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Sir David Frost talks to the Conservative leader William Hague, MP.

HUW EDWARDS: Now, time to go to Darlington as promised, where Sir David is with the leader of the opposition, William Hague, over to you David.

DAVID FROST: Huw, thanks a million. And he is indeed here, William good morning.

WILLIAM HAGUE: Good morning.

DAVID FROST: A weekend in which you've learned that you've got another new Conservative candidate, that Frank Bruno wants to stand for the Tories in Ongar. What a team, a dream team, Ann Widdicombe and Frank Bruno on law and order.

WILLIAM HAGUE: Well actually we already have a candidate in Ongar.

DAVID FROST: Well that was seen to be a problem -

WILLIAM HAGUE: - so there may be a slight difficulty there, but Frank will always be welcome in the Conservative Party.

DAVID FROST: Well here, I made a New Year resolution that I would try and get through the first ten minutes of this interview without coming out with the subject of opinion polls, because you get it every time. But they forced their way in and so I'm breaking my resolution but I want you to know it's the thought that counts, I tried not to do it. But we have two polls today which are showing 15 and 21 per cent leads for Labour, and we have all those statistics about no opposition ever gains ground, in the last forty years, during the last four or five months, and so on. So your reaction to those this morning.

WILLIAM HAGUE: Well I've learned, over the last three and a half years, never to be put off by opinion polls. And indeed if you look at history you should never be put off by opinion polls.

DAVID FROST: But you use opinion polls, you have ICM doing lots of polls for you.

WILLIAM HAGUE: That doesn't mean you have to believe everything that they say. You have to be informed by talking to the real people out there. Remember in the 1970 election Ted Heath faced a 14 per cent Labour lead on election day, and won the election. When we approached the European elections two years ago, there was a 28 per cent Labour lead in the polls and everybody told me it was all over and done with and it was all written off and finished, and we won the European elections. We must never be put off by opinion polls, elections are decided by real people thinking in their own minds about how to vote on election day, they are not decided by how pollsters tell them to vote.

DAVID FROST: But people say about you where does he get this extraordinary resilience from? Where does he get this unnerving confidence from? Is it in fact a unique quality of yours, or is it, as some say, because you're out of touch with reality and only talk to a few people in a close circle?

WILLIAM HAGUE: No I have it because I'm in touch with thousands of people. I spend most of my time travelling around the country - I'm not a politician who sits in London just looking at statistics or talking to a few officials, I spend most of my time out and about around Britain. I come up - I come here every weekend, to my constituency - you've very kindly come along as well this weekend - so I meet thousands of people every week. And it is because of that that I know the next election is all there for the taking. People are fed up with being let down by the Labour Party, they want to know what the alternative is, they want to hear that over the coming months and they are going to hear it.

DAVID FROST: Well that's the odd thing isn't it, in this Sunday Telegraph thing, they say dissatisfaction with the Government on the health service and everything else, but when it comes through to the end, they go for a 52/31 for Labour and here they say that the Conservatives only 16 per cent think they would improve public services while twice as many believe that you would make them worse. So that it doesn't link up does it? Nothing comes through to you.

WILLIAM HAGUE: Well first of all, as I was saying, you mustn't believe what you read in opinion polls. But secondly, even if it were true, what it means is that we have to communicate our message over the coming months, we have to show what we will do in office - and I will readily concede we have to show more people that. We've won over some people but we have to win over some more. But we shouldn't in any way be put off by opinion surveys, we would never have started rebuilding the Conservative Party if we were put off by opinion surveys. So we have to get out there, campaign, make sure we're in touch with the country because we have a very out of touch and arrogant Government, and people deserve something much better than that.

DAVID FROST: What about Lib-Lab poll? Huw quoted us earlier too, Lib-Lab poll pact aims to crush Tories, could cost you another hundred seats if they get together in this unofficial meld, unofficial treaty.

WILLIAM HAGUE: It's a little bit arrogant of the Liberal and Labour parties - and it doesn't say much for them actually, that they're considering giving up in large parts of the country, we're not giving up anywhere, the Liberals might do, the Labour Party might do, we're not giving up anywhere. Isn't it arrogant of them to think they will decide who everybody will vote for. It depends on the voters whether there is tactical voting, it doesn't depend on the parties, it depends on what the voters wants to do and I think the voters want to see a change, I think the voters know they have been let down, every promise made by the Labour Party, on those famous pledge cards at the last election, has been broken.

DAVID FROST: Not every one.

