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Last Updated: Sunday, 2 November, 2003, 11:51 GMT
Tory succession
On 2 November 2003, Sir David Frost interviewed Liam Fox MP and Michael Portillo MP.

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

Liam Fox, MP
Liam Fox, MP

DAVID FROST: I'm joined by Michael Howard's campaign manager, MP Liam Fox.

Good morning Liam.

LIAM FOX: Good morning.

DAVID FROST: Congratulations on how successfully that whole thing happened this week. Did it go better than you expected?

LIAM FOX: Well I think that anyone who's been a watcher of the Tory Party in the last ten years will be amazed that the penny has finally dropped with the parliamentary party, that they have to act together with a single united front or they'll have no chance of looking like a credible alternative government. And this week I think is the week that the Tory party rediscovered its hunger for office.

DAVID FROST: Absolutely. And how long have you been working with Michael on this?

LIAM FOX: I've worked with Michael since 1993, I was his PPS, it was the first job I had as an MP when he was the Home Secretary, so he gave me my first step on the ladder as it were, and Michael and I have been very close ever since and naturally enough, I think, when it looked as though Iain might be very sadly facing defeat at a confidence vote, we decided that we would have to act and I was very keen for Michael to become the party leader.

And what has amazed me is the way that my colleagues from right across the political spectrum in the party have all rallied round to give Michael the support - it's a wonderful beginning.

DAVID FROST: And in terms of that, and preparing for it. One of the things that the papers of course have said, is this tremendous Coronation atmosphere as it were, and so on, but then some of them, the Tories apparently are going to say, remember what he did in the past, the poll tax and the 15% mortgage rates and the three million unemployed. And all the things from the 18 years of Tory rule and so on. Do you think that will be there, their main assault?

LIAM FOX: Oh, I imagine we'll have a line of Labour politicians starting to tell us what the problems were in the past, but Michael will be talking about the potential solutions for the future.

And if the best that the Labour party can do to engage in real political debate is to talk about the 1980s while the Conservative Party is talking about the 21st Century, that's fine by us, because what we'll be focusing on is how do we get to a position where we're able to reduce taxes where Labour has raised them, how we provide real solutions for reform in our public services and give people choice on education, on health and on Europe - all the things that Tony Blair's actually denying them.

DAVID FROST: The main step forward will need to be, obviously, somehow to get across to the nation who, obviously seeing that UGOV poll and so on, haven't gone the same way that Westminster has, get that Westminster fervour out into the country where it isn't at the moment.

LIAM FOX: Well I think it's a matter of ruling out policies in a credible way. We've got a leader now who's a political heavyweight. We don't need to worry whether he's up to high office or not, because he's shown he's capable of holding high office.

And we've got a set of policies bequeathed by Iain Duncan Smith, which means that we're starting from a relatively consensual base in the party, we don't have a split on Europe, we now look to a common way forward and giving parents choice in education, patients choice in health and a public referendum on Europe. And these are all, I think, very positive starts, and Michael's starting one or two points behind in the polls compared with 25 points for previous leaders.

He's going to net positive rating amongst voters, they think he's a political heavyweight and a credible alternative Prime Minister. It's all a pretty rosy picture compared to what we've had in the past ten years.

DAVID FROST: When you say Europe. I mean obviously the only way that Europe can be reunited, as if it's somehow anaesthetised and so on. Does that mean that when he says he'll speak and lead from the centre of the party, that pro-European members of the Shadow Cabinet are welcome?

LIAM FOX: Well, we've got a clear position on Europe as we run up to the European Constitution, that it provides a major change in our relationship with Europe. The Prime Minister says people in Britain should not be allowed a say on that. We say as a party that they should be allowed a say on their own future and that will be the dividing line in Europe between the parties, between now and the next General Election. And it's a battle we're very happy to fight as a united party.

DAVID FROST: And in terms of David Davis. That was a vital move this week, wasn't it, when at 7.45 he came out and said, you knew he was going to do that presumably?

LIAM FOX: Well, I think what's been amazing has been the selflessness of many of my colleagues, showing I think that statesmanship has been missing in the party for some time. People like David standing aside, Michael Ancram, Tim Yeo, all saying actually the party's more important than our own individual political careers. I think that's something that the voters have thought was missing for a long time. For once the Tory party looks as though it's putting the country first and the Conservative party second.

DAVID FROST: Does anyone know, Liam, the position they're going to occupy in the Shadow Cabinet?

LIAM FOX: No. Michael has made it very clear from the outset┐

DAVID FROST: No David Davis?

LIAM FOX: No deals with anyone at all. Michael, and I think he's absolutely right on this, has decided that he has to do it as the leader, he has to be elected in the way that he would intend to run the party with a free hand, and he decides what jobs we all get.

Michael Portillo, MP
Michael Portillo, MP

DAVID FROST: And Michael Portillo is here, as promised earlier in the programme, we always live up to our pledges. And, I mean, Harold Wilson used to say that a week is a long time in politics, and that's certainly been true this week, I mean ...

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Extraordinary ...

DAVID FROST: Here sitting on this sofa battling for his future was Iain Duncan Smith a week ago, and now a week later we have virtually a new leader in place and so on. Did the speed of that take you by surprise, or were you expecting it?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: No, I could see that Iain Duncan Smith was under tremendous pressure and I wasn't surprised there was going to be a vote of confidence. But what was a great relief, what was marvellous for us was that we were able to settle on a new leader without an election contest. I think that's a great step forward.

