Elizabeth Buie charts the career of a woman with a deep commitment to social justice: being poorly regarded by the grey men of the House has never worried her. Her departure leaves the Government with a tiny majority

WHEN Emma Nicholson entered the House of Commons in June 1987, she entered from a dynasty so blue in blood and creed that her mother's family boasted an MP in every parliament since modern parliaments began in the 17th century. Yet she was seen as the hig

h-flying, iron-jawed, new Conservative woman.

She arrived there as a former vice-chairman with special responsibility for women, a post that had existed since the 1920s, but no-one knew about it until Miss Nicholson's appointment.

Once labelled ``the thinking man's crumpet'', she was nevertheless the only Tory woman to sponsor Clare Short's second Bill to bar Page Three pin-ups. She has always been outspoken about the put-downs and harassment facing women who do make it to Westmins

ter, and has indeed faced her share of verbal harrassment. One ex-Tory MP wrote that her nipples stuck out when she made speeches and the tabloids predictably splashed the tale.

Nevertheless, the more typical pro-feminists have never warmed to her. They have seen first and foremost her impeccable upper-class breeding. Her father, Sir Godfrey Nicholson was MP for Farmham for 29 years. Her uncle, Lord Dilhorne, was Lord Chancellor.

Her sister is married to the former Arts Minister, Richard Luce - and there is a whole network of connections by blood and marriage stretching throughout the party past and present.

When she speaks, her tone is jovial but firm, her delivery uninterruptible - probably because she is partially deaf and wears a hearing aid.

Yet the surface appearance of Emma Nicholson has always belied hidden depths. While some believed her arrogant and unresponsive, in truth it was almost certainly due to her hearing problem. And her involvement in the publicised, acrimonious divorce of her

husband, Sir Michael Harris Caine, from his first wife influenced her view of Back to Basics' moral certainties: ``You cannot see into someone else's heart, soul and motivation.''

It is said that on the day before Margaret Thatcher resigned, a member of the 1922 Committee accosted Miss Nicholson in a corridor at the House of Commons and told her she was to blame for the fact that the Prime Minister had not won outright on the first


Apparently he told her: ``I always knew you were fundamentally unsound.''

To her it was a compliment, for it showed ``they'' took her seriously as a politician. To be unsound was their crowning insult, she said.

That will be nothing to what she is called now.

But the Conservative MP for Devon West and Torridge is known to possess a hide as thick as a rhinoceros, and being poorly regarded by the grey men of the House has never worried her.

She was not looking for their approval when as a humble back bencher she set off to southern Iraq, dispensing largesse to the marsh Arabs, a little-known people whose culture could not be but alien to her constituents', just as everyone was trying to forg

et the fall-out from the Gulf War.

Indeed, it was partly as a result of her three-year campaign that the plight of this Arab people did climb up the international agenda. Through her work, the full extent of Saddam Hussein's persecution of the impoverished Shi'ite minority, the chemical bo

mbing, the draining of the marshes, and the driving of an entire people from their ancient land became known.

More than that, Emma Nicholson made a personal as well as a political commitment to the cause by adopting Amar Kanim, an 11-year-old orphan terribly injured by Saddam's napalm bombing.

Many constituents have been baffled by her commitment to what they see as faraway lands while the canker of unemployment steadily eats away at rural Devon.

She incurred a fair degree of local displeasure when she gave her overt support to Michael Heseltine against Mrs Thatcher. There was talk then of deselection. What will they make of her now?

But to dismiss her as a ``maverick'' Tory is to misunderstand her deep commitment to what she sees as social injustice - for that is and always has been her guiding force.

To begin to understand where it springs from, one has to go back to her childhood. The third daughter of a Tory baronet, she was born into the landed gentry and imbued from her earliest years with the oft-claimed upper-class traditions of service and phil


Her part-autobiography, part-polemic on her campaign for the marsh Arabs Why Does the West Forget? portrayed the Nicholsons as quasi-Palliser characters. The young Emma would follow her father on his constituency visits, noting the poor housing conditions

of the agricultural workers.

She wrote of a visit to a children's home and the sight of a woman who was terrible physically disabled: ``She was imprisoned and I was free; she could not move fast and I could run; she had no family and I had everything at home. My determination to make

a fairer world for others was born.''

She may not have known it at the time, but perhaps her natural affinity to the disabled grew from the fact that Nicholson was disabled herself.

Incredible, it was only after winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music that it was discovered she was seriously deaf. A bad bout of german measles during her mother's pregnancy had left her hearing and eyesight impaired. Lengthy and painful exp

eriments with various hearing aids meant that she was an adult before she heard birdsong or the rustle of a newspaper.

And like many people born deaf, she instinctively learned to lip-read - a skill she still possesses and one that gives her occasional cause for amusement during parliamentary debates. It also accounts for her booming voice and emphatic delivery.

Her musical career thwarted, Miss Nicholson became one of the first women in Britain to enter the emerging world of information technology. She became a management consultant, and after taking on a project for the Save the Children Fund, she became its di

rector of fund-raising. In the seven years she spent there, the charity's annual income rose from #3.5m to #42m.

It seemed that she would be a career woman destined never to marry - until, that is when she met Sir Michael Harris Caine, the chairman of Booker plc, at the age of 45. It was then that she attracted a first whiff of political scandal when she was named i

n the divorce petition by his first wife.

Her account of their wedding in 1987 betrays a lingering glimmer of her grand origins. She recounted how a friend from Somerset had agreed to play the organ on condition it was to be a small family wedding - so she just asked 36 family members and 350 mai

nly constituency friends.

The honeymoon lasted one day. The following evening, she was contacted by her political agent with the message to return immediately - a General Election had been called.

Initially in her political career, Nicholson and Thatcher were allies. When Miss Nicholson was made a vice-chairman of the party, with special responsibility for women, she reported to the Prime Minister.

But over the years, Miss Nicholson became convinced that Mrs Thatcher was out of touch. When the clash came it was titanic and it was over the poll tax. Mrs Thatcher refused to listen to Miss Nicholson, and the back bencher decided to withdraw her support


She never criticised Mrs Thatcher overtly, but openly supported her opponent. As a former vice-chairman, central office had assumed she would stay loyal. Her public view that Mrs Thatcher should resign was only what many others were saying in private.

Her friends believe that it was this outspokenness that denied her a post in the Major Government. But it is also possible that she relished that freedom of the back benches to speak her mind - something she has done over the disestablishment of the Churc

h of England, and in favour of a relaxation of abortion law. All too often, her views have taken her beyond the caricature Tory lady.

For in truth she is more a social crusader than a politician. One Tory colleague once said there was no point in making her a Minister as she would be bound to find something in her department she did not agree with and resign on principle.

In fact, it has gone further than that - a series of Government policy moves on single parents, the disabled, asylum-seekers and other minority rights have proved too much for her principles. She reduces the Government's majority to three.