Profile: So where on earth was he?: Rupert Allason, debonair, disappearing MP

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The Independent Online
FOR A few exhilarating days, it seemed as if there was one turkey in politics valorous enough to entertain the prospect of an early Christmas.

Indeed, there are some who still view Rupert Allason, the only Conservative Euro-rebel who did not bow the knee to the Government in last week's confidence vote, in a heroic mould. His comparative youth - he is 41 - and tousled, boyish good looks certainly make him appear equal to the role. But most seasoned Wesminster-watchers now see him as the anti-hero of a modern version of The Scarlet Pimpernel, re-run as low farce.

They, being the government whips and subsequently the entire national press, sought him here in his seaside constituency of Torbay in south Devon, where his 'action line' unhelpfully intoned that Rupert Allason would get back to them 'as soon as he could'. They sought him there, at his Bermuda home, where his wife, Nikki, and two young children were on holiday. 'No,' said a bemused Mrs Allason, 'he's not here. He has not been here. I don't know when he's going to be here.' They sought him at the home of family friends in New York. They checked out his very fine London home in Fulham, and his even finer country residence in Berkshire. They made discreet, if unseasonal, inquiries at the Continental ski resorts he most favours. Indeed, they sought him practically everywhere.

But the great secret of where Rupert Allason was on the day of the big vote remains intact. This is despite his cautious, and largely contrite, re-emergence into public life, where is he is now under 'suspension' as a Tory MP and, conceivably, faces de-selection if he breaches the probation order of John Major's unsmiling whips. It has certainly been a rum way to raise the standard of rebellion, but then, Rupert Allason, perhaps better known as the spy writer Nigel West, is one of the rummest politicians of them all. His one hobby listed in Who's Who is 'sailing close to the wind'.

Richard Shepherd MP, a fellow Euro- sceptic and ally of Allason in trying to throw light into the shadows cast by MI5 and MI6, says it is easy to get Allason wrong. 'He really is a very honourable bloke, and he has the greatest respect for the institution of Parliament. It's just that he himself has somehow never got institutionalised. He has never been corrupted by too much obedience.'

Though classed as a Thatcherite with liberal leanings on domestic issues, Allason does not belong to any of the cosy supper clubs or coteries. And he has always been hard to place. On the first of two major issues he encountered on a free vote in the Commons, he voted against televising Parliament and did not vote on the reintroduction of the death penalty.

His confidence comes partly from being very rich. His books alone are said to have made him a millionaire and his family never went short. His father, still very much alive, served on Mountbatten's staff in India during the war, and became a successful insurance broker before serving as the Tory MP for Hemel Hempstead for 15 years. But it is the independence, and often irreverence, of Allason's mind that puts most strain on more conventional colleagues.

Despite his firm grounding in politics, Allason has been in regular conflict with the whips' office since his election in 1987. He could never show the remotest enthusiasm for padding out the numbers on committees and making up the vote. And he was virtually unamenable to discipline for one very good, but peculiar reason. He made it clear from the start that he had no ambition to climb the ladder and become a minister. This rejection of all that makes politicians' lives most meaningful would probably have aroused less animosity if he had wrapped it up a bit. But Allason would say that he could not bear the idea of being a minister because it involved being driven around by a government driver in a car called an Allegro. Allason likes to drive his own car and is currently on his 14th Porsche. Some of his constituency ideas, too, seemed a shade eccentric. The 'action line' in Torbay was an early substitute for the MP's 'surgery', so reverently spoken of by all long-serving members. But Allason had a ready reason. 'Most of my constituents are elderly,' he said. 'They can't get up hills. Why should I inconvenience them?'

Allason's older brother, Julian, a developer of computer companies, says that he first noticed something peculiar about Rupert when he was just nine. 'All the other kids still had their heads in comics, but Rupert started working his way through Churchill's history of the Second World War, saving his pocket money to buy each succeeding volume.' The brothers went through public school at Downside together, and were very close - 'Rupert was welcomed in the company of older boys because he was so intelligent'. But it was Downside that persuaded Rupert Allason not to pursue his ambition of joining the Army, like his father and grandfather before him. The cadet corps, compulsory in those days, convinced him that he was not cut out for the more extreme forms of discipline.

