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Last Updated: Sunday, 24 April, 2005, 10:16 GMT 11:16 UK
Fighting talk?
On Sunday, 24 April, 2005, Sir David Frost interviewed Michael Howard, MP, Leader of the Conservative Party

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

Michael Howard
Michael Howard, MP, Leader of the Conservative Party

DAVID FROST: And now thank you very much Michael Howard, who is with us this morning - good morning Michael.

MICHAEL HOWARD: Morning David.

DAVID FROST: Tell me which would you say is the most likely of these two occurrences - you getting into Number 10 in May or Liverpool getting into the Champions League next season?

MICHAEL HOWARD: Well we - maybe our best chance of getting into the Champions League is by winning the Champions League - and I'm looking forward to a fantastic double.

DAVID FROST: A double?


DAVID FROST: That's the double. So Liverpool have got as much chance as you have?

MICHAEL HOWARD: I think we're both in there with a great chance.

DAVID FROST: Now lots of, lots of things today about immigration in the papers today - some people saying that there's been too much concentration on it and Andrew Neil in The Business says the Tory Party policy on asylum is a disgrace to a mainstream party in a mature democracy.

For Britain to rat on its UN convention obligations would be a new low in the nation's history. People feel very strongly about that - why are - why are they not right?

MICHAEL HOWARD: Well the 1951 Convention is out of date, even Mr Blair agrees on that - he said it was out of date, it doesn't reflect the circumstances in today's world.

DAVID FROST: But nobody else has withdrawn from it.

MICHAEL HOWARD: Well they haven't but some people are just prepared to talk about these things and some people are prepared to take action on them.

I think it's out of date and I'm prepared to take action on it for this reason - that the system we have at the moment is desperately unfair, it is inhumane, it rewards people who pay the people-smugglers to take them halfway across the world; it puts genuine refugees to the back of the queue. I want our country to give sanctuary to genuine refugees.

Under our proposals we would give sanctuary to more genuine refugees than we do today but what we would not do is reward the people who, for the most part, come into the country illegally, trick their way into the country then utter the magic words "I claim asylum" and then are here for months and years - even though they are not genuine refugees.

DAVID FROST: Right well let's -

MICHAEL HOWARD: ... it's question of fairness and humanity and having a system that will help us to take genuine refugees but not those who pretend to be but aren't.

DAVID FROST: Right now that's your view on that part of the policy and on the UN convention, the other half of the question was really about the fact that people are saying that this concentration on immigration and asylum, which looked like a popular thing, is having no effect, as actually the Tory vote is staying very level and that in fact Steve Norris says he's surprised by the emphasis on immigration, Michael Portillo says that you risk making exactly the same mistake that William Hague made in concentrating on immigration in 2001.


DAVID FROST: Is it the same mistake?

MICHAEL HOWARD: It is one of our five themes - here are our five themes, this is the manifesto: more police, cleaner hospitals, lower taxes, school discipline, controlled immigration.

It is one of the five themes and we will continue to talk about it as well as talking about the other themes which we are putting forward before the British people at this election and I'll tell you why - because it is, as I've just said, it's a matter of fair play that we have a fair immigration system and a fair asylum system and it's a matter of bringing hope to people who are so worried about law and order, worried that their towns and cities on Saturday nights are no-go areas, that we want to have more police.

It's a matter of bringing hope to people who are worried about the education of their children because it's so often being disrupted by a minority of children in the class that we emphasise school discipline; it's a matter of bringing hope to people who are so worried that they'll go into hospital and come out more ill than they went in, that we're talking about cleaner hospitals.


MICHAEL HOWARD: Well - look - we've been talking about all the issues that I put before you and we'll continue to talk about these issues because they are the challenges facing the country, they are the challenges which people are concerned about and anxious about and it's the job of a government to do something about those things. We have a government at the moment that is pussyfooting around, that is full of talk, that doesn't take action ...

