Jeremy Vine interviewed Michael Howard MP, Leader of the Conservative Party.
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Michael Howard MP, Leader of the Conservative Party
Jeremy Vine: I'm joined now by the Leader of the Conservative Party, Michael Howard. Mr Howard, good afternoon.
Michael Howard: Good afternoon Jeremy, Happy New Year to you and to all your viewers.
Jeremy Vine: Thank you. Let's start if we can just with the last point that Max made, which is that when you move out of conservative central office, there might be all kinds of policies there which we currently assume you're espousing on pensions and tax cuts and everything, which are actually destined for the bin.
Michael Howard: No. That's not right. Those policies are there and we will build on them but I think they're good policies, I was intimately involved in drawing them up when I was shadow chancellor; so I don't have a problem with any of those policies at all but we do need to build on them and of course Simon Walters is quite right to say that we do need to show that the principles, the beliefs which I published are going to be translated in to policies that are going to give people more control over their lives, make their lives better, the kind of things that we're there to achieve.
Jeremy Vine: Because at the moment, as Max Cotton pointed out, everybody, almost everybody is signing up to your statement of principles, including the communist party.
Michael Howard: I'm very pleased to, to be told that. You may remember that on the morning they came out, John Prescott and Ian McCartney were saying completely the opposite.
They were saying these beliefs are a throw back to old style Thatcherism, and that's what we're going to get from Michael Howard. They were saying completely the opposite of what you're now suggesting everybody else is saying.
Look, I'm in the business of building as wide a base of support for my beliefs and my policies and my party as I can; so if people are saying they can sign up to these beliefs, that's very good news, that's a very good start.
Jeremy Vine: You're happy to bring communists on board and everybody else.
Michael Howard: Look if anyone - I don't care how they voted in the past or what their political background is, I want to show them that the conservative party can give people more control over their lives, can make this a better country for people to live in, give it a better future and I want people from all kinds of different backgrounds and beliefs to come and join us.
Jeremy Vine: When you get in to contentious territory with this statement of principles, though whether it's about being in favour of wealth or private education, you seem to put it as a negative; so you say, 'I don't believe one person's wealth causes another person's poverty'. As if you are actually a little bit defensive about some of your core principles.
Michael Howard: Oh no I, there's nothing defensive about them at all, and it's a positive statement. It's meant to be a positive statement of beliefs, it's the first positive piece of advertising that the Conservative Party has put out for a very long time, or probably that any party has put out for a very long time because most political advertising does tend to be negative and attacking of the other parties.
I wanted to say something positive at the start of the year, I wanted to set out my beliefs in a positive way, and that's I think what the system, what the statement of beliefs does.
Jeremy Vine: You say I believe in equality of opportunity; so why did you oppose equalising the age of consent for homosexuals.
Michael Howard: Well I thought that raised particular issues about the protection of young people and that was what led me to vote in that particular way on that issue. I don't think that is really relevant to equality of opportunity.
What is relevant to equality of opportunity is the current debate that we're having on tuition fees because if you're going to introduce a system as the government propose, which is going to deter able young people from going to university and saddle them with big debts, which they're going to be paying off well in to their 30s and 40s, that's something which gets in the way of equality of opportunity, and that's one of the reasons why we are so opposed to this proposal.
Jeremy Vine: I'll ask you about tuition fees next, but just on the point I made, you also voted against equal adoption rights for unmarried couples. You're saying those areas of social policy have nothing to do with equality of opportunity are you.
Michael Howard: Again, that was to do with my view of the best family background in which young people, in which children can be brought up. All the evidence, there's a lot of evidence which shows that children do better when they're brought up in a, in a stable family background with married parents, and I think what motivated me, I quite see that some people may take a different view on this issue, what motivated me in relation to that vote was the view that I took about the best possible way of providing a bright future for those children, who are adopted.
Jeremy Vine: On tuition fees; we've heard the Prime Minister speaking about it this morning, making it clear that this policy, top up fees means a lot to him, he's not backing down, he's going ahead with it, and he says he's going to win. What's your reaction to that.
Michael Howard: Well I don't make predictions about the vote. I think this is a very bad policy. I think it's going to deter able young people from going to university, it's going to saddle them with debts, and as far as I can see, it's very doubtful whether the universities are going to be any better off.
For every pound that will be raised in the top-up fees, the cost of these government's proposals, is something like £2.50, and we haven't yet been told whether the Treasury are going to increase the budget of the universities, to reflect those costs; so the universities might even find themselves worse off as a result of these proposals.