WILLIAM HAGUE: Yes, everyone if you look at -

DAVID FROST: One made -

WILLIAM HAGUE: I know they twist the odd statistic to say oh we've met that pledge, but actually they haven't met any of those pledges in reality, and people out there know it.

DAVID FROST: But surely they, they, they've definitely met three of them - I'm trying to visualise it in my mind at this minute - they have met three of them haven't they - nursery places, very nearly they'll do that

WILLIAM HAGUE: They say they've met the pledge on class sizes for five, six and seven year olds, but they didn't explain at the time that it meant the class sizes in all the secondary schools were going to go up. We now have some schools on a four day week -

DAVID FROST: No but they - I know - but that - it was only a primary school pledge and they passed that - other ones.

WILLIAM HAGUE: if you look at the health service pledge, they said they'd reduce the waiting list, but what have they done, they've increased the number waiting to get onto the waiting list -

DAVID FROST: Yes -

WILLIAM HAGUE: - the a number of people waiting -

DAVID FROST: That's absolutely true but the bit they promised has come true, hasn't it?

WILLIAM HAGUE: Did anybody actually expect, when they said we will cut the NHS waiting list by 100,000, that they would do that by cutting one waiting list and expanding the other by more than a hundred thousand? So they cannot say that they have met that pledge with a straight face, there are more people waiting for hospital treatment than there were before -

DAVID FROST: There are the - there are the two categories of course there. What, what about this, that you are - and this is the News of the World - you're facing a huge 15 million pound shortfall in your war chest and, most amazing of all, the party is hoping to raise seven million pounds by selling its palatial headquarters in Smith Square? That's news.

WILLIAM HAGUE: Were it true. Well it would be news if it was true. But no it's not, it's not true, we're not selling the headquarters and we're not facing a shortfall - we do raise a lot more money now from small donations, I'm pleased to say, from a large number of small donations - and that's a good healthy thing for a political party. And, but we're raising plenty of money for the election and we'll be able to fight the election.

DAVID FROST: And you are going to keep Smith Square.

WILLIAM HAGUE: Oh we're certainly not going to change in the, in the coming months, it would be a bit bizarre in the middle of an election campaign to say 'oh we've got something else to do, we're going to move the party headquarters.' So no there are no plans for that.

DAVID FROST: No plans for that. You might do it later?

WILLIAM HAGUE: Who knows, but there is certainly no plan, it's not going to happen in the next few months and there are no plans for it, at all, at the moment.

DAVID FROST: What about this difficult situation, in the financial sense, that there are figures from eight billion to 16 billion going back to a few months ago when we first talked about this, the amount that you would have to save in cuts because you are not going to spend at the same rate as the of trend growth and so on. And the figure is eight to 16 million(?) and the figure you have spoken to is eight billion. Now you've so far come up with 5.3 billion and got roundly criticised for being all those vague things like waste and fraud and social security and things that nobody can ever get their hands on. But have you found the other 2.7 yet?

WILLIAM HAGUE: We've got a few more announcements to make but we've now announced more than six billion pounds of changes in how much the government spend. Let's get this straight, because we're not talking about cutting government spending - and I know it's the easier thing to talk about, cuts - but we're not talking about cuts. What is happening is over the next three years the Labour Party intend to increase the amount of money, of taxpayers money, the government spends by 68 billion pounds. And we say let's make it 60 billion pounds. That's what we actually need to increase it by - we don't need to increase it by 68 billion - it's 60 billion. Lets shows some ways in which we can spend eight billion pounds less than they are planning to, but still a huge increase. So we're not talking about cuts in any real sense of the word. An eight billion pound change, and that will allow us then to reduce the burden of taxes on people who've been clobbered in the last few years. Pensioners, savers, hard working families, small businesses - these people are all paying too much in tax. Let's use some money to help them. And so we've set out over six billion pounds of changes so far - none of which would hurt anybody, because it involves cutting waste out of government, it does involve tackling fraud, but some very specific plans for doing so. And that's what's actually on the table so when you hear the Labour Party going on about Tory cuts we're not proposing cuts, we're simply proposing to increase spending at a lower rate.

DAVID FROST: Increase at a lower rate. But at the same time it can't all be - eight billion is a hell of a lot in cuts - it can't be no hurt, it will mean pain won't it? I mean you can't cut eight billion without pain

WILLIAM HAGUE: Well let's look at some - let's look at some of the things we would do. The Government are now spending 1.8 billion pounds more on running the civil service, running Whitehall, than we were spending three and a half years ago. Has anybody benefited from that? No. We can put that back to what it was. They have failed to tackle welfare fraud that is now running away at something like a seven

DAVID FROST: But the Tories, the Tories failed to do that in 18 years.

WILLIAM HAGUE: No

DAVID FROST: I mean Margaret Thatcher wanted to do it, she couldn't. Peter Lilley wanted to do it, he couldn't.

WILLIAM HAGUE: did quite a lot to tackle fraud, usually being roundly opposed and attacked by the Labour Party at the time. We, we want to pay housing benefit in a different way because some local authorities who pay housing benefit have an appalling record of error and overpayment, taking that away from the worst performing authorities saves 400 million pounds. We want to help the unemployed in a different way, with what we call our Britain Work scheme, where we would pay private companies, according to results, to find and get work for people that lack. Now all of these things save money and are good ideas in themselves.

DAVID FROST: One - well first of all there's the question of persuading people about that, but then we got these figures out yesterday, which you have seen probably, where Labour is suggesting you're actually, your ministers going off the leash have spent lots more money, another seven billion they claim, as well that you have a problem with. For instance, one was where Ann Widdicombe said our asylum system will be completely overhauled and we will automatically house all new applicants in secure reception centres - which means 32,000 people being detained for six months, they say - 64 detention centres, 500 beds each, cost in year one 3.2 billion.

WILLIAM HAGUE: They do have a cheek, don't they, of accusing us of wanting to spend more on asylum seekers. It's this government that by its weakness in the asylum system, by actually encouraging through an amnesty two years ago an increase in the number of asylum applications, is now having to spend vastly more on asylum seekers. It must follow from our proposals, to be tougher about the asylum system, that we would deter unwarranted applications for asylum and that the costs would come down over the next few years. So we're not proposing to spend extra money on that, but I know we'll get all these scare tactics ahead of the election.

DAVID FROST: But it does sound -

WILLIAM HAGUE: . what it will do -

DAVID FROST: Sixty-four detention centres, 500 beds each, will be rather expensive.

WILLIAM HAGUE: No I think, I think there will be a reduction in the number of asylum applications under a Conservative government because of the measures that we will adopt. So you would see over several years a reduction in expenditure on asylum.

DAVID FROST: And the scrapping of early release from prison - they say that would cost another fortune, ten thousand extra people in the prisons.

WILLIAM HAGUE: Well first of all the Home Office budget is going up anyway, it's a question of how you spend that productively. They claim to be putting a lot more money into the Home Office spending, on things like, things like prisons and police. We say let's make sure we spend it effectively, which we can do by making prison regimes more effective and restoring the morale of the police force. You only get more police if they believe they can do a good job and they don't believe that in many cases at the moment.

DAVID FROST: Where do we stand at the moment, William, on the question of leading up into this election on the question of TV debates?

WILLIAM HAGUE: I think there should be a debate between the party leaders, and I accept without any qualification, I accept the terms of the BBC/ITV proposal for two debates in the election campaign. We've put forward a different plan that would have involved three, two-way debates and more audience participation and so on, but the only plan on the table is the one that the BBC and ITV chiefs have set forward, for two debates in the election between the three party leaders. And so I, I today withdraw my preference for our original scheme, I will sign up to their scheme, I absolutely accept that, and that means everybody is now signed up to it, except for Tony Blair. BBC, ITV, Liberal Party, Conservative Party, we should have debates. And you know he was saying on your programme last week, Tony Blair was saying he didn't want to spend ten days of the election arguing about this. Well he doesn't need to now, because everybody else has accepted it, he needn't think about it for another ten minutes, let's have the debates, agreed, straight away. And I challenge him today to accept that.

DAVID FROST: And now you've accepted it here and now, will Charles Kennedy go along with it too?

WILLIAM HAGUE: Well I believe so. I understand that the Liberals are in favour of this idea. And if, as I say, if that is the case, then the only remaining obstacle to the people of this country seeing their party leaders debating with each other, in an election - as they do in America, as they do in France, as they do in most of the democratic world now - the only remaining obstacle is that Tony Blair doesn't want to have that debate and he was extremely evasive with you, if I may say so, last week, when -

DAVID FROST: he was.

WILLIAM HAGUE: - you quite rightly asked him about it.

DAVID FROST: It may not have been entirely definitive, I, I -

WILLIAM HAGUE: That's a very polite way of putting it.

DAVID FROST: Than the - but that's why I wanted to find out where it stood a week later, and that's very clear where you stand a week later. If you had to summarise, as he did in one paragraph, what to do with the economy, what is going to be your watchword, your driving message, your core message - I don't mean a long list of things, I mean what's the core message you're going to try and get across in the next four months?

WILLIAM HAGUE: I think it is that we want to give people back their country. I feel, as I go around Britain, that people's country is being taken from. And I'm going to say to people around Britain, look you are losing your country, political correctness is taking over from common-sense, more and more of the money that you work hard to earn and save is being taken from you, and much of it is being wasted. The society you live in is becoming less law abiding and the Government are not doing anything effective about that, and more and more of the rights and powers of your country are being given away without your consent and beyond your democratic control to European Union institutions. And I've, your country is being taken from you, I want to give you back your country.

DAVID FROST: You want to give back to people the country, that's going to be, that's going to be the slogan. And do you think you were right to say that you wouldn't ratify the Nice treaty? Was that because you thought the country was being taken away from people in the Nice treaty?

WILLIAM HAGUE: Well it is steadily, by increment. And at each stage governments have said 'oh you don't have to worry about this, this is only a little bit of power that we're giving away.' Tony Blair's been doing 'oh it's all, all very reassuring, don't worry, we're only giving away lots of little powers.' But actually they add up over time. And of course at the same time they were making the agreements about a European army, duplicating the structures of Nato, and it's a very serious threat to the future of the Western alliance, we should not be fracturing and fragmenting Nato, the most successful military alliance in the history of the world. These are dangerous games that are being played.

DAVID FROST: Do you think you made a mistake, talking of dangerous games, you came out for supporting the Star Wars, so called Star Wars, initiative that President - president elect - president elect, George Bush is said to be pushing very hard. And you came out for that Star Wars system before the Americans even know if it works, and certainly before we've had time to try and ease the passage of this with the Chinese, the Russians, Tony Blair, talking to Putin a lot and all of that sort of thing. For those two reasons, wasn't it premature?

WILLIAM HAGUE: No not all, I think it's important that we give a lead on this subject. The United States does intend to develop a system of this kind. I know that they, it's called Star Wars for short, and people probably think there is going to be a Luke Skywalker dancing around in the sky, but actually it's a bit, it's a bit more feasible than that. Of course there is a lot of development work still to take place but the new administration in the United States intend to proceed with this project, it is best for Britain, best for Europe to get involved in that now. And rather like we had to lead opinion in Europe in the 1980s, so we now, Britain has to lead opinion to support the United States on this project over the next few years.

DAVID FROST: How hard are you going to play the euro? Some of your people are concerned, you know, that it's a one issue party, because that's your one hope or whatever, others think it's your one danger as it were. How hard are you going to the euro in this campaign? You've, you've, obviously the slogan that the, the thought, the paragraph that you gave us just now, obviously would allow that to be part of we're giving your country back to you. So how much are you going to the euro?

WILLIAM HAGUE: It is an important factor in the coming election - it's not the only one, you can see from all the subjects we've just been talking about, that it's not the only issue I'm going to be addressing in this campaign. But it is one, it is a crucial issue because this election may be the last election in which people can vote to keep the pound. You know Tony Blair will do anything to join the euro in the next parliament, and he only has to get in the next parliament a few months in any time in a four or five year period when he can scare people and con people into thinking they have to give up their currency, and then it's gone for ever. So this is the last election in which people can say I want to vote to keep the pound, I want a government that believes in keeping the pound

DAVID FROST: Nick Scheele, earlier on, we were watching, from Ford, and he was saying that they've built their plans around the fact that Britain would go into the euro in the years 2004 to 2006 and that there would be dire consequences if we didn't. What do you think of that as a plan? I mean that wouldn't happen in your hands would it?

WILLIAM HAGUE: No. I think it would be wise for companies to plan on several different eventualities, one of which is that we keep the pound. And I do remember, if you think about ten, 11 years back, when we went into the ERM - which was the pilot project if you like, for the euro - I remember a lot companies saying to the government at the time, 'we've planned to go into the ERM - you must go into the ERM and link your currency with the other European currencies.' Then we went in, and a year later they were saying 'you must come out of the ERM, it's doing great damage, we've got the wrong interest rates for this country now.' Now of course we could come out of the ERM, we did come out of the ERM, but once you're in the euro, you can't come out of it. That is for ever, it's not just for the next year, not just for Christmas, it's for life. And you're stuck in it once you are in it.

DAVID FROST: But isn't it possible under your leadership we might come out of the European Union?