DAVID FROST: And in terms of people coming into this country - Sir Digby Jones from the CBI said, you probably saw the quote, that the idea of a cap, a quota or a cap, on numbers of short-term economic migrants would leave British companies unable to recruit the skilled labour that they need.

MICHAEL HOWARD: Well we, we've made it clear that we will consult with the CBI and other organisations - in fact we already have consulted with the CBI, we saw Digby Jones' deputy and discussed our plans with him. And we think that it is perfectly possible to have a number, the number which we need to bring in the skills that the country needs within an overall limit. And you have to remember that we're in a different situation now because as a result of the new accession countries to the European Union there are millions of people from Eastern Europe who now have the right to come and work here and many of them -

DAVID FROST: And that's okay?

MICHAEL HOWARD: - many people - that's something that we are committed to, that we could have had transitional arrangements which would have stopped that, we asked the government to put in place those transitional arrangements but they refused. So you have to take that into account. And just as Ireland said now that all these people from Eastern Europe can come here we can reduce the number of work permits very dramatically, I think that's the right thing to do for our country as well. We would talk to the CBI, we would take their views into account, but in the end government has a wider responsibility. Government has to look at a number of things.

Government has to look at the pace of change, to quote the prime minister's own community cohesion panel, it has to look at the importance of good community relations, it has to look at the need to get a grip on security, it has to look at the management of our public services. So government, we will talk to the CBI and other employers' organisations, we'll take what they say into account but government has a wider responsibility, it's not being discharged now, there are no limits or controls now that work effectively and we will limit and control immigration, we think that's the right thing to do.

DAVID FROST: And - and in terms of - just a practical point about all this - in a situation where someone arrives here without any papers, that they've destroyed them or been stolen from them or - they arrive without any papers, any indication of where they're from, or another case, students from China and Iran come here for a degree and then they don't want to go back to those countries, they refuse to leave - what, what do you do with those people at that point?

MICHAEL HOWARD: Well if, if -

DAVID FROST: Do you send them to your overseas ...

MICHAEL HOWARD: - students -students from, from China and Iran, to quote the example that you've mentioned, if they're not bona fide students, if they're not genuine, if they've come to the country under false pretences, then you send them back to China and Iran. That's, that's what you should do there. If people come into the country under false pretences and they're not genuine refugees -

DAVID FROST: Oh no they came - they came - the students in this instance came in here legally but then they were supposed to go back at the end of their studies, what do you do with them if they won't go back?

MICHAEL HOWARD: Well if they're not - unless they're genuine refugees, if they're just students who came here as students and want to stay but they're not entitled to stay, then of course you send them back to China or Iran or where they came from.

DAVID FROST: And what if, what if Iran and China won't take them?

MICHAEL HOWARD: Well you, you can enter, enter negotiations with these countries and make sure they do. Other countries have faced the same problem. Australia had a similar problem with China and Australia negotiated with other countries and persuaded them that they ought to recognise their obligations and take people like this back. Now our government doesn't seem to be prepared to exercise any political will to achieve that. A Conservative government would.

DAVID FROST: Moving on to the subject of Tony Blair, you were talking yesterday in Hastings I think -


DAVID FROST: - and you said there, talking about Tony Blair, you said quite frankly Tony Blair has lost the plot - that's one of the headlines today. "He's talked a lot and failed to deliver, he's told lies to win elections." So in your eyes Tony Blair is a liar.

MICHAEL HOWARD: Yes, he's told lies to win elections - on the one thing that he's taken a stand in the eight years that he's been prime minister, which was taking us to war, he didn't even tell the truth about that. And this is the last chance the British people will have to send a message to Mr Blair to say to him we're fed up with your broken promises, we're fed up with the way in which you've lied to win elections, as over tax, and we're fed up with the way in which you lied to us over the war. This is the British people's last chance to send that message to Mr Blair, to hold him to account, to take a stand on these issues.

