When a north-east MP was thrust into the centre of one of last year’s biggest political rows, only a handful of people knew that his life had recently changed forever.
Sir Robert Smith revealed to the Press and Journal yesterday that he received his shock diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease last summer.
Around the same time, in June, the Liberal Democrat member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine had unexpectedly been asked to step into the breach and take charge of one of Westminster’s most powerful select committees.
Tim Yeo, the Conservative chairman of the energy and climate change committee, had stood down temporarily after an investigation was launched into claims that he used the position to help business clients.
Members of the group were reportedly unanimous that Sir Robert should take the job, and convinced him to do so. For a brief moment, it appeared that he may have to quit before he had even begun. Several commentators publicly questioned whether his share-holding in oil giant Shell was a conflict of interest.
In October, the committee hit the headlines when fury erupted at price increases imposed by the UK’s leading energy companies, just as temperatures dropped.
Sir Robert hauled the bosses of the “big six” firms before the committee and led the grilling.
Throughout it all, the former Grampian Police board convener was still coming to terms with the diagnosis, but would not go public about his condition until the following month.
In his first interview on the subject, Sir Robert said he made the announcement in November because people were beginning to notice the symptoms of the degenerative disorder, which can include shaking, rigidity, slow movement and difficulty walking.
“The diagnosis was in the summer. It’s a shock when you get the diagnosis and you want some private time to understand more what it means,” he said.
“But I felt there were people concerned, because of the symptoms, so it would be better to get the diagnosis in the public domain so people understood.
“The support of family and friends helps. It’s interesting, once the diagnosis is public, the number of people coming forward mentioning the experience of relatives and friends. Quite a few people have got in touch, and even bumping into them on the street.
“One of the more inspiring anecdotes was the GP’s experience – that he’s got a friend in his 80s who beats him regularly at tennis.”
Meanwhile Sir Robert intends to stand for parliament in the West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine seat at next year’s general election, despite his diagnosis.
“A lot of people live with Parkinson’s, and the medical advice was that it’s something that you can manage to do,” he said.
Sir Robert, who was first elected in 1997 to represent the same constituency his grandfather had between 1924 until 1945, said he had enjoyed his time as energy committee chairman, and would relish a return to the position one day.
“It was a fascinating insight. I’ve always felt that the select committee’s role is an extremely important part of the work of the House of Commons. Certainly having experienced it, it is something I’d be willing to return to.”
He said progress had been made with the energy companies, but that more needed to be done.
“There’s still the fundamental challenge we face, that we need investment in our energy industry. They are going to be making some profits, it’s a question of making sure they are fair and transparent,” he said.
“There’s beginning to be some progress. There’s still more to be done by Ofgem on the transparency, but the simplifying of the market should make it easier.”
Despite experiencing the glare of the nation’s media at that “big six” committee meeting in October, he said the intensity paled into insignificance compared to his reaction to the Treasury’s £10billion tax raid on the offshore sector in the 2011 Budget.
“That was the most intense moment, the shock of that.”