It is not entirely a surprise that Audrey Wise, the veteran left-wing MP for Preston, should in recent weeks find herself cast in the rather lonely role of defender of the sacked Guild Community Health Care trust chief executive Les Howell.

The fierce doyenne of Old Labour politics has spent most of her 43-year political career going against the grain, whether backing Militant Liverpool councillors against expulsion in the mid-1980s, or allying with Jonathan Aitken on anti-European issues in the early 1990s.

As the Guild affair exploded, she described the highly critical Galbraith report, which ultimately sealed the fate of Mr Howell, as 'childish', and added: '[I] looked for evidence of wrong-doing and all I saw was gossip and intrigue against the chief executive.'

The report alleged that Mr Howell was autocratic and detached. Ms Wise countered that he was a 'high-calibre chief executive... whose excellent work included winning the confidence of ethnic minorities and patients' families, as well as the creation of award-winning provision for sufferers from late stage Huntington's disease.'

Furthermore, she pointed out in the Commons earlier this month: 'Less than a year ago, my Right Hon friend the secretary of state himself put an award into the hands of Mr Howell [for the trust's Frank Gardham House unit for Huntington disease sufferers], who has been victimised on the basis of unsubstantiated assertions which are not backed up by evidence.'

A top NHS manager is, on the face of it, an unlikely cause for this staunch defender of the proletariat. The former shorthand typist and shop worker is more noted for being arrested on the Grunwick picket lines or, more recently, opposing cuts in single-parent benefits.

NHS managers are more unusually the object of her belligerent interrogative style. On the Commons health committee - on which she has sat for the past nine years - she tends to play the 'hard cop' role, verbally battering evasive witnesses with strident determination.

Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1935 (the daughter of George Brown, reputedly the first active Tyneside Trotskyist), she was a Tottenham councillor aged 21, MP for Coventry Southwest from 1974-79 and MP for Preston since 1987. Her principled socialist-feminist perspective, coupled with her apparent earnestness and lack of humour, has predictably failed to endear her to many Conservatives - former chancellor Nigel Lawson once dubbed her 'the only living Dalek in captivity'.

Political columnist Alan Watkins once wrote of her: '[She] has the gift of beginning her speeches in the sane, if flat, tones of a Geordie housewife who cannot tell butter from Stork, and of ending them sounding as if the men in white coats are about to descend at any minute'.

Behind the public image, however, lies a private person who raises organic chickens and is a passionate organic gardener. MP Tony Benn describes her as 'a very gentle person of nature and manner', and a 'woman of total integrity and reliability'.

And her judgement in backing Mr Howell? She once said: 'It is my practice to have opinions only on matters that I can back up with knowledge.'