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Michael Portillo speaks to David Frost

BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST INTERVIEW: MICHAEL PORTILLO MP SHADOW CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER JUNE 24TH, 2001

Please note BBC Breakfast with Frost must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: So who'll succeed William Hague as leader of the Conservative Party then? The front-runner is the Shadow Chancellor Michael Portillo who on Thursday at a lavish breakfast launched his bid to be the man to challenge Tony Blair. Mr Portillo said he wants a more inclusive Tory Party, one which reaches out to a broader range of voters, he wants the Conservatives to engage in a wide-ranging debate about the party¿s core beliefs. He¿ll have strong opposition from Messrs Ancram, Duncan-Smith and Davis but the bookies tell us that Mr Portillo is the runaway favourite to become leader and he¿s here with us now. Michael, welcome.

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Good morning David.

DAVID FROST: In terms of just one, one question looking back for a minute, we¿ve got to look forward of course too, but were you aware that when you, the lack of new inclusiveness and all of that, were you aware that things were going wrong during the campaign or was it really the result on that fateful night that convinced you?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Are you talking about the 2001 campaign?

DAVID FROST: Yes.

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Because actually I¿ve been, obviously, talking about this issue at least since 1997 and I would say even before that. You may remember that after I was defeated in 1997 I made a speech at the Conservative Party Conference in which I talked about the party needing to be a party for everyone in the United Kingdom. And that, I mean obviously this oughtn¿t to be very puzzling, you know we are a great national party with a great history and we ought to make it extremely clear that we are for everybody and indeed I think the tone needs to be right, you know we are for people, we are for things. People in the past may have got the impression that we¿re against groups of people, we are against things, I think we need a much more positive tone. And we, we traditionally have been the party of opportunity, the party that believe that we can extend the ladder to everyone and opportunity is, is not a thing for the few or even for the many, it is, it is really something for everyone who lives in the United Kingdom. And looking ahead and so on, how radical, when you talk about a radical rethink, most radical since 1975, how radical?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Well in 1975 we had a radical policy process, that is to say we opened ourselves as a party to all the best ideas that were available to us and we welcomed into that debate not only everybody who¿s in the Shadow Cabinet and everyone who was in the Parliamentary Party, so that it was a unifying thing in itself, but also we, we opened ourselves to outside influences, to all sorts of people who probably weren¿t Conservative at all but had something to say. I think we have a similar opportunity now because I think the Labour government is, it¿s very concerned with control, it always wants to control what people think so it¿s not open to debate the way we ought to be.

DAVID FROST: But among other things yes right among things it definitely controls is the centre and that¿s the real puzzle isn¿t it? How can you, from the centre-right overcome a party who¿s got the centre-right and the centre-left in its pocket?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Well we certainly have to be in the centre ground, one of the problems we¿ve had recently is not that many of the things we¿ve been saying have been wrong but they have been of only marginal interest and concern to people. People¿s main concerns have been about their children¿s education, about the medical treatment that their families can, can receive, about their fear of crime, about the fact that their journey to work is hell and it goes on day after day after day. Those are people¿s main concerns and we have not seemed sufficiently well briefed about these things, we don¿t seem to, we haven¿t given the impression that we understand what¿s going on and that is the prelude actually to having some different solutions to those problems. First of all is to show that we are absolutely focused on these problems and then through a period of debate by taking the best possible advice, by looking abroad, to see how people are doing things better and differently elsewhere, to come up with better solutions for the things that matter to people, how to educate their children, how to get better medical treatment, how to feel safer on the streets, how to have a better journey to and from work.

DAVID FROST: What about the headline today, Portillo supporters want to make cannabis legal, is that a true story?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: No.

DAVID FROST: It¿s quoting the lady who spoke at MEPs ??? Theresa Villiers?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Yeah I mean one of the features of my campaign is I¿m very pleased to say that I have attracted support from a very wide cross-section of the party and people who have differing views but who very kindly think that I¿m the right candidate to bring things together and to unify things. Now on the, on the question of cannabis, I mean here is an issue which I think is extremely complicated, it is an issue where there are very strong arguments on both sides. Many people in this country now have a view on this, they either have personal experience or they have experience in their family and they must think it¿s very extraordinary that the political class is not prepared to debate the issue. I don¿t, I don¿t know what the answer to this is but I do believe that if people in politics are to claim to represent the people of the country then they¿ve got to be seen at least to be willing to understand and to address issues that people out there are talking about. So certainly as part of the wide review that I¿m concerned about we would be brave enough to think about these issues.

DAVID FROST: Think about that issue as well. There¿s one, looking at the betting odds and so on at the moment, things are looking very positive, there¿s only one cloud in the sky which, which you can dispel for us but I¿ve never asked you about this ever before but that¿s the, the gay issue, you said in ¿99 "I had some homosexual experiences as a young person" but you also said "all the time I¿ve been in public life, I want to make it perfectly clear there has been nothing of this sort whatsoever", that was in 1984 when you were 31 and indeed you also said, on one occasion you¿d always been faithful to your wife which would be 1982 when you were 29. Now the thing is that everybody says, and they all chatter about this is can you assure your potential supporters that there¿s nothing else to come out after 1982 in this area, no more revelation no more truthful revelations to come?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: I¿ve been completely straightforward about this and I don¿t think any politician has been as straightforward as I have been. I¿ve nothing to add to that.