They are thoroughly mis-guided proposals, and that's why we're going to vote against them. When it comes to the vote, when, when it comes to the vote, I want to make one thing clear. The vote on foundation hospitals, which we had a few weeks ago, was decided by the votes of members of parliament from Scotland, and they don't have foundation hospitals in Scotland.
It would be absolutely wrong for the vote on top-up fees to be decided by the votes of members of parliament from Scotland, they're not going to have top-up fees in Scotland, and for members of parliament from Scotland to impose top-up fees on England and Wales, would be quite unacceptable. Our member of parliament from Scotland, will not vote in that division.
Maybe a very close vote, maybe decided by a single vote, but we are adopting a position of principle in relation to this vote. Our member of parliament from Scotland will not vote in it, and I challenge the other parties to adopt a similar position, so that their members of parliament don't vote, and we don't have top-up fees imposed on England and Wales, by the votes of members of parliament from Scotland, where top-up fees will not be introduced.
Jeremy Vine: But hang on. If you carry that principle forward in to other areas, you end up not voting for anything that's going on in Scotland or Northern Ireland, and you have you know, two weeks later an English parliament don't you.
Michael Howard: No, our member of parliament, Peter Duncan, our member of parliament from Scotland, has not voted consistently in any issue which is devolved to Scotland. And I think that is absolutely the right principled approach to take.
Where there are matters which have been devolved to the Scottish parliament, then members, and members of parliament from Scotland shouldn't vote on those issues, as they apply to England and Wales, it's quite wrong.
They can't vote for them in their own consistencies because they've been devolved, they shouldn't seek to impose on England and Wales, policies which will not apply to Scotland. That I think would be quite unacceptable, and that's a view of principle which Peter Duncan has consistently taken, and I agree with him, and he will continue to take that line.
Jeremy Vine: Have you found a way yet, an alternative way, of raising the nine billion pounds the universities say they need by 2005.
Michael Howard: Well, well the government's proposals certainly aren't going to give them anything like that kind of money, indeed, as I've just explained, the government's proposals may make matters worse. For every pound the universities raise in top-up fees, the cost of the government's proposals are two pound fifty. And the government hasn't yet said that the budget for the universities will be increased to reflect those extra costs.
Jeremy Vine: (interjects & overlap) Tell us about your proposals.
Michael Howard: So the government's proposals. I'm coming to my proposals - just, in just one moment. The government's proposals therefore might well make matters worse; so far as our proposals are concerned, we will ease the universities financial plight by scrapping the arbitrary and I think misguided 50% target.
There will be many costs associated with the government's proposals which we will not burden the universities with, but we recognise that more will need to be done and we're working on seeing how we can do more to meet the financial problems which the universities face, when we're ready with those proposals, we will put them in a manifesto so that people can decide and then introduce them.
We won't do what the government has done, which is go absolutely flagrantly in breach of its manifesto commitment. Only two years ago, the government put a manifesto before the British people in which they said, we will not introduce top up fees, we have legislated to prevent them. And there has never been a more cynical breach of a manifesto commitment than the government's current proposals.
Jeremy Vine: But you are criticising the government's proposals without, as you conceded without an alternative, and going back to your I believe statement of values, actually, in a way what they're proposing is that individual students take responsibility for the charges levied on them, is quintessentially conservative isn't it.
Michael Howard: No because you've always got to apply those beliefs and principles in a practical way. We have always made it clear that we believe in a health service that is free at the point of use. And actually, if you look at the government's logic, you could apply their logic just as well to young people at school studying for A level.
Children who leave school at 16 tend to get less well paid jobs than those who stay on and do A levels. And of course children who leave school at 16 pay taxes; so their taxes are subsidising those who stay on at school to do A levels. If the government's logic is to be accepted, then you'd start charging people to stay on at school to do A levels, I don't think that would be right.
I don't think that would represent equality of opportunity, and I think it's just as wrong and just as misguided when you apply it to universities.
Jeremy Vine: Let me ask you finally Mr Howard about the Hutton Inquiry, and what we're beginning to, the territory we're beginning to see sketched out there. It may be the Prime Minister's defence is this. He said, he didn't leak the name of Dr David Kelly but he may have chaired the meeting at which a strategy was agreed to confirm the name, if journalists came up with it. Now those two statements could ride together could they not, without contradiction.
Michael Howard: No. On any plain view of language, what the government did was to adopt a strategy which was designed to lead to the disclosure of Dr Kelly's name.
That was the whole point of it, that was what they wanted to achieve. It might be interesting to look at the Oxford English Dictionary definition of a leak, I'll tell you what it is; the deliberate disclosure of confidential information.
That's exactly I think, well at least if you believe the top civil servant in the Ministry of Defence, that's exactly what the government were about.
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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