DAVID FROST: And, you've been writing here today obviously, about you get a man with authority, questions posed by modernisers, even if we are a minority it won't go away, parties do have to reform or die. That would be your message to him really today would it?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Both parts of that. I mean first of all absolutely congratulations to Michael because he is a figure of great authority and a figure of great credibility and a figure of intelligence.

And all of that I think is great for the party. I mean we're not going to be debating the leadership any more, and that's really the first time we've been in that position for ten years. What I also say is that the modernisers in the party are a minority so he's got no obligation particularly to listen to what we're saying. But I do think and I've been saying this for a long time that the Conservative party has a problem, particularly with its representation. I mean, there are too many people like me actually, white, middle-aged from the south-east of England, middle-class, and we do want some more variety in the party.

Because obviously we need to look, we need to look as though we represent society as a whole and that we understand society as it is. Now, I don't think Michael is as signed up to all that as perhaps I am. But on the other hand he is now leader and I'm sure he'll want to consider all the issues and points of view that are put forward.

DAVID FROST: Yes, and he said didn't he, that he was going to be leading the party from the centre, the centre of the party not necessarily of the country, but the centre of the party. And if he made a call to you about joining him in the Shadow Cabinet, what would you say?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Well I've been asked that a number of times and I just think it would be presumptuous even to answer the question because I've no reason to think that he would approach me. I mean I've not been part of his team, he doesn't owe me anything at all. So I'd really rather say that, you know, that's entirely for Michael and I don't expect it.

DAVID FROST: But I mean if, in that situation, he does seem to have actually, you used the word team, actually he uses the word team talking of Ken Clarke, that he won't be a member of the Shadow Cabinet, but be part of the team.

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Well in that sense clearly, I think the great thing here is that everybody and that includes Ken and me and many other people with some stature in the party, they're all going to be on Michael's team in that broader sense.

DAVID FROST: And what is the most important thing he has to do. I suppose it is to continue the unity that he's starting off with I suppose, because the public hate divided parties. But what's the first initiative he should look at?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: I'm not sure that he needs an initiative, except perhaps the one he's already taken. I mean his leadership campaign actually run by Liam Fox who was on your programme earlier, has been so impressive, it kind of promises everything that we need, that is to say organisation, discipline, clarity. You know those are the things that, authority, I mean he's already demonstrated that.

And that is his natural style. I mean here is a man, and I mean this in a very complimentary way, who knows how to use power. You know I've seen that when I've been in government with him. And I think that's exactly what we need. We just need no uncertainty, absolute clarity, forward leadership, and I have not the least doubt that Michael's the man to do that.

DAVID FROST: Apparently he's leaning towards doing this ballot whereby the members will confirm him if the, first of all, the MPs do. And you were saying how good it was that there's not going to be a rival. Do you think that's a right move or a sort of deterrent to action?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: No, I think it's a right move. I'm not sure if it's an entirely necessary move. I mean I think this idea that the party membership is upset that we've made this change is wrong, as far as I can detect people understood that things weren't going right with Iain Duncan Smith and I don't think even the party rank and file welcomed the responsibility that they were being given to appoint a leader who might not be the leader that the members of parliament want.

And I think many people thought that in a way we'd abdicated an important responsibility and would like to see the system reform. But if Michael wants to get the confirmation by the whole party, fine, I mean he'll have absolutely no difficulty getting it, he'll get an overwhelming, 100% endorsement.

DAVID FROST: Just like in Iraq in the old days.

MICHAEL PORTILLO: I don't think that's a very happy comparison. He'll certainly have it if he wants it.

DAVID FROST: And in terms of moving ahead. Realistically I suppose you would be looking to Michael to get much closer to the Tories in the next election, bearing in mind this six-point advantage that they have owing to the way the constituencies are distributed, whereby, I'm sure everyone knows this, whereby you need to go six points into the lead before you have as many seats as Labour. So therefore, would you say that Michael should look at giving them a good run for their money this time, and then winning the election after that?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Well, I wouldn't want to go further than what he said. He realises that his own credibility is a very valuable commodity. And so when asked about the next election he hasn't made outlandish promises about winning. And I think that's right because what he'll want to do is demonstrate progress in the opinion polls which I think he will have. And when he's seen what progress he's got in the opinion polls he'll be in a position to make a reasonable prediction about the next election. So I think his credibility is important, he recognises that, he's being cautious himself and I'm not going to say anything that would contrast with his view which is, well let's see how we've progressed, let's see what we can aim for in the next two years.

DAVID FROST: So far, according to that You GOV poll the two things that he's scored well on was experience and standing up to Tony Blair, you know, the public don't know him very well on some of the other qualities or maybe they do. But those were the two most impressive things. What is his most important quality for the struggle he has got to come? It's not a struggle at the moment, but I mean, the struggle to come? Is his most important quality his experience, is it his use of power which you mentioned, what's the most important?

MICHAEL PORTILLO: Well, I would say yes, both of them. If I had to pick one I would say authority, and of course that authority is borne out of experience. And let me also say that this authority is not a sort of iron-fisted authority. It's a very reasonable authority. You know he's a man who speaks quietly to his colleagues but speaks with great effect and great force. And I think that's a pretty good combination. But that's what we have most desperately needed I think, really to be told what to do. I'm very happy to be told what to do.

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