Many of my constituents have resolved to give up smoking for the New Year, and I wish them well. I renounced the habit when I was at Oxford many years ago, having read the first of many reports by the Royal College of Physicians. I concluded that life was hazardous enough without tilting the odds further towards the Old Man with the Hood and the Scythe ( I was driving an Austin Healey 3000 at the time). I stubbed out my last Gold Leaf forty years ago and my index finger slowly returned to a normal colour.
Those who follow my contributions in the House of Commons will know that I am a member of the provisional wing of the non-smoking brigade when it comes to legislating against smoking. It was rumoured that Margaret Thatcher moved me from my post as a Health Minister because of my aggressive negotiating posture with the tobacco companies. I am delighted that, as from this summer, smoking will be banned in all public places - including the less-than-public Smoking Room in the House of Commons, (which will nonetheless continue to be known as the Smoking Room.)
However, my reputation for Puritanism nearly came unstuck in an incident I can reveal exclusively to readers of the website.
I was a Junior Minister at the time, and my job was to answer my department’s Adjournment Debates at the end of the day’s proceedings in the House. One day I was scheduled to reply to a debate on Health Education.
I had sent my driver home, and, in the spirit of the debate I was about to contribute to, I bicycled from my Department to the House of Commons.
During that short journey, the heavens opened. A month’s rainfall fell in five minutes, and all on my shoulders. I got absolutely drenched and arrived at the Members Entrance five minutes before the debate was due to start, looking like Dustin Hoffman in the Graduate, but without the headgear.
I dashed into one of the bars, and found a journalist who was nearly my size. I asked him if I could borrow his jacket so it might adorn the Government benches in the Chamber. He readily obliged – sensing a diary story in the making - but first removed his wallet (He was from the Glasgow Herald)
The jacket was nearly the same colour as my trousers, and, if I stood close up against the despatch box, hopefully no one would notice any disparity of material.
After a short debate, I replied, hoping no one would spot the growing pool of water at my feet.
Towards the end of my speech, I needed to wipe my brow; not from perspiration, but from the rain which was filtering through my hair. I fumbled in the jacket pocket, searching for a handkerchief. I found one and pulled it out.
Out it came, along with a packet of 20 king size cigarettes and a lighter. Mercifully, this was before our proceedings were televised.