Higher education at Grenoble University, which he remembers as chaotic, 'though I was able to improve my skiing', and at London University (reading English Literature) followed, but Allason was already by then immersed in the real abiding obsession of his life - writing about the murky world of espionage. Entry into this world involved his becoming another person, called Nigel West. He used the name 'partly as a cut-off, because you meet some dodgy people, and partly because I didn't want people to think I was trading on my family background'. He claims that he did eventually ring up a security agency and inadvertently use his real name only to be told that 'they couldn't trust anybody but Nigel West on a subject like that'.

He was partly assisted in these endeavours by what seemed like a curious career decision to become a part-time Special Constable, reporting at London's Rochester Row police station. The learning curve on this experience was apparently unusually steep. One of his first assignments was a man said to be suffering from depression. On arrival at his flat, Constable Allason found the man dead, still holding a shotgun. 'I suddenly realised, ' he would recall, 'I was staring down the barrel of a loaded shotgun with a dead man's finger on the trigger.' The less macabre consequence of his duties was that he could do the rounds of the old spooks with a credential that few other spy writers could boast: he, too, had signed the Official Secrets Act.

The PC Plod side of his activities never interfered with the more light-hearted side of life. Brother Julian speaks of Allason's enthusiasm for women in a way that seems to correlate with the MP's enthusiasm for new cars. 'You could almost set your watch by them. Always incredibly leggy and good looking, they would last exactly a year before they were changed.' The procession would end with his marriage to Bermudan-born Nikki van Moppes, a businesswoman who ran her own record production company.

Allason is naturally a man who excites envy, and may well enjoy exciting it, too, but it would be unwise to underestimate his powers for that reason. He has written his books at a rate of one a year since 1980, and some of them are absolute crackers, in terms of their disclosures - he really has no peer when it comes to telling people about an area of government that, for many years, nobody was supposed to know existed. His novels, too, are much better than adequate. No great stylist, in Tory literary terms he probably ranks above Jeffrey Archer, but somewhat below Douglas Hurd.

Phillip Knightley, author of the authoritative history of espionage The Second Oldest Profession rates Allason/ West highly. 'He's the successor to Chapman Pincher, but I'd say much better informed than he ever was - really able to get to people on the inside. And I think he brings much more scepticism to his work than Pincher.' To Pincher himself, however, Allason is 'the little whippersnapper'.

Allason is a hard, and sometimes expensive, man to find fault with. He has fought nine legal actions over espionage matters and has won them all, bar one, and even that might be considered a technical victory. Greville Wynne, the British businessman/spy, sued when Allason described him as being 'a Walter Mitty figure', a liar, and sometimes worse for drink. To Allason's chagrin, Weidenfeld, his then publisher, caved in and settled, but Allason fought on. Wynne would eventually drop the case against him on the eve of going to court.

But his most stunning achievement in this area was prising an estimated pounds 250,000 out of the Daily Mirror last year, after the Mirror had actually sued him. Allason counter-claimed and represented himself in the case, brought about as a consequence of Robert Maxwell's last writ. The Mirror had accused Allason of behaving in 'a cowardly and dishonourable manner' in attacking Maxwell's supposed Mossad links under the protection of parliamentary privilege.

Allason, who had also uttered most of the offending words outside the House, tried to get a retraction, and was rewarded with a two-line letter from Maxwell's aide, Joe Haines. 'I regard you with the utmost contempt,' it read. 'Rather than apologise to you for your wickedness, I'll see you in Hell first.' In the end, Allason did have to retract part of the original allegation - which had suggested some complicity by the Mirror in betraying the nuclear scientist Mordecai Vanunu to the Israeli authorities - but it was the Mirror that had to plumb the infernal depths in terms of damages and costs.

It is hard to see why such an adroit operator should now find himself in such an odd political bind. One thing is for sure. Allason did not set out to make himself the lone hero, much less the lone anti- hero, of the Maastricht piece. He really thought there would be other Tory abstentions on the confidence motion. But this only brings on the question of how he managed to get so out of touch with what the front-line Euro-rebels were doing. So we come inescapably back to his whereabouts again, the one subject on which he was less than loquacious last week.

The curious case of the man who makes himself famous by making himself scarce could be hard to solve. It really needs an intellect of the power exhibited by Philip North, the debonair Tory backbencher, who only last year solved the case of the left-wing Labour MP who was murdered in three kinds of ways - strangulation, poisoning and with benefit of a car bomb. Unfortunately, North is himself highly inaccessible - located inside the covers of Nigel West's latest work of fiction.