[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Friday, 31 October, 2003, 10:46 GMT
Michael Howard
Shadow Work & Pensions Minister David Willetts talks about Michael Howard's bid to lead the Conservative Party.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
Michael Howard declined our invitation to come on the programme tonight but instead we were offered David Willetts. You're normally thought of as being on the left of the party, and yet you're behind Michael Howard. Would you prefer him to be elected unopposed?

DAVID WILLETTS:
I think that if the party can unite behind Michael's leadership, I think that would be a great advantage, but people have an absolute constitutional right and we want him to have to go through the proper procedures. But I think it's very important that what's going on today, is it does look as if the party is seriously uniting behind one candidate.

PAXMAN:
What, the Parliamentary party you mean?

WILLETTS:
Yes. And I believe all the constituency activist in the country would be very pleased if the party united in that way.

PAXMAN:
Now, obviously you have spoken to him?

WILLETTS:
I have indeed, yes.

PAXMAN:
Has he changed?

WILLETTS:
Well, I think Michael was setting out today very powerfully what he believes. What has happened is that Michael has been closely involved in the development of the policies that we've had over the past few years which do take the Tory party into new territory, proposing the reform of public services, aimed at making Britain a better place, which we shouldn't forget is the point of all of this.

PAXMAN:
You judge people by their actions, more than by their words, don't you? What we know of this man's actions are the belief that prison works and all the rest of it. Three strikes and you're out. It's a different kind of person to the sort of person appearing today?

WILLETTS:
Michael was a very effective Home Secretary. But remember, Michael was going out of his way today to say he's been an MP for twenty years, he did not stop thinking or learning in 1992 or 1997. He's clearly been reflecting on why we've lost twice so heavily. That's why he's played a crucial role in the things that Iain did, quite rightly, to modernise our policies and reach out to a much wider group of people to select as our candidates. When I was talking to Michael today he went out of his way to make it clear that those he thought were very important achievements that we needed to carry forward, he was not in any way going back on those, and I was very encouraged by that.

PAXMAN:
Did he give you any indication that any policies would change if he was leader?

WILLETTS:
Well, there's clearly more to be done. A lot more to be done. But the big public service reform proposal that we've already put forward, I think health, education, my proposal on pensions, Oliver's work on crime: I think that those will stand. Now the task, instead of looking inwards and developing them within the framework of the policy board, now the task is to project outwards, to show how these policies would make Britain a better place. That's what we'll turn our energies to, I hope.

PAXMAN:
Does he think any mistakes have been made in the last two years?

WILLETTS:
Well, everybody's made mistakes. We've all made mistakes, of course mistakes have been made in the last two years.

PAXMAN:
What does he think the mistakes have been in the last couple of years?

WILLETTS:
Well, I would say that one of our problems has been that despite the big things that Iain got right, we clearly ended up becoming a sort of, the nation's political soap opera. We provided so much material for you on our endless speculation about plotting and dissent, that if instead of being the nation's political soap opera we can be a credible alternative Government, that will be an enormous step forward, and I think it's just possible we've taken that step today.

PAXMAN:
But there are no policies over the last two or three years. Let's talk about policies instead of the tittle-tattle you seem to be so preoccupied with.

WILLETTS:
Thank you, Jeremy.

PAXMAN:
On policies, is there any policy of the last two years that he thinks was wrong?

WILLETTS:
I think that the big policies, the big announcements in areas of public services took us in exactly the right direction, which is a distinctive Conservative way of ensuring people have better health, better education, better pensions, more safety on the streets. So I don't think that Michael, having been shadow chancellor and member of the policy board, is suddenly going to say those were terrible mistakes, but what he does want to do is carry us forward. Develope, for example...

PAXMAN:
He'd be bound to say that. I don't know what it means.

WILLETTS:
Well, let me give you a practical example. I think something, where we do have something to learn in inner cities. There are severe problems in our poorest areas. Michael talked about them today. Sometimes we as Conservatives confuse inner cities and cities. There is urban Britain, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds where we just don't have a strong enough Conservative presence.

PAXMAN:
You're scarcely represented in most of them.

WILLETTS:
Sometimes I think one of the mistakes we've made is we've got a picture of rural Britain, then the problems of the inner cities. We forget most people live in urban Britain.

PAXMAN:
In the suburbs?

WILLETTS:
I represent an urban area. Michael does. Not enough Tories do. We need to make a bigger effort there.

PAXMAN:
Has he got an answer to Theresa May's question as to why you're seen as the nasty party?

WILLETTS:
I think that's a perception we have to wrestle with. I think part of the reason for the perception was that in Britain in the 1980s, our problems were above all, economic. We began to be seen as the economics party, that looked at everything simply through the prism of economic analysis. Again, I think something that came out strongly in what Michael was saying today, is that there's more too life in economics. We believe in our country. It's not just a matter of economic reform, though that's important.

PAXMAN:
So where is he on this question on whether you're a tax-cutting party or whether you believe in more public spending?

WILLETTS:
We believe in our public service reform agenda. As to exactly what, if he becomes leader, exactly what his future shadow chancellor and what he as leader decides to say as we move towards our manifesto, I'm not going to get into that.

PAXMAN:
So you think that as far as the public is concerned, he is a man you'd be happy to have kiss your baby?

WILLETTS:
I think Michael has not only got a distinguished record as Home Secretary. He's been learning, as we all have been trying to do, the electorate have given us two heavy defeats. Michael and everyone want to learn from that. The most important thing we've shown today is that we will not get a hearing unless we are united and determined to win. I think that came across very clearly today with 120 MPs backing him.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.



PRODUCTS AND SERVICES

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific