AT THE END of delivering a series of rather bizarre ramblings in the Commons chamber on Wednesday afternoon, Nicholas Soames apologised for being a bore. But it was not him who was boring, but the debate, writes Clare Garner.
Maybe the overgrown schoolboy was just being mischievous. "Don't worry, I'll be just as indiscreet without the booze," he assured a journalist recently. Or maybe, as Richard Caborn, the Minister for the Regions, suggested, the former Food Minister was "a little emotional, if not a little tired" after a very good lunch.
The rotund Mr Soames, affectionately known as Bunter, Nickers, Fatty, Creepy Crawley and Crawley Food Mountain (after his former constituency, Crawley in Sussex), denied being drunk. He had pitched up at the Money Resolution in the Regional Development Agencies Bill after a "very small, abstemious lunch in the tea-room of the House", he insisted, adding: "My lunches consist of bananas, still water, preserved apricots and bats' droppings."
His performance was vintage stuff. "I remember a morning not long ago: a cold, damp, spring morning, after the House had been sitting all night. Regrettably, Madam Speaker, you were not in the Chair," he mused, before lamenting the absence of Dawn Primarolo: "It is a matter of regret to me that the Financial Secretary - a woman who, for whatever reason, commands the universal admiration of Conservative Members - is not in her place."
Betty Boothroyd gently guided him back to the "very limited" motion. "He is romanticising and taking me along with him, but I must attend to the business of the House," she said. Her mild ticking off, which was tempered by her closing remarks: "The Hon Gentleman is never a bore: he always has something interesting to say", was something of a replay. Only last November, she had to reprimand him for "crossing the floor" to chat to a female MoD official during Question Time. "Mr Soames! They may be pretty girls, but we don't do those things," she exclaimed.
To Mr Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill, every day is "one big adventure". He believes in being himself - and if people don't like it they can "stuff it".
Mr Soames, 50, is a fierce defendant of country sports. He even referred to his new-born daughter, Isabella, as being the size of a decent salmon. He was "bone idle" at Eton, collecting seven 'O' Levels before entering the 11th Hussars. He considers Prince Charles his best friend and was his equerry from 1970 to 1972. Charles was best man at his wedding to the heiress Catherine Weatherall in 1981.
It is just as well Mr Soames has no truck with political correctness, because he is himself a sitting duck for fattist jokes. An anonymous woman said that making love to him was "like having a wardrobe fall on top of you with the key sticking out"; and an MP interrupted his tirade on the Millennium Dome to suggest: " You could have an exhibition inside your own underpants." Whatever else is levelled at him, one thing is sure: this man is anything but a bore.
"I'm a PG Wodehouse fan and I've always concentrated on Jeeves' miracle cure for hangovers, which is a raw egg, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce and a glass of sherry, all in one go."
GULF WAR SYNDROME
Mr Soames commissioned the inquiry after he apologised to the Commons for misleading MPs on the widespread use of organophosphates in the Gulf war. Campaigners claim pesticides could have made more than 1,000 veterans ill. He has refused to resign.
THE BLACK DOG
"I do get melancholy now and again, but you go to bed, sleep well and wake up pawing the ground like a horse in the morning. My grandfather had this appalling thing, what they called the black dog in his life, but I don't suffer from that."
"I admire his compassion, his humanity, his understanding, his humour. He's a painter, a gardener, an author. He's an incredibly hard worker, he won't just strike a pose or do something for the sake of short-term public approbation."
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies