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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 December 2005, 11:31 GMT
Jon Sopel interview
Please note BBC Politics Show must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

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.


On Politics Show, Sunday 11 December 2005, Jon Sopel interviewed:

  • Ken Clarke MP
  • Oliver Letwin MP, Conservative Director of Policy
  • Douglas Alexander MP, Minister for Europe


Ken Clarke
Kenneth Clarke MP

Interview with Ken Clarke

KEN CLARKE: I think David Cameron has made a fantastic start as leader of the Conservative Party. And I think he's every chance of winning the next election.

I hope he will take many months over his decision in the European parliament and perhaps decide that being a more extreme Euro Sceptic than any of his predecessors, is not the best way to launch himself on the international scene.

Some of our really hard line people apparently have persuaded him that he, he must break ranks and leave all these Christian Democrats and Scandinavian Conservatives and Gaullist and people, and start waltzing off, looking for allies amongst the ultra nationalist right, in central Europe and if they take a few months, I still hope common sense will prevail, but I'm afraid he's committed himself so far that he's going to do this.

Well, given all the goodwill that's surrounding his taking over, and the optimism everybody has for him, I really think, what a pity to insist on finding some new, slightly head banging European policy - Eurosceptic position to take up as his first act in the leadership.

Oliver Letwin MP
Oliver Letwin MP

Interview with Oliver Letwin MP

JON SOPEL: In an ICM poll, conducted exclusively for this programme, we asked voters to agree or disagree with the statement that, 'David Cameron, the new leader of the Conservatives is really the same as previous leaders, in terms of his outlook and attitude.

33% agreed with the same old Tories lines, but 51% didn't.

Well, other polls in the Sunday papers suggest the Tories have enjoyed a surge in support not seen for years. I'm joined from Dorset by Oliver Letwin, the man charged by David Cameron with renewing Conservative policies across the board, and Oliver Letwin, are you having to pinch yourself.

OLIVER LETWIN: A little, in the sense that this is the first time for a long while that we've begun to reach out to millions of people who really haven't been giving us the time of day for the last ten years and that's wonderful news, but of course there's an awful lot of work to do to change the way we do business, the way we look and feel as a party, the things we focus on.

JON SOPEL: Is it almost too good to be true in the sense that the bubble has inflated so big so quickly.

OLIVER LETWIN: I don't think it has actually, I think what's happened is that over the past six months as we've gone through the leadership election, people have seen a party which really senses the need to change itself and is beginning to prepare itself for being a really credible alternative government, and that's I think what's laid the ground work for what's happened in the last few weeks.

JON SOPEL: I've heard a lot of Tories say, the public liked our policies, they just didn't like us. Is that a fair description.

OLIVER LETWIN: Well it's certainly true that a lot of people who agreed with us about a lot of the things that we were saying, still felt we weren't a set of people, a party, that they could vote for.

And I think part of what we got to change is the focus: we are determined to spend a large part of the next four years addressing issues which are real challenges for this country and for the world, which we haven't paid enough attention to - things like the environment and quality of life.

Social justice in Britain, what happens to the communities which face the hardest slog and the question of global poverty and globalisation, those are things you just haven't heard us talking enough about and we're determined now to focus on them and develop really powerful, coherent solutions to those challenges.

JON SOPEL: But six months ago you told us that patient passports, opposition to top-up fees were the right policies, now you're telling us they're the wrong policies.

OLIVER LETWIN: What we said during the last election was we had to reform and improve our public services, including the NHS and that's right, we desperately need improvement in the NHS and schools.

What David Cameron has said and I think he's definitely right is that we distracted attention from the efforts we want to make to improve our public services, by talking about things like the patients passport, and therefore we scrapped that because we don't want to let people think that we're just concerned with a few people; we're concerned with the public services that everybody gets, we want to make them better, we want to make them better as part of making this country, a better place to live in.

JON SOPEL: I suppose what lies underneath the question is are you changing these policies because they're wrong, and that you now see that they're wrong or because you still think they're right but actually the voters wouldn't buy them.

OLIVER LETWIN: Well any political party has to be responsive to what people think and feel, it also has to do what it thinks is right in the long term interests of the country. And what we're trying to do is to form a coherent agenda for government - things we could really do cos they hang together, which are in the long term interests of the country and which people will buy in to because they can see that they're in the long term interests of the country and not in the short term interests of a political party.

JON SOPEL: Other party leaders have fought, sort of become leaders from the centre ground and then tacked to the right as an election has drawn near. Now, is David Cameron going to be any different.

OLIVER LETWIN: Yes, he's going to be very different. We, we're not going to do that again. The whole of David Cameron's campaign, and the whole of our focus and effort for the next four years are to be a credible, alternative government and that means not tacking this way or that, not trying to buy votes from one section of the population or another, but trying to focus on the long term challenges that face this country, and trying to produce really sensible coherent alternative solutions for those and that's what we're going to stick with.

JON SOPEL: And on this whole newness front, and you've portrayed the new dynamism of the party and all the rest of it, John Gummer back, Ken Clarke back, IDS back, isn't 'it fair to say to - coin a phrase, they were the future once.

OLIVER LETWIN: Ah but you see the whole idea here is to use all the talents we've got, both those who are experienced and you've mentioned some of those who have enormous experience and those who are fresh and new. We have a new leader, we have a Shadow Chancellor who's enormously young, although, very brilliant at the job, and we can combine the young and the fresh with those who are more experienced and have a huge amount of knowledge of what went before. We can drive forward a new agenda but supported by experienced talent.

JON SOPEL: If I can put this delicately, aren't you a bit of a risk. I mean remember the 2001 election where you were sent in to deep underground or cold storage or whatever, for your tax cuts pledge or your spending cuts pledge and who came up with the so called fantasy island for asylum seekers a couple of years back.

OLIVER LETWIN: We all learn from our past errors and I could certainly, could certainly do a good trade in political mistakes that I've made in the past and I hope that that experience will serve us in good stead.

JON SOPEL: What are the mistakes then that you think on a wider level, that the Conservative party need to learn. I mean you've already admitted in effect that the party did tack massively to the right in the 2001 and 2005 elections.

OLIVER LETWIN: Yeah, I think our biggest mistake and the one we are most determined now to correct was just not letting people see enough of the concern we have with things that people really feel now need to be tacked.

Every time I talk to a sixth form audience or a university audience, or really almost any audience of younger people, the things they see as important, which I think are huge challenges for our planet and our country - things as I say like global poverty and globalisation and the environment, and our quality of life, and what it's like for people who are struggling in some of our inner cities in particular, to make something of their lives, under very difficult circumstances, those sorts of things we just didn't get across that they were at the top our concerns.

Now the fact is we have always been concerned with them but there's a big gap between being concerned and being understood and seen to be concerned, and we're determined to remedy that.

JON SOPEL: And developing this vast array of policies across the whole waterfront of public policy if you like, I mean presumably, that's going to take up all your time isn't it.

OLIVER LETWIN: Yeah, it's a full time job.

JON SOPEL: So are you giving up your Non Executive Directorship of Rothschilds.

OLIVER LETWIN: That's a tiny little part of my activities, but I'm not going to do any front bench portfolio other than this, because I'm determined that we should work at it and of course I can't do it alone. I have to do it with a whole pile of colleagues who hold important portfolios and between us, we've got to forge something that really is coherent.

JON SOPEL: But Mr Letwin you gave it up when you became Shadow Chancellor because you said then you had to concentrate full time on the job of being Shadow Chancellor, you're keeping it on now even though you've just told me you've got to concentrate full time on developing policy.