And there's a very clear choice at the election between rewarding Mr Blair for his broken promises and voting for five more years of talk or voting for a party that has taken a stand on the things that matter to this country and will take action to deliver the things we want, to deliver the cleaner hospitals, the school discipline, the more police, the lower taxes and controlled immigration. That's the choice between this country facing the country next week.

DAVID FROST: And this, this, I mean you actually said yes to the word liar and so on there, is this an escalation of your feelings over the last week or two ... -

MICHAEL HOWARD: No I've - I've made -

DAVID FROST: - you've obviously never, I don't remember you using that noun before, and you can't use it in the House of Commons but are you ratcheting up -


DAVID FROST: - focusing the debate more now?

MICHAEL HOWARD: No it's not new David. I've said before that he lied over the war -

DAVID FROST: Yes, but you never said a liar before.


DAVID FROST: Do you think it's the same thing?

MICHAEL HOWARD: It's the same thing isn't it? He, if you look at what happened over the war, the intelligence that he had, as we know from the Butler Report, said in terms, on its face, that it was limited, sporadic and patchy. When Mr Blair came to report that to the country, he said he had intelligence which was extensive, detailed and authoritative, and maybe perhaps you can reconcile those two different sets of words, I can't. I think that portraying the intelligence in that way was untrue.

DAVID FROST: In that case, obviously he would disagree violently with that and he probably would use a word like misrep - unintentionally misrepresented, or something like that.

MICHAEL HOWARD: Well I, it would be interesting to see what word he would use.

DAVID FROST: Well we can find out next week. But in addition to that though, looking at the whole situation going forward, you have a situation where the government is not popular, where you have these really strong criticisms of the prime minister, and yet there's no movement in the polls and where, where you get 75 per cent of people who are dissatisfied with the government, 60 per cent still say they would prefer Labour to the Conservatives. Why is that?

MICHAEL HOWARD: Let's wait and see, shall we David. There's not long to wait now. Eleven days or so to wait and the only opinion poll that matters - as I always say -

DAVID FROST: - is the one on election day.

MICHAEL HOWARD: I make this deal with my opponents, they can have every opinion poll up until the fifth of May as long as I have the one that takes place on the fifth of May. And as I say, this is an opportunity for the British people to take a stand, to make a judgement on Mr Blair's character. It's the last chance they have to do that and we'll have to wait and see what happens next week.

DAVID FROST: Why, why is it not getting through in the polls?

MICHAEL HOWARD: Well you say that and I say I'm not interested in what the polls say, I'm interested in what the British people say when they go and vote next week.

DAVID FROST: Some people said, Michael, that this very much is a recovery manifesto, a slim recovery manifesto and that your aim here is really, it's not, it's not a document about future government, it's a recovery document, that your aim is to slash Labour's majority down to a more manageable size, wipe the smile, in your own words, off Tony Blair's face, but it's not government that you're talking about, it's an interim recovery.

MICHAEL HOWARD: Nothing could be further from the truth. I believe that this country is heading in the wrong direction. The problems will pile up. I believe we have the right answers. The country needs to change direction. We are potentially such a great country. We have such hardworking, creative, energetic people. We could and should be doing so much better.

And under a Conservative government where people were able to keep more of their hard-earned money instead of paying so much of it in tax; where people had confidence that they would go into hospital and come out better rather than more ill; where people knew that their children were getting the education they need for the future if we are to build the future that we need to build, because our children are the key to that; if we are to deal with the problems of law and order then we need to change course and we need a different government. ... and that's what's on offer.

DAVID FROST: But there's quite a list - there's quite a list of increases in numbers of doctors and nurses, decrease in waiting times and all of those things - I suppose you can say is that value for money and so on but you have to say that there have been some major steps forward in the National Health Service under Labour.