WILLIAM HAGUE: No. No, no. I want to be in Europe but not run by Europe. And that means being an enthusiastic participant in the European Union but drawing the line in the sand now and saying we will not hand over any more of the rights and powers of our country beyond the control of the people of this country.

DAVID FROST: And so as we, and so as we approach this election, another statistic here, that the Tories have not gained a single bye-election seat from Labour and no opposition has been in that position and gone on to win. It does suggest that, after what we said earlier, that you just need desperately, or your supporters need you to find, the white rabbit that will produce a miracle. Do you have such a white rabbit?

WILLIAM HAGUE: Not a white rabbit but a great deal of persistence to build on the successes that we have had. We haven't gained a parliamentary bye-election seat, but we haven't had any bye-elections in marginal seats in the last few years. Where we did, in the Scottish parliament, we gained the seat in Ayr a year ago from the Labour Party. But we have scored a great victory in the European elections, we did win the local elections last year, in which millions of people voted, so we have won most of the elections that have taken place in this country in the last two years, so Tories should not be downcast or disheartened, we've been taking our party back to electoral success in real elections rather than opinion polls.

DAVID FROST: If you, if it turns out you need two elections to win back the government for the Tories, do you think your party would give you that time?

WILLIAM HAGUE: We're not, we're not planning for two elections, we're out to win this year, we can win this election. So I'm not entering into, in the next few months, what happens in the future, what about another election - this is the election the things I've been talking about are at stake in this election and it will be no good turning round at the following election saying 'oh we wish we'd voted to keep the pound in the election before' - this is the last chance to do some of these things, so we fight to win.

DAVID FROST: But do you think Gary Streeter, your shadow cabinet man, had a point when he said "I think it's obvious that we haven't yet found our voice, we've haven't yet, perhaps, fully grounded what 21st century Conservatism looks like"?

WILLIAM HAGUE: You'd have to look at the whole of what Gary Streeter was saying because he was also saying what tremendous progress we have made and Gary Streeter, if he was sitting here, would be an extremely enthusiastic advocate of everybody voting Conservative in the coming election.

DAVID FROST: Particularly if you were sitting next to him.

WILLIAM HAGUE: But yes I, I do concede we've got more work to do. I do think we've got more people to win over, but I do think it's possible to do it. I think we've made more progress than people sometimes give us credit for. I think now the atmosphere is very different from the time of the last election . There was a lot of hostility towards the Conservative Party on the doorsteps at the last election,, and now, there isn't always support, but there is always a readiness to listen and to think again. And to hear what we're saying again - and that gives us far better prospects in the coming election than we had at the time of the last election.

DAVID FROST: But if the election was next Thursday you wouldn't win, would you? You've got a lot of work to do after that, yeah?

WILLIAM HAGUE: Well who knows. If the election was next Thursday, we would of course just have had four or five weeks of campaigning - which would have been terrible because it would have been over Christmas but - and we would have had all that and who knows what opinion would now be. Yes we've got some work ahead of us but there, you know, the Labour Party are getting rather complacent about this election and some people in the media are starting to take it for granted, and I belong to that school of thought, we saw it in the review of the papers, wasn't it Alan Watkins writing that he belonged to the school of thought that Tony Blair is in for a shock - well you won't be surprised to hear that I belong to that school of thought.

DAVID FROST: Not, not -

WILLIAM HAGUE: And I intend to administer the shock as well as belong to that school of thought.

DAVID FROST: Not surprising at all. And what, one vote that is just coming up is the vote on fox hunting. How are you going to vote on that?

WILLIAM HAGUE: Oh I will vote for, for fox hunting to continue, for people to continue to have that freedom if they, if they wish to do so. And I think this is just being used, this issue, by Labour. The countryside - here we are next to a large part of the English countryside - has immense problems. The rural areas of Britain are under incredible pressures, agriculture is in deep recession, what do the Labour Party do? They have this, throw this distraction, before the election, for their own party purposes, of banning hunting, instead of actually dealing with the real issues of the countryside - and I think that's a disgrace.

DAVID FROST: And so you don't think the middle way - dare I say the third way, the compromise in the middle of regulation - you don't think that will fly?

WILLIAM HAGUE: Well actually the proposal that I will vote for is, is one that involves self-regulation by hunts - and that is what I will vote for. I stress, by the way, that this is not a party position, this is a free vote of all Members of Parliament. This is how I vote as the MP for the Yorkshire Dales, for the, for a large slice of rural Britain. But I think that this is simply using this issue as a distraction from the real problems of the countryside.

DAVID FROST: William Hague - William thank you very much for being with us, among the Dales here in Darlington.

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