OLIVER LETWIN: I think I will be able to manage - what I did when I was Shadow Chancellor, I did because people said that there was a conflict of interest. There isn't here in the same way, but I'm absolutely determined to put everything I've got in to getting this coherent alternative together, and as I say, it isn't just a question of me, and it isn't even just a question of our front bench colleagues.

We're going to be forming a set of policy groups, we've already named the Chairs and Deputy Chairs of several of those. And we're going to work very widely, very openly over the next eighteen months, we're going to bring in the resources of the Think Tanks and the experts from all over the place, not just traditional Conservatives.

JON SOPEL: And you've talked about the blank piece of paper and having to fill it with the right policy. The one policy commitment you've got, which might seem obscure to some people is withdrawing Conservative MEPs from the European People's Party, the biggest grouping in the European Parliament, which includes all the other centre right parties in Europe. That's upset Ken Clarke as we can now hear. I just want to play you this clip.

INTO KEN CLARKE CLIP

KEN CLARKE: I think David Cameron has made a fantastic start as leader of the Conservative Party. And I think he's every chance of winning the next election. I hope he will take many months over his decision in the European parliament and perhaps decide that being a more extreme Euro Sceptic than any of his predecessors, is not the best way to launch himself on the international scene.

Some of our really hard line people apparently have persuaded him that he, he must break ranks and leave all these Christian Democrats and Scandinavian Conservatives and Gaullist and people, and start waltzing off, looking for allies amongst the ultra nationalist right, in central Europe and if they take a few months, I still hope common sense will prevail, but I'm afraid he's committed himself so far that he's going to do this. Well, given all the goodwill that's surrounding his taking over, and the optimism everybody has for him, I really think, what a pity to insist on finding some new, slightly head banging European policy - Eurosceptic position to take up as his first act in the leadership.

JON SOPEL: So Mr Letwin will commonsense prevail. Will you abandon this.

OLIVER LETWIN: No I don't think this is a first order issue to put it mildly. I suspect most of your viewers have never heard of the EPP.

JON SOPEL: But then why, sorry to interrupt you, but then why if it's so inconsequential, do you raise an issue which is going to get all the old divisions out in the open, as we've just seen, Ken Clarke within three days of taking on a senior role under the new regime coming out and criticising.

OLIVER LETWIN: Well there may be some criticism but David Cameron is determined that we should do this, not because it's the most important thing in the world but because it is important that we're consistent. It's important that what we say at Westminster and how we act there is the same as what we say and do in Brussels.

And it's important in general, in politics now, this is a very important point about the whole way we intend to conduct politics, that what we do and what we say is consistent because we mean it and we believe it. And that means we can't be part of a grouping that, although we share much with it, disagrees with us about the extent to which Europe tends towards becoming a sort of United States of Europe.

JON SOPEL: You heard what Ken Clarke said there, this is a more extreme Eurosceptic policy than either anything that IDS, any of the other previous leaders, William Hague, had adopted and they were pretty Eurosceptic themselves.

OLIVER LETWIN: Yeah, I mean, I hear that and I hear the note of huge excitement in your voice. I very much doubt that most of your viewers as I say, even know what this is about.

The point we're making is we have in the European parliament, to say and do the same things we do in Westminster, and incidentally, we have to say and do and think the same things when we're on TV as we say in parliament or in private - we have to be consistent because people are really quite fed up with the kind of politics that consists of saying one thing to one audience and one to another, which I'm afraid this government has from time to time indulged in and we're determined not to do that and that's why we're taking this step but William Hague is going to do it deliberately and carefully and sensitively and that's as it should be.

JON SOPEL: Ken Clark, can he stay on the front bench because he's going to be speaking on the front bench on public policy issues - if he so violently disagrees with something, the first policy announcement you've made.

OLIVER LETWIN: Can you genuinely tell me that you're surprised by this. Of course we go in to this with our eyes open, Ken is a terrific person. He's a huge part of the Conservative talent and experience that we have available.