MICHAEL HOWARD: But the doctors and the nurses aren't allowed to exercise their own clinical judgement. They are distorted and diverted and distracted by this panoply of government targets, which in many instances, as we've seen time and time again from the doctors and nurses themselves, are distorting their priorities and are interfering with the quality of health care that people need.

The four hour target for accident and emergency is causing people to suffer, because of the way in which doctors and nurses can't exercise their own judgement. The inability of infection teams to close wards which are infected, because their managers say if we close the ward we'll miss the government targets.

Three times David I have asked Mr Blair in the House of Commons to allow local infection teams to close wards that are infected and three times he's refused. And on far too many occasions they want to close the ward to deal with the infection and their manager is saying no, if we close the ward we'll miss the government target. So people are almost certainly dying in infected wards because of this government's targets.

DAVID FROST: Well I think that's a bit of a stretch there.

MICHAEL HOWARD: No, no. Having -

DAVID FROST: Because in any case - in any case, the experts say that only 15 per cent, only 15 per cent of illnesses gained in hospital could be cured by cleanliness. Cleanliness is not the main issue. Fifteen per cent. Only 15 per cent.

MICHAEL HOWARD: That - that 15 per cent -

DAVID FROST: Is a lot of people.

MICHAEL HOWARD: - consists of many people, some of whom die. For heaven's sake.

DAVID FROST: I know, I know you've a personal interest -

MICHAEL HOWARD: Yes I have. I am angry ... my mother-in-law did die.

DAVID FROST: But the point is MRSA is a -

MICHAEL HOWARD: People's lives could be saved. People's lives could be saved if infected wards were closed. We would put matron in charge; we would give her the ability to close the ...

DAVID FROST: ... you make it sound like a hundred per cent, that's all the point I'm making, rather than 15 per cent.

MICHAEL HOWARD: No, I've never said anything like that. But what I have said, we have, according to the figures, at least 5000 people die every year from hospital acquired infections. That is more than die on Britain's roads.

I don't say all of those deaths could be avoided but I do say some of those deaths could be avoided and I believe that it is the duty of government to do everything it can to avoid those deaths.

And one of the things which government could do is to allow those infected wards to be closed, to put an end to a situation in which hospital managers can say I'm not going to let you close that ward because if you closed it we'd miss our government target.

DAVID FROST: Now what about, just one or two thoughts on the economy, as we look at this, as we look at business articles, as we look at things that people say, that basically David Mellor said the tax cuts are in fact the love that dare not speak its name in your life, because you feel so strongly about ... tax cuts.

MICHAEL HOWARD: ... talking about them, we're, they're speaking their name, we've got four billion pounds of tax ... which we promised.

DAVID FROST: ... those who are criticising that stand are saying Conservatives should be an alternative, they should be talking about cutting public spending, they should be talking about tax cuts, they shouldn't be following so slavishly the policy of Labour in health and education, and in fact Tony Blair has won that argument therefore before it even started because you are playing on his playing field, according to his rules and his concepts.

MICHAEL HOWARD: The choice on tax is very clear. You can have a Conservative government which would cut taxes by four billion pounds in our first budget or you can have a Labour government, or for that matter a Lib-Dem government, both of which, all the independent experts say, would have to increase taxes by ten or 11 billion pounds.

The difference between a four billion pound tax cut and ten or 11 billion pounds increase in taxes is about a thousand pounds for the typical family in this country. So there is a clear difference between us.

Now on health and education our policies are different. We would, as I've just been saying, we would scrap the targets, we would trust the doctors and nurses and we would trust the teachers and we would give people real choice. But we do accept that money has to be spent in order to deliver the world class public services that this country is entitled to - we're the fourth richest country in the world, we're entitled to world class healthcare and world class education.

DAVID FROST: ... right.

MICHAEL HOWARD: And we're not, we're not getting it now.

