'I Ponder What I Have Done: I Feel at Ease and Back in the Real World.' Emma Nicholson's Diary of a Defector

The Independent (London, England), January 9, 1996 | Go to article overview
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'I Ponder What I Have Done: I Feel at Ease and Back in the Real World.' Emma Nicholson's Diary of a Defector


The past week has seemed to Emma Nicholson to be the longest of her life. She left Parliament before Christmas a Conservative, a member of the Tory party for more than two decades. She returns today as a Liberal Democrat after her political defection over the holidays.

It is not something she is bashful about or ashamed of. On the contrary, as her diary reveals, it has invigorated her. As a backbench Tory, most of her life was spent as lobby fodder, filing through the Commons to support the Government. As a Liberal Democrat, she says she has engaged in open political debate for the first time for ages. She says that the Conservative Party, in which she still has many friends, is unlike any organisation one would meet in the real world - not least because most of its members are over the age of 60. She says her brief life with the Liberal Democrats has been refreshing, in part because its staff range from the young to the old and come from a variety of backgrounds.

D-Day, Friday 29 December

As the rest of the country was preparing to say goodbye to the old year and greet the new, I was getting ready to say goodbye to the Conservatives and hello to 1996 as a Liberal Democrat. After months of doubts and days of dilemma, my D-Day had dawned, D for Democracy.

After a very late night I sleep well and wake early at my London home, half a mile from the Palace of Westminster. Big Ben is chiming six o'clock. By the time it will chime midnight, my whole political world will have been turned upside-down.

I feel remarkably calm. Excited, yes. But clear-headed, with a formal timetable in front of me. I am in control of events, anxious to avoid any premature leak of my intentions.

It's a day of earnest discussion and detailed preparation with friends, family, professional colleagues and with Paddy Ashdown and his young and professional team at Liberal Democrat headquarters. We are in countdown to zero-hour, nine o'clock, geared to the BBC news.

20.15 It is important to fax my resignation letter in good time to the Prime Minister. Off it goes and we check and gain confirmation from 10 Downing Street that it has arrived. I am astonished to learn later than John Major did not receive it at is home in Huntingdon until after the Nine O'Clock News. It must have sat on the Number 10 fax machine - a political time bomb ticking away unnoticed.

The subsequent discourtesy is that there has been no reply from him, either in criticism and anger or in sadness and acknowledgement, of 21 years' active service, till that moment, in the Conservative Party.

21.00-01.30 Adrenalin is surging, overcoming fatigue. I am besieged by requests for statements and interviews. A taxi-driver tells Paddy Ashdown without realising who I am: "Hasn't some lady joined your party? Wonderful to see a politician doing something right for once."

At ITN, Michael Heseltine begins the counter-attack, which goes on over the weekend. Not so much a roar as a whimper, concentrating on my alleged frustration at not getting a ministerial job. I am disappointed that they fail to take up the debate. Heseltine is joined by the party chairman, Brian Mawhinney, and the Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo, whom I likened in this season of pantomimes to the Three Ugly Sisters chasing the glass slipper which is my vote.

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