DAVID FROST: Right so you, you, you have been completely truthful on that subject?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Yes.

DAVID FROST: And so the answer to my question is yes they have nothing to fear?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: That is exactly right.

DAVID FROST: Well that¿s absolutely, absolutely clear answer. And one point, other point, not to do with that, but that also ought to be made clear, all your friends are very angry when people complain about the fact that you and Karen don¿t have any children and so on, and that was not your choice, that was just a medical fact of life wasn¿t it?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Well forgive me, I mean but this is our private life, and I¿m sorry, I¿m not I¿m just not prepared to discuss that on television.

DAVID FROST: No, alright, I think that¿s absolutely fine but I just thought that when, absolutely fine, Norman Tebbit for instance raised it as a joke and then your friends talked to me about it and thought it was an unfair joke because of that fact, which is a very favourable fact

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Forgive me, I think we¿re entitled to some private life and I just don¿t intend to say anything more about that.

DAVID FROST: Absolutely and the other thing was you decided to clarify that yourself in 1999 and I think that¿s probably the last time we¿ll need to talk about that. What about Europe, you weren¿t mad keen back in 1996 about the idea of a referendum but isn¿t the referendum almost the best, last best hope of the Tory Party, that if you, if you were to win a referendum on Europe that would transform your fortunes and if you were to lose the one, well at least the issue would be settled and you could get on with life?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Well I think the referendum is, if you like, a special sort of opportunity for the Conservative Party. The matter of whether we join the Euro or not is going to be settled by the British people in a referendum and I expect that that referendum will be in this Parliament, I don¿t know that for certain but we certainly have the prospect of a referendum. Therefore I think we can take the lessons of the last general election which was the people were saying to us, many of us agree with you that we should have our own currency but we¿re not particularly interested in this issue unless and until it¿s put to us in a referendum, at that time we¿re willing to debate it. I think that gives us the opportunity now to say, look it is perfectly clear that people are more interested in other subjects, they are more interested in the question of education, they¿re more interested in the question of health, we therefore have to raise the volume of what we¿re saying about those subjects and it is not necessary for us, during this period, to go on debating the question of Europe. Also the referendum does give us an opportunity because during a referendum campaign, given that the whole thing is going to be settled on the day that the people vote we have more leeway to allow members of the party to express themselves personally during that period and I think we could take advantage of that opportunity.

DAVID FROST: What about the people who say hey why do we have to have a referendum, why don¿t we make the next election the referendum, is that practical?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: No the government has committed itself to a referendum.

DAVID FROST: And if they change their mind, you don¿t think they can

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Well I, I think everyone in this country would be completely outraged if the government changed its mind on the referendum, they¿ve made it perfectly clear that they would have one.

DAVID FROST: Would you like in your new inclusive party, Michael, would you like to have Ken Clarke as a member of the Shadow Cabinet if he¿d do it?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Well I¿m, I¿m, I¿m open to that, I¿m pretty sure that Ken Clarke himself would not wish to serve in a Shadow Cabinet unless he was the leader of the Shadow Cabinet, I mean that is, those are my impressions, he hasn¿t served in it in the last Parliament, he is obviously a very, very big figure and I dare say he would find it difficult to serve in a Shadow Cabinet. I would certainly want Ken to have a very big role in the Conservative Party, I think he¿s an extremely important figure, he¿s a man who has very interesting ideas and who¿s been involved in a lot of reform before so he could play a very important part, whether that would be in a Shadow Cabinet I don¿t know. More broadly people who don¿t agree with me that Britain should have its own currency, I think there should be a place for them in a Shadow Administration and we could use the sort of formula that I¿ve just described to you on allowing them to speak more freely during the period of the referendum campaign.

DAVID FROST: During that particular period, yes. Would you like William Hague to serve in your Shadow Cabinet if he would, in a senior position?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Well I really don¿t want to get into picking the Shadow Cabinet at the moment and I certainly haven¿t had a chance to discuss that with William and anyway we¿re only beginning this leadership challenge, this leadership race which will go on until the middle of September.

DAVID FROST: Ironically enough it didn¿t feel that way in ¿97 but you were very lucky to have lost Enfield really weren¿t you, Southgate, because what, what it did, you didn¿t become leader and you didn¿t lose the last election. You would never have thought it was good news at the time but it was in two senses wasn¿t it? It allowed you to rethink and allowed you know to be unbeaten if you become leader?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Well it was certainly a great opportunity to, to return to normal life, you know the life where, where you do take buses and trains and you do have to get to work in the morning and, and you do have more contact with people and, you remember I used that opportunity to, to make some television programmes, write some articles, for example I worked three shifts as a hospital porter, I spent some time going on to council estates looking at the sorts of lives that people were living in, the difficulties they faced and the, not only the physical poverty that they have but also the poverty of aspiration. So it was, it was an opportunity to reconnect with what is a real world and a world that actually seems very distant from Westminster

DAVID FROST: And in terms of that real world, how close were you to, as it were, leaving politics and going into the real world, were you close, during that time, that whole period of examination?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: I think, I think it could have gone either way but the moment that there was an opportunity to return to the House of Commons my mind cleared and I decided that that was what I wanted to do.

