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Last Updated: Sunday, 2 November, 2003, 12:34 GMT
A Conservative coronation?
Jeremy Vine interviewed David Willetts MP and the Rt Hon John Prescott MP on Sunday 2 November 2003.

Please note BBC Politics Show must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Interview with David Willetts MP

David Willetts MP (centre) Damian Green MP and Dr Liam Fox MP.
David Willetts MP applauded the selection process

Jeremy Vine: Now David Willetts, a member of Iain Duncan Smith's shadow cabinet, and also one of Michael Howard's campaign team joins me from London. Good afternoon to you.

David Willetts: Good afternoon Jeremy.

Jeremy Vine: The paradox here surely is that the party is off to a fresh start or so it says, but the policies are already in place.

David Willetts: Well we have put forward some very radical policies for making public serves better; health, education, pensions and I'm very pleased that Michael is committed to those and of course he was a member of the policy board that was involved in preparing them.

Our problem is however, that we have not been united, we've had this endless sort of soap opera of speculation about who might be the Tory leader and what was going on. That has completely obstructed any attempt to convey to people that the purpose of these policies is to make Britain a better place and I think that we're now going to have much more of an opportunity after this remarkable and marvellous outbreak of unity in the Conservative Party.

Jeremy Vine: But we're being asked to accept all this radical change basically boils down to the fact that you now have a leader who is a Pro. David Willetts: Well having someone with Michael's experience and authority is an enormous advance for us but I don't think that the process of policy-making has stopped; there's a lot more to do.

But the point is we will be building on what has already been achieved in terms of the policies for more patient choice in health, getting pensioners off the means test, more role for teachers in professional judgements about what happens in their schools We're not back-tracking on that, that will remain in place, but we want to carry it forward. There's a lot more to be done.

Jeremy Vine: Well help us with this, next week you'll have a leader who is more right wing than the leader you had last week and we're expected to believe that the party has moved to the centre.

David Willetts: Well this game of what's right and what's left I really don't think is how modern politics is conducted. What we have to do as Conservatives, is apply our principles of believing in personal choice, personal responsibility, less intrusive interference from government, applying those to Britain in the 21st century, and in my experience, especially young people, this really strikes a chord with them. So the principles are right but one of the things our party now has to do is to show how that means if you're living in Newcastle, if you're living in Birmingham, if you're living in Manchester, these policies will make your life better. That's what we've failed to do over the past few years, failed to connect the policy work with a real belief in making people's lives better and I think now we've got a marvellous opportunity to do that, because we won't be distracted by this endless speculation about exactly who is going to do what within the parliamentary conservative party.

Jeremy Vine: Well I appreciate that you don't want to talk about right and left but it is frustrating is it not that the only bit of definition that we have about your new leader is that everything we thought we knew about him is wrong.

David Willetts: No, I don't think that's the case I mean what we know about Michael is that he's a very experienced politician who has years as a minister in successive governments. But of course Michael, like all the rest of us, didn't stop thinking or stop learning in 1997.

What we've all been trying to do as Conservatives is learn the lessons as to why the electorate have rejected us in two successive elections and one of the reasons why they rejected it was that we were, appeared to be, squabbling amongst ourselves and disunited, and at last, this week, we have put that behind us. Another reason they rejected us was they didn't think that we had policies to tackle the problems in to-day's Britain and what we now have to do is to show how the policies we've developed, with more to come, will tackle that.

Jeremy Vine: You say this week we've put it behind us, you will accept that being united for a week is not a massive achievement and we heard Andrew Cooper in the film saying actually the Conservatives are just an unsellable brand.

David Willetts: Well I think that being united doesn't suddenly win you an election, but it is a pre-condition. If you are not united, you just can't achieve anything. Once you're united at least then you've got the chance of getting across a coherent message about how you want to make Britain a better place; so now there is an enormous responsibility on our shoulders, you're quite right. Now that we are united, now I hope we will not have any more speculation about the leadership or anything like that, now the challenge is indeed very important.

It is to show that Conservatism, can make the lives of people in 21st century Britain, in our big cities and elsewhere, make them better. Now I am confident, I am confident that we can. I am confident that personal choice, personal responsibility, less intrusive government, that all those are messages that are as relevant to people's lives to-day as they ever were. But now the responsibility is for us to show that that's the case.

Jeremy Vine: Help us with one exchange in the Sunday Telegraph. Dominic Lawson, today talking to Michael Howard. He notes that Mr Howard believed that Labour would win the '97 election under Tony Blair. Mr Lawson says, does that mean to win an election, you have to look and sound like a Tory. Mr Howard replies, if you're leader of the Labour Party yes. Mr Lawson says, Not if you're leader of the Conservative Party. And Mr Howard says, Not necessarily no. Now what on earth are we to make of that.

David Willetts: Well I think that what this is about is how people perceive parties and I think for Tony Blair, deeply embarrassed about the record of labour in office, I mean he was clearly trying to escape from all that. For us, I think there have been some assumptions, perceptions of Conservatives that have done us damage; for example the assumption that we had become a party obsessed with economics.

And I think one of the things that we have achieved in the past few years, but we need to do far more is to show that we understand that there's more to life than economics. We understand that we have obligations to our fellow citizens, we want to make a decent life for people who may be suffering severe poverty, who may be getting a raw deal from the health service, who may be worried about the quality of the education their children are getting.

All those of messages, which are authentically Conservative, which you can find right back through our history, those weren't getting across. So people didn't always like what they thought we were like, and we've got to tackle that and I think Michael showed in his very powerful speech on Wednesday, that he was going to appeal to all of Britain, govern for all of Britain, trying to show how Conservatism could help all of Britain.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Rt Hon John Prescott MP
Mr Prescott is touring the North, promoting Devolution.

Interview with John Prescott MP, Deputy Prime Minister

Jeremy Vine: John Prescott joins me now. Let's start Mr Prescott with the last point, that in an area like Peter Henley was describing there isn't the linkage between the different cities and towns.

John Prescott: Yes. I think they don't feel as identified with regional development though I'm bound to say they're very happy to have regional development agencies which I brought in a few years ago, and are helping them develop their own economies but that came out in the consultation we did and I think it was only the three Northern regions that showed over 50%, that they would like to have the vote because this isn't making the decision, it's about giving them the say, your say, yes - no.

And really I think in the Northern regions they've always been very strong about wanting regional economic development, having a regional assembly and the agencies that go with it, and we're going to give them the chance to vote for it.

Jeremy Vine: But you wouldn't offer people something you disapproved of, so I'll speak to you as a persuader if I can. We heard from a farmer in one of the pieces there, James Carr, he's in Cumbria. Why would he want his affairs to be run from Warrington or Wigan.

John Prescott: Well that's always ... (inaudible). Some of them may want it to be over in Newcastle, that's always been one of the difficulties in this region. Some of them identify with the North East rather than the North West, and some of them go entirely the other way. If you go to Barrow, they feel it should be with the North West. But we have our regional boundaries already decided for us; they're the ones that we're sticking with at the moment and hence presumably he'll still have to make it within that regional area that he's in, that is the North East.

But at the end of the day whether it's the farmer or the businessman, or the man on steel for example I think in one of your films, it's how do you deal with change. How do we get better - greater - economic development in our region, that we get at the present time, and we do think there's a regional dimension to that. Whether it's an infrastructure, whether it's in housing, whether it's about the economic differences to reduce those differentials between the regions, we need to give them more tools to do that.

And indeed, if you look at the RDAs they've had Regional Development Agencies in Scotland and Wales well before the English regions, and they have had a considerable difference on their development and shaping for the future. I think the Regional Development Agency we brought in in 1997, for the English regions, without the democratic accountability, are also beginning to have their effect, and welcomed by business also.

Jeremy Vine: But aren't these rivalries a problem. We were in Newcastle last night, Sunderland down the road, when they get together they play football, you know what it's like.

John Prescott: Of course.

Jeremy Vine: Liverpool versus Manchester and you're lumping them all in together.

John Prescott: Oh well I mean you've got Hull against Grimsby, I mean what's interesting Jeremy, where am I launching these? I'm launching them in Durham, I'm launching it in York and I'm launching it in Warrington. Now you can think of the big power centres in those regions and somebody was suggesting where would the centre be. That's up to the people in the region to make that decision, and that's why I'm choosing to launch this information campaign, to ask the essential question, do you want to have a referendum, which would be held in November.

You can either go yes, or you can go no. And that's why we produced this document, to answer some of the questions that are being posed by your interviews there on that programme. How, what difference will it make? What kind of charges will be involved in setting it up? Will it mean more bureaucracy? Will it mean that we can make real changes that bring a better prosperity than we have at the moment and that's what we have to say.

Jeremy Vine: Part of the principle of it is obviously to move government closer to people, but effectively if you do that by creating a regional institution and removing a local one, you're moving government further away.

John Prescott: No we're not, we're making it very clear that the powers are not coming from the local authorities, they'll still be doing the same, and then there will be a regional body in these areas where the referendum will take place if they chose to have a regional government. What we are removing is in those areas where the referendum is taking place across the North, it's the great North vote if you like, those counties that are in those areas, in this area there will be Northumberland and Durham. In the North West it would be Lancashire and Cheshire. There, those counties will be removed and the kind of new local unitary government structure come in.

Jeremy Vine: But isn't the way to run Durham for example, with the Durham County Council. The building we saw in the film, isn't that the way to do it. They know what's going on.

John Prescott: Oh yes, but the unitary authorities that we will establish will be doing precisely that, and they will still be based in Durham. But the people in those areas that will be affected by that change, they will be the ones that will decide what is the new local government structure that comes along with it. And I was looking at some interesting figures there. I see there's seven hundred councillors involved in Durham and Northumberland area, in the District Councils, we're talking about an Assembly of twenty five, thirty people. That's quite a reduction.

Jeremy Vine: Another point that we had from our farmer, Mr Carr, was that rural areas will fall under the control of urban areas. You'll have urban people in urban places, making urban decisions. That worry you?

John Prescott: Well, they say that now. They say the people who are the real influence are the big cities, the core cities; the Newcastles, the Manchesters, the Liverpools, and they don't get a look in. Well, this will allow a regional dimension, and every one of these regions has tremendously large rural areas as well as urban areas, and they will be represented and more evenly balanced, and they will be able to make sure that the rural plans, rural proofing of all the policies that take place in the region, will have to be agreed in a strategic plan which is agreed in the region.

Jeremy Vine: Can I talk to you about the cost of it because one of the things that came up again and again when I was speaking to people in Durham yesterday was that they are horrified by what has happened with the parliament building in Edinburgh which was supposed to be forty million quid, it's gone above four hundred million pounds. And so any costs you put on it, people are going to start thinking, well that's probably an under estimate.

John Prescott: Well I'm amazed that it should go to such - to an extent from forty to four hundred and they've set up an inquiry. They're amazed as to why should it cost so much, but you ...

Jeremy Vine: There's a lesson there isn't there.

John Prescott: Pardon.

Jeremy Vine: There's a lesson there.

John Prescott: Well there was a lesson there but we've built public buildings all round the country where that, that hasn't happened; so I see no reason for that to be the main reason why you won't do it. You have to get value for money.

I think the people making the decisions have to be sure about that and you can use existing buildings; so whilst that's a matter to be concerned about, and if you look at the Humber Bridge for example in my area, started off at eleven million, ended up at five hundred million. It does concern you, the Jubilee Line was a similar thing. It concerns us that it always costs more. The Channel Tunnel rail link now, the new one I brought in, is on budget on time, you just have to be keener about the prices.