He's going to be doing enormously important work for the Party, leading a task force on the whole question of parliamentary accountability and how we make sure that government is actually properly accountable to Parliament, and operates in a proper fashion and he will be speaking for the front bench on those issues and as Ken himself said, all of us believe that the last week has represented a fantastic start and there's much that we can work on immediately, to try and make things in this country better, part of it is, a great part of it is the things I was talking about, the environment, the quality of life and global poverty and globalisation and social justice and economic competitiveness - those sorts of things. But part of it also is the question of making our parliament work better and Ken is going to contribute enormously to that.

JON SOPEL: Okay, Oliver Letwin than you very much for joining us.

OLIVER LETWIN: Thank you very much.

End of interview


Oliver Letwin MP
Oliver Letwin MP

Interview with Douglas Alexander MP

JON SOPEL: And I'm joined now by the Europe Minister, Douglas Alexander, who's straight off to Brussels after this programme.

Douglas Alexander, thanks for joining us.

We heard in that film, Poland representing New Europe, saying they'd rather wait for someone better or something better to come along in terms of the budget proposals.

We've heard the French saying, they reject them, it's quite an achievement to unite both old and new Europe against our proposals.

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Well, Good Afternoon John. We're in the middle of what is, as you can imagine, a very difficult and challenging situation of trying to negotiate a budget between the twenty five members of the European Union. Back in June, which your film referred to, we inherited a situation where not one country, but five countries were unable to sign up to the then Presidency's proposals.

So we've taken time over the summer and during the autumn to listen carefully to the points of view that have been put. We tabled proposals just a week ago, six days ago, we'll have a further opportunity to discuss those proposals in Brussels this evening and then at a meeting tomorrow as we look ahead to what will be the final conclusion of these discussions, we hope with a deal, but there can be no guarantees when the European Council meets on Thursday and Friday.

JON SOPEL: You said in June there were five countries that were in the same camp, other countries in the same camp as Britain. As I understand it now, there's just one and that's Malta.

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Well there is very live discussions underway - I think if you look at the comments that people have made, I notice you didn't have serving Ministers making comments in your film, I think many countries have been careful to obviously express disquiet or concern, you wouldn't really expect a country after the first negotiating box had been tabled by a Presidency, to say thanks very much, we'll take that. We can't ask for anything more.

Every country starts by saying we'd like this or we'd like this. But ultimately, we've judged that the ground on which a compromise can be reached, and a consensus built amongst the twenty five members of the European Union, is quite narrow, that's why we've tabled the proposals and that's why, not withstanding all of the public comments that there's been in recent days, we'll continue to work for the next four days for an agreement.

JON SOPEL: But Mr Barosso, the President of the European Commission, I've never heard him speak in such terms about a budget proposal, taking about how we were being Scrooge like and the Sheriff of Nottingham stealing from the poor to give to the rich.

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Well if you look for example at the size of the budget that we've proposed, a 1.03GNI budget, that basically is an indication of the size of the European Union's budget, compared with the overall European economy.

That is markedly smaller than the budget that President Barosso himself and the European Commission were arguing for just a few months ago. So I well understand why President Barosso has his own view in terms of what should be the right size of budget, is just an issue with which we disagree with the commission.

JON SOPEL: I know there's an awful long way to go between now and Friday in terms of what is possible in late night negotiations. Realistically, as we stand now, what do you think the chances are of getting a deal.

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Realistically, I think it's in the balance, and I think ultimately it may turn on the judgements made by a number of different countries, as to whether or not withstanding the concerns they feel about the proposals that Britain has tabled, they actually judge that now is the right time to get agreement, particularly in light of the challenge of funding the costs of these new Eastern European countries coming in to the European Union.

JON SOPEL: And from your point of view, does there have to be something there, guaranteeing a review of the Common Agricultural Policy, before you're going to do any kind of deal.

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Yes, the Prime Minister was very clear on that point at his press conference, at the end of the week.

JON SOPEL: But the French are never going to sign up to that.

