IT was over tea at London's Meridien Hotel, as a harp played in the background, that Emma Nicholson's defection from the Conservatives became a reality.
The meeting on 20 December with Richard Holme, one of Paddy Ashdown's closest aides, may well go down as a pivotal moment in the decline of John Major's government. It was strictly confidential, the understanding being that if either side wanted to pull out, the discussion would never be mentioned again. In fact, as one close to the negotiations said later, the two politicians "got on like a house on fire".
For an MP to defect is a seismic event, and the process whereby Miss Nicholson entered a dialogue with the Liberal Democrats was a delicate one. Both sides took time to size each other up, both took risks and, crucially, trust had to be built.
For some time, the Liberal Democrats had identified Miss Nicholson as one of the most discontented Tory backbenchers. She was, said one Liberal Democrat source, "not a happy bear". In the summer she was approached by senior Labour figures but rebuffed their overtures. Following October's spectacular defection to Labour by Alan Howarth, the Tory MP for Stratford- upon-Avon, she had featured in speculation about unease on the centre- left of the Conservative backbenches.
Then a chance meeting in the Commons dining-room transformed the situation. Four weeks ago, Nick Harvey, Liberal Democrat MP for Devon North (Miss Nicholson's neighbouring constituency) suggested teasingly that she should join his party. "You ought to ask me," came the jocular response. The exchange had taken place in front of other MPs, who put it down to standard backbench banter.
But Mr Harvey passed it on to his leader, Paddy Ashdown, who discussed it with Lord Holme, the man who was to emerge as the intermediary. One of the Liberal Democrats' most experienced political operators, the moustachioed Richard Holme is a well-known Westminster figure. A former adviser to David Steel, he has been one of the few senior members who remained at the core of the party throughout the ructions of the 1980s.
He also had two lines of contact into Miss Nicholson's world. The first was through the Hansard Society, a high-powered, all-party group lobbying to improve parliamentary procedure, which both politicians support. The second was through the Conservative MP's industrialist husband, Sir Michael Caine. Sir Michael is a former chairman and chief executive of Booker plc, the cash-and-carry company which sponsors the Booker prize. Lord Holme is chairman of several publishing ventures and has a series of business interests.
Through a mutual friend he sent a message to Sir Michael suggesting that, if his wife was deeply unhappy, he would be happy to have a chat very much off the record.
Within days of Mr Harvey's conversation, Miss Nicholson made a call to Lord Holme. Both began by agreeing they probably should not be speaking unless there was something serious to discuss. The conversation took a much more positive turn. "Do you think there is something serious?" Miss Nicholson asked.
"Yes, I do," replied the peer.
"In that case, I do too."
On 13 December, the two met in the office of a mutual friend away from Westminster (according to Miss Nicholson, Lord Holme had a "stinking cold"). These were talks about talks and the Liberal Democrat peer was careful not to place any pressure on the MP.
They agreed on another meeting, which would decide whether or not Miss Nicholson would take things further. On 20 December the two arrived separately at the Meridien Hotel. Miss Nicholson spoke of her family background, mentioning its Liberal credentials and reminding her host that her father had backed Churchill against Chamberlain. She also spoke about Europe, Michael Portillo's provocative party conference speech, and her growing reservations about the Government's direction. One source said: "It was not a question of persuasion and resistance. She really persuaded herself."
It was at this meeting that Miss Nicholson decided to cross the Rubicon and meet Mr Ashdown. On the Friday before Christmas, the two went to a secret location near Exeter in Devon. Mr Ashdown drove from Yeovil, Miss Nicholson from her constituency, en route to visit her sister.
The meeting-place was discreet - "One thing about having a leader with a military intelligence background is that he can find safe houses," said one Liberal Democrat source. The pair got on well, and talked for two hours. Miss Nicholson decided, in principle, to go ahead.
But the crucial issue of timing still had to be resolved. Last Thursday morning, Miss Nicholson, her husband and Lord Holme met at the Liberal Democrat leader's south London home. Two options were discussed: one of going ahead this weekend, the other of delaying until the New Year, to destroy the Conservatives' hopes of a successful start to the new term. But, having made up her mind to move, Miss Nicholson was keen to proceed as quickly as possible. The Ashdown team agreed.
On Friday, Miss Nicholson's last day as a Tory MP, she met Lord Holme at his Westminster flat at 8.45am. Over coffee, orange juice and croissants, they finalised the media logistics. An article would be written for Saturday's Western Morning News, and an interview would be done with Robin Oakley, the BBC's political editor, for BBC TV news.
They elected to go for a late bulletin, to put the Conservatives on the defensive and give less time for Brian Mawhinney, the Conservative Party chairman, and Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, to begin rubbishing the MP's motives.
When the 9pm news began, politicians of all parties were taken by surprise. It had been a perfect operation, undertaken in great secrecy. At 10pm on Friday, the Liberal Democrats' president, Robert Maclennan, was asked by Sky News how long he had known of the defection. Only slightly embarrassed, hesaid: "My leader had some knowledge. I, personally, have only just heard of it."
Nicholson profile, page 15
Leading article, page 16
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