I listened to your internet radio show the other day. Are you trying to become the British Rush Limbaugh?
No, I’m not! I’m not trying to be a US style shock-jock but the fact is that on the internet you can be opinionated. You can do a three-minute monologue about what you feel passionate about. I’m not really “attack, attack, attack” because while I can be an opinionated conservative, I’m not blind to the weaknesses in the Conservative argument.
Are you still involved in local activism?
At election times I do a bit of canvassing and deliver leaflets, but I’m not involved to the extent that I once was. I do a couple of speaking sessions around the country each month. 5 or 10 years ago I did a lot more door to door campaigning. Now I contribute in other ways.
But you applied for selection to a safe seat last year…
Yes, but if I don’t get something it’s not going to be the end of my life, I’m happy to do something else. Some people say to me I have more influence doing what I’m doing than I would have as a backbench MP amongst 300 others. I can see that argument to an extent but I’m still on the sidelines. In the end I’d much rather be involved.
We’re meeting on the day the Telegraph have published Tory members’ expenses. How do you feel about all this?
It’s not defensible for a politician – whether it’s within the rules or not – to claim for things like gardening expenses and furniture. But those of us who have knocked around Westminster for the last 20 years have known the system is wrong. Those in elected politics certainly know it’s wrong – but they haven’t done anything about it. There are reasons for that: The Speaker has been a roadblock to reform in any meaningful manner and it’s not in MPs’ self-interest to reform a system that’s giving them a lot of perks. I don’t expect them to come up with the answers. If Gordon Brown had not done the YouTube video and just brought in David Cameron and Nick Clegg without announcing it to the media, they could have sorted it out. But I’m afraid when you play politics with something like this, it’s going to backfire.
William Hague’s earned millions over the last five years from his books and presumably taken obscene amounts of time to write them.
Everyone makes their own judgement and in the end everyone’s answerable to their own electorate. If William Hague’s constituents are happy for him to do that, then it’s fine. I’m not going to sit here and slag him off for it. I think he actually does a good job as an MP and he deserved to have a break doing other things after his period as leader. I think the weakness of our current system is that people are encouraged to go into politics at such a young age. I think the argument that second jobs give MPs more life experience is a tenuous one. But if you’re not in parliament by the time you’re my age, particularly in the Conservative Party, then it’s curtains. It’s ridiculous that politics in this country – and it’s almost unique to this country – writes people off at the age of 50. In Germany and America, most people go into politics once they’ve achieved something in their lives. But why would anyone over 50 go into politics in this country…?
Why would anyone under 25 go into politics? It’s such a damaged vocation at the moment. All these scandals are reflecting badly on politics, which should be a force for good, a force for hope.
I think when you’re in your 20s you’re idealistic and there should be people that age in politics. But you need a good mix – so I would like to see people coming into parliament in their early 60s as well. Maybe only for one term – but these people can contribute. There are no political parties that overtly encourage that now.
One of your inspirations for becoming involved in politics was Margaret Thatcher, a person largely still vilified in this country for systematically hurting working people, for destroying British industry and for denying the idea of society…
By people like you…
Yes by people like me. Although I wasn’t born when she came to power…
Yes, alright! First of all I would contest that she’s largely hated: she’s only hated by people on the left who are so tribal that they can’t see anything good in what she did. Most of the people I mix with in politics – Conservatives or not – in the end admit that she did things that had to be done, even though they were very painful at the time. I was inspired to get into politics because of her. When I was 16 in 1978, all my teenage years I’d been in a country riven by strikes. I went on a school trip to Germany in 1977 and the Germans just made fun of us. We were seen as this bankrupt nation that just had strikes all the time. It was embarrassing. I remember the three-day week in 1974 and I just thought there must be something better than that. I was a member of the Liberal Party for about six months at the time. Then I heard a speech by Thatcher – around autumn ’78. It said, “yes the country’s in a complete state, but there are brighter times ahead”. I thought, “I agree with every word of that”. That was when I thought: I’m not a Liberal, I’m a Conservative.
Would you still consider yourself a liberal Conservative?
Yes, yes. I always have been. I think a lot of people in the Labour Party probably regard me as an acceptable face of Conservatism.
The word I would use is glossy. There was a brilliant picture in the New Statesman last week, with Cameron in the foreground and Thatcher’s shadow bearing down on him. There’s no doubt there’s an ideological connection.