Jeremy Vine: But people will be right to be concerned, and right to be worried, and maybe right to be put off.

John Prescott: Well I would say that if, in these circumstances, they take all that into account, but you know Scotland and Wales and Greater London, all these areas that were opposed by the opposition and have now accepted them, are the ones that have made decisions about their own areas and I think the people in the North want the power to be able to make the decisions for themselves.

They will make mistakes, hopefully not as gross as that perhaps, but nevertheless they may make mistakes. But it will be theirs, central government makes many mistakes in the name of the regions. Why don't we give the regions a greater chance to bring decisions down to them, so they can make their own judgements.

Jeremy Vine: But how much decision that's the thing isn't it because actually the really big decisions are surely Health, Education, Crime, what you do about them. The hospitals, the schools, the police are not going to be controlled by these assemblies.

John Prescott: Well many of these things are in the local control, in some cases on Education, on Health, we're moving more now to the primary care trusts. All that is being concentrated in the local areas.

Jeremy Vine: But they won't move to the Assembly will they.

John Prescott: But at the moment when I have to design Assembly, I have to come in to government as it is at the moment and a lot of these structural changes are taking place. But many of the decisions now affecting money, for example if you take the three regions across the North, nearly 1.7 billion that they will control, and if you look at the other things they will have influence over it totals up to over five billion pounds.

That's a lot of money for people in the North to make decisions about. But at the end of the day the way I want to see it. I want the Northern voice in this great North vote to have a chance to say to central government, hey, we want more notice taken of us, we want to get involved in these decisions, and this is our strategy. After all, governments appoint civil servants to say what's wanted in the region, why can't we have democratic accountability over the civil servants.

Jeremy Vine: All right, another subject for you - the postal strike. You're sitting watching it as Deputy Prime Minister, it's a real problem for this country at the moment. What can you do. Can you get stuck in.

John Prescott: Well no I think we have, I had a similar problem with the firemen in that sense. They had a particular point of view and we had to negotiate about that, the local authorities did, and we're not party to the negotiations.

But it is about modernisation, it is about good relationships, in this case with a local authority and a firemen, as indeed with the postmen; so what they're now having to do is to negotiate as they are at the moment and all the signs coming out is we're making some headway and I think as government, we'll be very pleased about that.

Jeremy Vine: But is there not another strategic thought for you as you watch it, which is that you're going to have to do something about the Royal Mail's monopoly and you're going to have to allow other people to carry letters around and get that sorted.

John Prescott: Well I think those kinds of strategic decisions are partly coming out of Europe by the way because they've made certain decisions about competition. There's adjustment and change making in our industry, and these proposals are already under way coming from the regulator.

Jeremy Vine: Would you like to ...

(BOTH SPEAK TOGETHER)

John Prescott: ... It is that process of change you adjust to. But the post office is a public service in the main and I think a lot of people do rely on the postman knocking on the door, he's a friendly kind of guy; so we have to hope that this will be sorted out and worked out between the trade unions and industry, and at the end of the day as with regions, change ever comes faster for us. We had to adjust to it, and I think when it's on a regional basis sometimes, it's better the regional forces who make those decisions.

Jeremy Vine: Just lastly for you. This programme has learnt that Labour's general secretary, David Triesman is quitting. Is that because of stresses at party HQ.

John Prescott: No, he's done a remarkable job in the couple of years he's been general secretary in this party. He inherited a massive financial deficit and he's dealt with it.

These were the targets he set for himself. He moved us to a new headquarters: that's now been established, and he's conducted a reorganisation of the party which, by the way, has redistributed work from central London to up here in North Tyneside.

Jeremy Vine: Why is he going.

John Prescott: Well, because he's had a talk with the Prime Minister. They've looked at that and they've now, the Prime Minister has I think in his statement to-day has said, He's done an excellent job, and I want to talk to him now about how he can continue doing that work for the Labour Party.

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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