emma Nicholson MP, accomplished missionary

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EMMA NICHOLSON tells a story in the book she has just published. In 1971 she was running out of money during a trip to India and wrote to her father to point this out, in the expectation that a cheque might be forthcoming. It was not. Her father, she concluded, thought that if he funded her stay further, she might just choose to live in India and be a missionary.

Her father's apprehension was not ill-founded, to judge by the tone of her account. There is more than a touch of the missionary in Nicholson's approach. It is not just the repeated proclamation of faith, the setting of any experience in a spiritual context and the unselfconscious appraisal of the spiritual qualities that adversity can nurture. It is the explicit sense of mission: the feeling that, if Emma Nicholson was set on this earth, blessed with the advantages that the Almighty chose to bestow, then He must have meant her to do Something Worthwhile.

There are, perhaps, pointers in her background to this sense of higher purpose. She was born in 1941, the third daughter of four, to a wealthy family of Hampshire landowners and gin distillers. Her baronet father was a Tory MP, her mother the daughter of a Scottish earl. In her family, she can count - and frequently does - three uncles, 10 cousins, a grandfather and two great- grandfathers who sat in the House of Commons, first for the Liberals and, since the end of the 19th century, for the Tories. Even as a daughter of the house of Nicholson, politics in that patrician Tory style was all around her.

The other element was religion. She describes a childhood in which the seasons were marked off by the call of church bells as the religious calendar gave shape and substance to the year. The local church was shared with the tenant farmers and such well-off neighbouring families as the Hurds.

But if her description of this English idyll makes it sound enviable, it is perhaps because Nicholson is not given to dwelling on the negative. In her case, it is that she was born partially deaf and that, in a family in which her mother was preoccupied with charity work and her father a sitting MP for Farnham, Surrey, nobody noticed Emma's handicap until she was 16. To make matters worse, she became shortsighted at 11 and was treated by an oculist who did not believe in spectacles and prescribed an extra pint of milk a day and no more than one hour's reading. Isolated by her unperceived deafness, she learnt to lip-read but did not enjoy her adolescence.

'It's terribly difficult,' she said later about that time, 'always being scolded for things you haven't done or you didn't know about.' When her mother eventually noticed and traced the disability to the German measles she had suffered during her pregnancy, her daughter played down the handicap: 'I didn't want to upset my mother. And since there was no help available and no hearing aids, there was no point in fussing anyway.'

There seems to have been little attempt to educate the Nicholson daughters for anything other than the traditional fate of women of their class. At seven, Emma was sent to her first boarding school, then to St Mary's, Wantage, an Anglican school run by nuns, where, in the absence of other options, she directed her intelligence to the study of comparative religion. She learnt Latin and Greek, a little Aramaic and read the Koran from cover to cover. Her own religious beliefs were so unquestioned that she refers to her 'knowledge of God' rather than 'faith'.

Despite her handicap, she developed a strong musical talent and attended the Royal Academy of Music in her teens, but the deafness ruled out a musical career. Her first choice would have been to read law, but the senior nun at Wantage dismissed that ambition, telling her she was too old. The young Nicholson submitted to that judgement, which she regrets. She was not, in future, to submit to many more inappropriate restrictions.

She had, she decided, no vocation for housework. And since the expectation that surrounded her was that young women would marry, have children and serve the family, she decided not to marry. There was a less than distinguished spell as a cook, which ended when she gave 200 hot-air balloonists salmonella. There was an unsuccessful attempt to get into Conservative Central Office in any post, no matter how humble. Then, to everyone's astonishment, she passed the entrance exam for a job with ICL, the computer company.

Passing the exam, for someone who had given up mathematics at the age of eight, was surprising enough, but the training course was a challenge that might have proved insurmountable had it not dawned on her that there was a similarity between the language of music and that of computers. She passed and was sent to Northern Rhodesia to fix a problem with a computer that ICL had supplied to the government.

She stayed in the computer business for seven years but, after the trip to India (following the death of her mother), her life took a different direction. The choices, as she reviewed them, lay between a social worker, which she dismissed because she found the approach insufficiently robust; reading comparative religion at King's College, London, discarded because it was too narrowly confined to Christianity; continuing in computers; or joining the Save The Children Fund. She chose the last and became its fund-raiser.