He’s three or four years younger than me, but comes from more or less the same generation as I do and had similar influences. So of course she influenced him. But she left office nearly 20 years ago. Politics now has moved on in a really big way. The problems she had to face are not the same problems we have to face, although there are more similarities now in terms of balancing the budget than we thought there would be a year ago. So I think there will be Thatcher influences in a Cameron government, in terms of sound money. I was at a conference then other day on a panel with Ed Vaizey and Peter Hitchens about the big Tory idea. Ed and I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t one. Peter Hitchens was bemoaning this, but I said I’m suspicious of people with big ideas…
Like Ghandi or Kennedy or…
I’m not sure what Kennedy’s big idea was – but that’s my point. An 18 year old got up and said “I’m really disappointed, I wanted to hear a big idea, like Barack Obama”. Ed Vaizey asked what Obama’s big idea was, and this guy said “change”. Ed said what does that mean? “Change” is such a vacuous phrase. It sounds good but doesn’t mean anything. So I said how about “sound money we can believe in” – it’s not very catchy, but it’s going to be the dominating issue in British politics in the next decade. I’m not saying you shouldn’t borrow more in a recession, but there are limits to that and we’ve gone way beyond those limits. So in the end, whoever gets elected at the next election has got to bring spending under control.
You said last week that in a recession, nothing is sacrosanct. I was in my old school that day and paint was peeling off the walls. Surely investment in schools and skills and training at a time of recession is untouchable.
You say untouchable, but it’s all about priorities in the end. I’m not saying we should slash and burn the education budget or the health budget or anything else. However, nobody is going to tell me that there aren’t savings that can be made in the current education budget without affecting frontline education services. If you cut the number of staff in the Department of Education by 20%, would anyone notice? I suspect not.
If you increase the number of teachers by 20%, people would notice.
I would love to increase the number of teachers by 20%. I would love to, and to be fair to the Labour government have done a lot on that. But to just say that everything’s perfect and we need to spend every pound that we’re spending now is just being an ostrich. It’s being blind to the inefficiencies in every area. We are going to have to cut something.
Let’s get on to what it means to be a Conservative, because coming from where I do and with the background I have, that’s anathema…
Where do you come from?
You’re brainwashed! Look, being a Conservative is not the be all and end all of my life. I believe in things that happen to coincide with a lot of Conservative values, but I also believe in some things that don’t. I’m much more liberal on some social issues, but then on others I am very conservative. I believe in a free market economy and I don’t believe in state intervention unless it’s absolutely necessary. I think the state should stay out of the bedroom. I believe in equality of opportunity, but I don’t believe in equality as Harriet Harman would define it. I want the government to stay out of my life.
You touched on free market intervention - don’t you think if we’d had a Conservative government these last ten years, with those values and less regulation, the effects of the recession would be worse?
I’ve no idea. The fact is this recession hasn’t occurred under a Conservative government. There were recessions under Conservative governments…
But we’ve not seen anything like such a harmful impact this time…
No, but we’re about to. There will be 3 million unemployed. Unemployment has been higher at the end of every Labour government than when they came to power – something the Labour government should be ashamed of, because the Labour Party’s priority is to create full employment. I don’t blame Gordon Brown entirely for this recession because he’s right – there are global aspects to it. But he changed the regulatory system. Enough people told him the FSA wasn’t working and yet he did nothing about it. So for him to say it’s all to do with America is completely untrue.
Let’s talk about Boris Johnson, the test case for a Tory government. He’s overturned the tariff on gas-guzzlers; he’s only building social housing in already deprived areas, he praised the sub-prime mortgages in America; he destroyed cycle lane budgets but still called himself green. And those are the very few things he has done…
Good. I like politicians who don’t legislate a lot.
But the few things he has done, he’s messed up.
I was a bit of a sceptic when Boris announced he was going to stand, but as time’s gone on, I think he’s become quite a formidable political operator. Few people get how popular he is out there – walk down the street with him and he’s mobbed.
It’s certainly not the common touch…
It doesn’t need to be a common touch. People don’t see him as a normal politician – he can get away with things that other politicians can’t. That’s a tremendous strength. Ken’s strategy of painting him as a racist was barking mad. If you want a campaign to resonate with people, it’s got to trigger something they already believe in. No one believed Boris was a racist. In terms of what he’s done – I gave him 7/10 for his first year. There are still too many buses - I know that sounds terrible, but how many times do you see three in a row?
I used to wait 40 minutes for my local bus, and now it comes within 5 minutes.
Well that’s great, and I’m not saying there weren’t improvements under Ken. But the congestion charge doesn’t do anything to solve congestion any more – to my mind it’s now just a tax. If you want a tax, be open about it. Say we need revenue. So Boris was right to scrap the western extension.
Does George Osborne have the intellectual ability to be chancellor?
I think he’s one of the most talented people of his generation. He and Cameron are always compared to Brown and Blair, but there’s a huge difference. Cameron and Osborne have a personal chemistry that few people understand. Just because Cameron’s leader doesn’t mean Osborne always defers to him. I also think Osborne learned a huge amount from his experience last year…
On the yacht…?