DAVID FROST: Do you think it¿ll take you, if you become leader, it¿ll take you two elections before Conservatives can win an election?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Well, our, our ambition is to win the next election and the question that the Conservative Party has is how can we put ourselves in the best position to win that next election. That really, I think, is what the choice of leader is largely about and it¿s my belief that we give ourselves the best chance of winning that next election if we are willing to embrace change. That doesn¿t mean change away from our basic principles which will remain the same, they are timeless

DAVID FROST: But how radical do the, do the changes in policy have to be presumably they¿re on the health and education and welfare from than on the constitution or something that?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Yes the main changes we have to make have to be in the areas where people¿s minds are most focused and where people have most interest and that is, as you say, health, education and transport and law and order. The first radical change would be for the Conservative Party to show that it was more concerned for those issues than with anything else and that it felt a passion about those issues which at the moment it only demonstrates when it talks about some other issues, they have to show that passion about the things that people are most concerned about. The great talent of the Conservative Party over decades and centuries has been to apply its principles, for instance believing in lighter government, believing in devolving responsibilities to people, to new situations, to win in each new generation supporters who had never before supported the Conservative Party, to make those values relevant in new ways to the issues of the day. And that is the great challenge that we face so I¿m pretty sure that over a period of time we will come up with very distinctive policy positions, distinctive to the ones that Labour hold, but that is a long process because first of all we have to do a lot of learning and a lot of understanding it and a lot of thinking about policy areas where up ¿til now we¿ve not been sufficiently engaged, or at least not sufficiently engaged collectively as a whole Shadow Cabinet.

DAVID FROST: And will you be, are you one of those people who wants to see the 40 per cent, percentage down to 35 or 30 per cent, a smaller state, shrinking the state, or does that cut against what you¿re saying about health and education?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: I think you¿re trying to leap to the conclusion before we¿ve, before we¿ve done the workings. The Conservative Party has just suffered a, a major defeat, the object now is to make sure that the party doesn¿t go down further and the second object is to make sure that the party can win the next election and in order to do that we focus on the policies that are of concern to people and we come up with good solutions to those policies. I don¿t believe that we can begin that process by having a rather dogmatically, some sort of figure in our minds

DAVID FROST: You¿ve got to be open-minded for them, because someone commented that the whole problem is that when the Tory Party¿s nationalist wing and its commercial wing get out of sync, they were totally in sync in the time of Margaret Thatcher, but when they get out of sync, like for instance the time of the Corn Laws or at the time of the beginning of Tariff Reform at the beginning of the last century as it now is, then, then there¿s 20 years in the wilderness, is that a danger do you think, the split between those two powerful wings of the Tory Party, the nationalist sovereignty and, and the commercial?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Well I think I prefer to choose the positive lesson, the periods when we have suffered heavy defeat before which have, which have occurred before of course, have been followed by periods in which the party was willing to embrace change. That didn¿t mean that it had to throw out of the window what it believed in but it did mean that it had to be willing to update itself, it had to be willing to associate itself with people¿s aspirations and with their anxieties, to become really the spokesman for people¿s anxieties and to identify their aspirations and to present those to the British people. That¿s what we need to do again.

DAVID FROST: And did you agree, talking of 1975 and so on, when John Major said here last Sunday with me said, Thatcherism was right for its time, it¿s wrong for this time?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Well it depends what you mean by Thatcherism, I mean one of the things I most remember about Thatcherism is that it was at the cutting edge, it was modern, it followed an enormous policy debate, it addressed itself to groups of people who had never dreamt of voting Conservative before and it was extremely successful electorally. Now in those respects Thatcherism is by no means out of date, what we¿ve got to do is have the sort of skill that she had, and the skill that other Conservative leaders have had in all the periods following heavy defeats that we¿ve had over the centuries.

DAVID FROST: And are you expecting a long and bumpy and slightly tough summer, is the campaign going to be?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Well let me tell you what I would like, in 1990 we had a campaign between John Major, Douglas Hurd, Michael Heseltine and it was a campaign in which the three candidates actually builds each other up, they were always paying tributes to one another during the course of the campaign. As a result of that the media attention the Conservative Party received for the two or three week period actually enhanced the party¿s reputation, people thought better of the Conservative Party at the end of it and they thought what a good bunch of guys, they all respect each other and they build each other up. Now this is a great opportunity for us as a party, if we could conduct ourselves over the next two months in a way that built each other up then we could all as a party benefit from that publicity and that¿s what I would like to see.

DAVID FROST: Very clear and that probably means you¿d have to have a reconciliation with Ann Widdecombe?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: I have no quarrel with her so that won¿t be a problem for me.

DAVID FROST: Michael thank you very much indeed, thank you for being with us this morning. Michael Portillo there, the favourite for the Tory leadership.

END

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