DAVID FROST: But targeting tax cuts at different groups, when you always talk about people are better spending their own money, pensioners, first-time house buyers and so on, aren't you in fact spending people's money for them? Why not just cut income tax and let people do what you always advocate and spend their money in their own way?

MICHAEL HOWARD: Well I'd love to do that, I'd love to do that but I've had to look at the things which are really most unfair at the moment. The council tax burden for pensioners is extremely unfair. Forty per cent of the increase in the pension under Mr Blair has gone, been swallowed up in paying for the increased council tax. The fact that -

DAVID FROST: So you - so you would have liked to do ...

MICHAEL HOWARD: Yeah of course but I only make promises that I know I can keep. The fact that people trying to get their feet on the first rung of the housing ladder are prevented from doing so by the state of stamp duty, and the rates of stamp duty and the threshold for stamp duty at the moment, is very unfair, so we've tackled that. And the fact that people aren't saving for their pensions, tomorrow's pensioners aren't saving for their pensions, is, is something which is extremely worrying for the future of our country - that's why we've given them greater incentives to save. Ten pounds extra tax relief for every hundred pound they put in their pension.

DAVID FROST: Right - right -


DAVID FROST: No - no - no

MICHAEL HOWARD: ... we've looked at the worst examples of unfairness.

DAVID FROST: - I ... you made much of the, in the thing on health and other things, but let's just come to the point of Tony Blair. Tony Blair and you have both been in the House of Commons for the same length of time really -

MICHAEL HOWARD: We have, exactly.

DAVID FROST: - and in the apex of our national life for most of that time - Tony Blair has said that win or lose this is his last general election. Would you say the same thing?

MICHAEL HOWARD: No. I'm focusing on winning the election on May 5th and I'm focusing on what we do in government if we win that election and people place confidence in us. That's what I'm focusing on. Mr Blair has said what he said about his future, I'm focusing on bringing better government to this country, on showing the country that there's a brighter, better future if people vote Conservative on ...

DAVID FROST: So you are saying win or lose you will fight the next election?

MICHAEL HOWARD: No I'm not saying ...


MICHAEL HOWARD: I'm not thinking about it. So I haven't, I haven't really thought about it -


MICHAEL HOWARD: - no I'm thinking about how we can persuade people to vote Conservative on May 5th and what we'll do in government after that.

DAVID FROST: We'll take a break there to get the latest news from Moira.


DAVID FROST: Thank you Moira. Michael, there's a cartoon of you as Dracula in The Observer and so on today.

MICHAEL HOWARD: What a surprise.

DAVID FROST: What a surprise. Do these demonising-type cartoons and things ever get to you or not?

MICHAEL HOWARD: No I've had a lot of experience of them and you, you tend to grow a bit of a thick skin so no they don't worry me.

DAVID FROST: And what about the thing is you've said about some of the things that you've, you've changed on, Section 28 and all those other issues like the poll tax and so on, would you say that you are a different Michael Howard to when you were a home secretary, that you have in fact, you are in fact Howard mark II?

MICHAEL HOWARD: Well I think, I think we all change -

DAVID FROST: More caring, more loving, more -

MICHAEL HOWARD: I think we all change a bit don't we as, as we get older? I, I would say that I, I probably listen a bit more perhaps than I used to and perhaps I'm a bit more practical and a bit less kind of ideological than I was then. I'm, we've spent a lot of time thinking hard about the challenges that face this country in the 21st century and we've worked hard at finding the answers to them. We believe we've found the answers and that's what we're putting before the people of this country at this election.

DAVID FROST: And we had our discussion about the next general election afterwards and you played a good defensive straight bat on that particular one, do I take it from that that whatever else happens that you will lead this party for several, for many months after this election, in any role?

MICHAEL HOWARD: You keep asking that question David and I'm telling you that I'm concentrating on what's happening between now and May 5th and what we'll be able to do in government after May 5th to make this such a better, brighter, more prosperous country. That's what I'm focusing on.

Interview Ends

NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.

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