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Well, let's wait and see where we get to in the course of the next four days. But we've been very clear from the outset of the Presidency, that certainly we want to make our fair contribution towards the costs of enlargement, something from which Britain will benefit hugely in years to come, but at the same time we do want to set a course that will allow for a much more fundamental reform, both of how Europe raises its money and how Europe spends its money.

JON SOPEL: Okay, I noticed in the midst of all this 3D game of chess over the budget, you've had time to write an article on the challenge posed by the election of David Cameron to the Tory leadership. He really does pose a big challenge to you.

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Well he's the fourth Tory leader we've had now in eight years, so he'll pose challenges in the same way that other Conservative leaders have in the past. We were very clear however, in the article that I wrote with David Miliband in the Guardian this week, that the ball was very much at Labour's feet.

I believe that, in fact I believe it even more in light of the proposals from David Cameron we head about in your news clip where once again, somebody with as much credibility as Kenneth Clarke was saying that the one policy proposal that David Cameron has made in the last three days is actually a policy that puts him further to the right than either William Hague or Iain Duncan Smith.

JON SOPEL: But don't you think though that in doing that he's sending a pretty clear message, it will be rather popular with the country, that you know, I'm going to be tough on Europe.

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Well, it's really for him to try and resolve what once again is a gulf opening up between people like Ken Clarke, who I think have generally been judged to have had a serious contribution to make to the Europe debate, and on the other side, people like Iain Duncan Smith, with whom David Cameron is now associating himself.

But I think you're right to recognise it probably does speak to a broader agenda of David Cameron. I think actually, if you want to understand the approach he's taking, you shouldn't look to Islington as some people suggest, it's not actually about Tony Blair or the Labour Party, its got much more to do with the American experience of George Bush. Remember back in 2000, George Bush said he was a compassionate Conservative, he said he wanted to talk about poverty and education, but at the same time, he needed to secure his base and that's why he made the proposals that he did on issues like abortion and on taxation.

I think that's actually the logic behind David Cameron's policy, which he's announced in the last three days, which already, sensible people like Kenneth Clarke are dismissing as being I think the phrase he used was head banging.

JON SOPEL: Isn't he plugging in to something that, you know people do feel that he is something different. Our own poll, the polls in this morning's newspapers suggest that there is a big surge of support going towards the Tories.

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Well, for almost the last five days this week, David Cameron has been on every television that you could switch on. I wouldn't place much credence on polls after a week like that. I do think it's much easier to change the tone of a political party than to change the substance, the policies.

My sense is, when you talk to people, that's ultimately what people care about, whether their mortgage rates are low, whether unemployment is low, whether there are real prospects for the economy in the years ahead and I believe we will have a track record of achievement whenever the election is called, and it's on that basis we would fight that ... (overlaps) ... election.

JON SOPEL: One of the things that you wrote in your article was that Labour must have the confidence to say that we are a long way from completing the task of building a fairer and more prosperous nation. Isn't the answer to that from the voters, well they've had long enough, let someone else have a go. You know that great campaigning slogan, it's time for a change.

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Well if you take a couple of issues. One is unemployment. I mean I remember when the Conservatives brought three million unemployed to the country - we've cut unemployment by two million since 1997.

Oliver Letwin claimed to be concerned about international development, of course we've massively increased our amount of overseas assistance, but at the same time we shouldn't forget the Conservatives cut the overseas aid budget year on year.

So I think there's no inconsistency between saying we've proud of what we've achieved as a government in the last eight years, but we're anything but satisfied, there's a huge amount of work that we need to do, to raise standards in schools, to strengthen our health service, to provide further economic opportunity and I believe the party with the real ideas to achieve that is the Labour party and not the Conservative party.

JON SOPEL: Okay, Douglas Alexander, thank you very much indeed.

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Thank you.

End of interview


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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The next Politics Show will be on Sunday 15 January 2006 at Noon on BBC One.

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