Yeah. And I’m glad that happened then, because it means it won’t happen in government. A lot of commentators complain that we don’t know what his economic policy will be. But if he released his economic policy now, the Labour Party could easily destroy it – that’s the power of the government machine. But yes, he does need to give a much clearer indication of the general direction they want to go in economically. They’ve started to do that but they’ve now got to talk about specific levels of public spending. They’ve got to talk much more about taxation: that’s not to say big tax cuts, but who should be taxed and at what level? We get lots of accusations of how the Tories are only in favour of the rich, but I think it’s scandalous that we’re paying tax credits to people on £55,000 a year. Why not use that money and take people who are on £12,000 to £15,000 out of the tax system altogether?
I want to ask you about Dan Hannan and the “Socialist Conspiracy” of the NHS.
My view is that the NHS has become a sacred cow – you can’t criticise it without being accused of wanting to abolish it, and that’s very unhealthy. Until we accept that we can’t meet every demand that’s made of the NHS, we’re never going to be able to get anywhere in reforming it. I don’t regard it as a Socialist Conspiracy, but I do regard it as a monolithic bureaucracy where not enough is spent on direct patient care. To my mind, you could break it up into smaller geographical units, decentralise it more efficiently on a regional basis.
The Tories also want to abolish inheritance tax. Do you think inherited wealth, opportunity and influence are fair?
Yes. I think Inheritance Tax is licensed robbery. People have already paid tax once while they’re alive – why should they to pay it again when they die? It’s an indefensible form of taxation. You’ve got to have taxes, but to tax someone for being successful, I don’t think is reasonable.
Some of it still goes to your offspring, but with IHT some of it also goes to other people’s relatives who weren’t initially so fortunate…
At least my argument is ideologically pure. Yours isn’t.
I don’t believe there is such a thing as ideological purism.
Nor do I, generally.
You said in 2004 that you would vote to reinstate the death penalty…
Did I? I’ve always had a dilemma with the death penalty. I can happily rationalise supporting it. But I don’t. I have swung both ways, if you’ll pardon the expression. I used to believe in it for terrorist atrocities because that’s attacking the very fabric of democratic society. That’s why I used to argue in favour of it. David Davis’ argument is that if you have DNA evidence of a multiple killer, you can’t argue you’ve got the wrong person…
So then it’s a moral question.
So then it’s a moral question, but it’s academic because the EU dictates that we’re not allowed to have the death penalty anyway. But if I had to vote on it, my view at the moment would be not to reinstate it.
I know you’ve talked about this before, but the Tory candidate for Stourbridge, Margot James, said last year that the gay community has a “duty” to vote Tory.
Really, and obviously what she said was ridiculous because many Tory MPs voted against the repeal of Section 28 and more than half of the Tory MPs who bothered voting on civil partnerships voted against them, while Labour voted in favour by 307 to 2. You must concede that historically it’s the Labour Party who have fought for Gay Rights.
If you believe that gay people purely vote on gay issues, then I imagine you’re right.
Civil Partnerships are a purely gay issue and Tory representatives voted against it, while Labour representatives votes in favour.
I think if you held that vote now, 70-80% of Tories would vote in favour of it.
But they didn’t when the opportunity was there three or four years ago.
Look, I was selected as a candidate by a very conservative constituency – having told them I was gay. If you’d said to me ten years ago that that could happen I’d have laughed. Margot James herself was selected in a marginal seat. I willingly pay tribute to Labour on gay rights – when I had my civil partnership and gave my speech, I actually thanked Tony Blair. I have no doubt that civil partnerships would not have been brought in by a Conservative government – well, maybe ten years from now, but certainly not in the 1990s or early part of this century. But as a generality, gay people vote on exactly the same issues as everyone else.
Let’s talk about Derek. There was this ridiculous thing earlier in the year where he demanded that you apologise for explaining why Carol Thatcher might use the word “golliwog”. You said then that Derek had “contaminated” the political blogosphere. How do you feel about that now?
I regret it all - and I feel very sorry for Derek. He came to see me in October last year, we had lunch and he clearly knew nothing about the internet. I’ve always regarded people who are interested in blogging as part of a community: we’re all in the same game. So I was happy to talk to Derek and advise him. We talked about a rival to ConservativeHome and I didn’t think he understood the amount of work that went into that. Then we had all the Carol Thatcher stuff, which was beyond the pale. It was student politics. If someone calls me a racist, I’m not going to let that lie. So I hit back. Having said all of that, I’ve always had a soft spot for Derek, and he shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that he set up LabourList up and it’s going to go on without him, albeit in a different format. But if I’m going to read LabourList, I want to read what’s going on in the Labour Party: who’s up, who’s down, all the nuances of the Party – not just Derek’s contacts book.