Among the few regrets Nicholson allows herself is that she stayed too long at Save The Children: she finally left in 1985, but, by the mid Seventies, had decided she wanted to go into politics. The decision hardly seems out of character - she never questioned the family tradition of public service, and a brief hesitation about which party would be the most appropriate vehicle ended in the unsurprising choice of the Conservatives.

The immediate spur to action she described, unselfconsciously, to the writer Leslie Abdela. It arose, she explained, from a dinner party.

She had invited a Marxist couple with three or four other friends, in the expectation that it would make 'an interesting and constructive evening'. But the Marxist husband struck her unfavourably. 'I remember,' she said, 'I'd spent my small salary on the dinner. I was not at all well-off and you know how tough it was to get flats if you were a girl, how high rents were and how women, certainly then, were not paid the same as men. I remember I was so proud that I'd managed to find avocados - very expensive, very rare - and how rude he was about them. He didn't know how to eat an avocado, he was the son of a miner. Had he got to use a knife and fork? What was this disgusting luxury? It was horrid - he was positively fuelled by hatred.' The next morning, she called Conservative Central Office and asked to be put on the candidates' list.

She fought Blyth, Northumberland for the Tories in 1979, a hopeless seat but one that she was happy to fight because her father had once been the Member for Morpeth, now incorporated into the Blyth constituency. She did not fight the 1983 election because of her job at Save The Children but, shortly after the election, accepted the invitation to be vice-chairman of the Conservative Party, with responsibility for women.

She continued her search for a safe seat, a search, some say, that was prolonged because of her personal life: she was named in the divorce that ended the 30-year marriage of Sir Michael Caine, chairman of the publishers, Booker- McConnell. She was to marry him in 1987, the same year that she finally made it to Parliament, aged 45, as MP for Devon West and Torridge.

In another era, Nicholson might have expected to rise faster up the Westminster ladder. Her lack of promotion, given her energy, ambition and obvious capability, arouses frequent comment. But the late Eighties were not a good time for patrician Tories, and her ineradicable views on social justice, combined with a tendency to speak her mind, brought her little sympathy in the Whip's office in the Thatcher era.

As a backbencher, she has championed a dizzying assortment of causes, from handicapped people in Britain to suffering people in the Third World, and has intervened successfully in legislation to protect computer software copyright. She is unequivocally wet on social issues, progressive on women's issues (John Gummer threatened to have her excommunicated for her enthusiasm for the ordination of women) and generous, in the Westminster snake-pit, in her assessment of the talents of members of Her Majesty's Opposition. She is definitely not 'one of us'.

She makes no secret of her desire for more responsibility in the House of Commons, but it is not certain that she will get it. Her latest offence to party thinking was to ask to be put on the candidates' list for the European Parliament. She has an explanation: she hoped to be able to serve out her term in Westminster and, simultaneously, debate in the European Parliament the ever-increasing volume of legislation which that body deals with. 'Many European politicians sit in both parliaments,' she said. 'It's a disadvantage for the British not to have people who do that.' The party hierarchy was horrified. 'I did,' she admits, 'get a rap over the knuckles for my temerity.'

If Emma Nicholson is inclined to trim her self-confidence to suit the party rules and gain promotion, there is little sign of it yet. Nor, despite her belated appointment as Parliamentary Private Secretary in first the Home Office and now Agriculture, does she seem likely to narrow her range of concerns. Upstairs in the House of Commons is an exhibition of photographs of the destruction of the lives of the Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq, mounted by Nicholson as part of her Amar Appeal.

Amar is a boy she found in a small town on the Iran/Iraq border in 1991, a desperately wounded survivor of a napalm attack on his village. She brought him home and raised the money for his medical treatment. She and her husband are now his guardians and the charity she founded in his name runs extensive aid work in the region.

The drumbeat of ministerial ambition is heard faintly, but the one that beats loudest is the one she absorbed in childhood - that of social conscience.