profile: Emma Nicholson: Not her sort of party

Too angry and too decent to stay the course. Andy Beckett on a moral defection

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TWENTY years ago, Emma Nicholson decided to join the Conservative Party. "I turned to family connections and asked my father to introduce me to Conservative Central Office," she wrote in her 1993 autobiography. "But there I had no luck at all... The answer was no, there was nothing that I had to offer them... [Neither] a strong desire for social change, nor a Conservative commitment appealed to the Smith Square hierarchy. Somehow my years of constituency effort for my father (canvassing, helping at meetings, fetes and Branch events, even the occasional little speech) did not weigh in the balance either..."

Emma Nicholson was not put off at the time: within a decade she had persuaded Margaret Thatcher to make her the party's vice-chairman (for women), and in 1987 she was elected as MP for Torridge and West Devon. But now, with her defection to the Liberal Democrats, the initial snub seems more significant. It shows her determination, her political roots - Conservative since one of her great-grandfathers crossed the floor to them from the Liberals in 1871 - and her readiness to use them.

Most of all, however, it suggests she may have joined the Conservative cause through a fundamental misunderstanding: her idea that the party would be attracted by somebody with her kind of "strong desire for social change". "Poverty stinks," she also tells us in her autobiography which contains more about charity work than politics.

Emma Nicholson's public behaviour since publishing her autobiography suggests someone out of step with her party. Last month she voted for full disclosure of MPs' earnings, against John Major and the vast majority of her colleagues. "The Government's immersion in personal interests has disillusioned Emma," says a fellow Conservative MP. In September, she wrote a newspaper editorial criticising the Conservatives for "old-fashioned male chauvinism" in failing to select more female candidates. "Emma's a natural feminist," says the Labour MP Clare Short, a friend whom Nicholson once helped in her efforts to ban the Sun's Page Three. "It's a part of her that was never respected or valued in the Conservative Party."

In the last three years, in fact, Nicholson has been on the left side of nearly every issue occupying an ever more right-wing government: on single mothers (against cutting their benefits), on Back to Basics ("a self-destructive slogan"), and on Europe (she co-founded the pro-EU European Movement with Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs). Even her deep-voiced, definite pronouncements of loyalty to John Major on College Green and in the Commons during the leadership contest were more ideological than personal: John Redwood was more right-wing.

The views of her husband, Sir Michael Caine, the former chairman of Booker plc, may have reinforced her sense of dislocation. Clare Short recalls the following exchange two weeks ago at the cafe in Millbank. She went up to him and introduced him to a friend - in banter - as "a Tory".

"Don't call me a Tory," he said.

"What are you then?"

"I'm a liberal with a small 'l'," he told her fiercely.

There are many reasons, then, not to be surprised by Nicholson's decision and her justification that "it is the Conservative Party that has shifted, not my own views." But perhaps the mystery of Emma Nicholson, once told she was "fundamentally unsound" by a member of the 1922 Committee, is not why she left the party, but why she stayed with it for so long.

EMMA NICHOLSON was born in Farnham in 1941, the third daughter in a family of wealthy Hampshire landowners and gin distillers. Her father was Sir Godfrey Nicholson, a Tory baronet, her mother the daughter of a Scottish earl. Her ancestors - including three uncles, 10 cousins, a grandfather and three great-grandfathers - had sat in Parliament since the 17th century. Emma was soon following her father on constituency visits.

Aged four, she visited a children's home. "It was a large, Victorian house, run by an old-fashioned, strict, and well-meaning matron," she wrote later. "I saw a child beside me whose head seemed oddly large... This was a grown-up woman. She walked with enormous difficulty... her head was gross, her spine was crooked... Thinking about it afterwards, I concluded that the national forum was the place in which change to help the ordinary person in difficulty could be made."

Nicholson's mother already worked for charity, and her family were intensely religious. In addition, Nicholson gradually began to realise she was disabled herself: her eyesight condemned her to milk-bottle glasses and, more seriously, she could hardly hear. Aged 16, after hard years at a convent boarding school in Wantage, she was officially diagnosed as deaf: "Home life became a source of despair to me."

Her family expected her to marry and have children. Nicholson did not want to be passive: she obtained a hearing aid and considered law - but was dissuaded by the convent's senior nun; she tried being a cook - and gave 200 balloonists salmonella; she tried Central Office. Then, in 1963, she passed the entrance exam for ICL, a computer company.

For the next 13 years she gave herself to primitive keyboards and trips to fix circuits in sweaty African countries. She was a software designer, a systems analyst, a management consultant - but not a prospective wife. "Lots of men wanted to marry me," she said once (She was 5'10", slim and - thanks to her deafness - now possessed of a booming, commanding voice). "But I've always been too busy."

In 1974 she turned her energies to charity, joining Save The Children. In 1977 she became director of fundraising and increased the organisation's income from pounds 3.5m to pounds 42m in her eight years of tenure. Her confidence growing, she also thought about politics again. Undecided about which party to join, she reputedly invited a Marxist couple to dinner at her London flat. The man said the avocados were decadent; her mind was made up: she joined the Conservatives.

Like many ambitious women, Nicholson was impressed by Margaret Thatcher. And the Conservative Party still seemed the natural home for ambitious women who wanted to do good in an apolitical way. Despite being rejected as a parliamentary candidate by more selection committees between 1976 and 1983 than any other woman in party history, Nicholson kept faith. In 1983 Thatcher made her a party vice-chairman; two years later she was selected for Torridge and West Devon.

In the Commons, "Emma hit the ground running," remembers Liberal Democrat MP Menzies Campbell. "She knew how parliament worked." Nicholson even turned her deafness to her advantage: refusing to use sign-language and learning to lip-read, she could pick up Opposition whispers from across the chamber. She held four "high-flyers' conferences" for successful Conservative women, and intimidated male MPs: "She had a good figure," says Clare Short, "And she used to show it."

Around this time Nicholson met Sir Michael Caine. When he left his wife, Nicholson was named in the divorce. They married in 1986; she was 45. "In Michael she found her true love," says a close friend.

Meanwhile Nicholson expanded her charitable activities. She joined parliamentary groups on Romanian orphans and Iraqi Shias; she became chairman of the charity Blind in Business; she became a director of Shelter. Most importantly, she visited the marshy border between Iran and Iraq after the Gulf War. Saddam Hussein's treatment of the Marsh Arabs outraged her: she began a parliamentary campaign, then decided to give a temporary home to a young refugee called Amar.

At first he disrupted her new married life in her Devon cottage. She took him to hospital to have his burnt face rebuilt, even slept in the ward with him, but planned to find him Arab foster parents. Gradually she changed her mind. Today, Amar is 14 and her adopted son, "a constant joy".

Unfortunately for Nicholson's political career, her charitable concerns had never been in step with the government. Margaret Thatcher had been more interested in the poll tax than female empowerment (and the number of female Conservative MPs only inched out of single figures). Nicholson met her to warn against the tax as a tax on the poor; Thatcher refused to listen; in 1990 Nicholson refused to support her against Heseltine. On hearing Thatcher had resigned, she said, "Thank God for that!"

But John Major brought as little relief for Nicholson as he did for the poor, whom she was increasingly worried about. "The spark went out of her a bit," says Short. Nicholson let it be known she wanted to work beyond the backbenches: "She couldn't help but notice that they didn't want her."

Her rebellions accumulated and accelerated. Two days ago Nicholson said the last straw for her was the sight of pregnant women in chains at Holloway Prison. Perhaps it should not have taken such an obvious symbol of modern Conservatism to warn her.

Additional research, Sophie Goodchild

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