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Page last updated at 13:01 GMT, Sunday, 19 February 2006

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 19 February 2006, Jon Sopel interviewed:

  • George Osbourne MP, Shadow Chancellor
  • Chris Huhne MP

George Osbourne MP
George Osbourne MP, Shadow Chancellor

Interview with George Osbourne MP

JON SOPEL: George Osborne joins us now straight from Washington. George Osborne, have you come back with an invitation clutched in your hands for David Cameron to go and meet the President.

GEORGE OSBORNE: Well I'm sure he will be going to Washington and indeed other parts of the United States, either later this year or next year perhaps; that's part of the, you know trips that opposition leaders ... (interjection)

JON SOPEL: (overlaps) So no invitation yet.

GEORGE OSBORNE: Well I'm sure, certainly what we found when we went this week, that we saw everyone we wanted to see. I mean I met the Treasury Secretary, Condoleezza Rice and also the new Chairman of the Federal Reserve and it's important for people who aspire to be in government, as I do and my colleagues do, that we have these relations, not just with the current administration but also with the potential future administration and people in, no, no administration at all, like the Chairman of the Fed.

JON SOPEL: So fences have been mended.

GEORGE OSBORNE: Well, we did have an unfortunate falling out I suppose at the time both of the British General Election and the US Presidential election, when tensions were running high. Those fences have already been mended and we had a very good series of meetings in Washington and I think that's important for an opposition and indeed for a government, to have those good relations with the United States.

JON SOPEL: But does it matter having good relations with President Bush. After all, when the next General Election comes, he's going to have been long gone. He's not very popular in this country, and by all accounts, it looks like the Republicans are not going to select a George Bush look-alike.

GEORGE OSBORNE: Well if you care about issues like the global competitive challenge of China and India, climate change, some of the issues we've been listening to on the news about Iraq and so on, of course, having relations with the United States, discussing these issues with the world's most important economic and military power, is pretty important and that's what we've been doing, and as I said, for example, we met Senator John McCain, he is not part of the current administration but he is currently, one of the front runners to be the next President; so we're starting to build relations with people who will be of influence in Washington in the future. Not just people of influence today.

JON SOPEL: And did you find yourself more on the same page with Senator John McCain than you did with perhaps the neo-cons who are running the White House.

GEORGE OSBORNE: Oh no. (fluffs) Senator, Senator McCain is actually an extremely interesting person. He makes a, a point which actually William Hague was making in his speech at John Hopkin's University in Washington, which is we've got to be respected as well as feared in the so-called war on terror.

It's very important that we maintain our moral authority in this conflict and Senator McCain has been amongst those who are most critical of confusion over for example, extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay and other things; so it was particularly interesting talking to about that.

JON SOPEL: Yes. Yes, William Hague talked about American foreign policy had led to a critical erosion in moral authority. That's pretty hard-hitting. I can't believe that George Bush will have particularly welcomed that.

GEORGE OSBORNE: Well I think there is a recognition in Washington that in order to fight for the rule of law you've got to up-hold the rule of law and back in London a couple of weeks ago, I heard Colin Powell, Secretary of State in the first Bush administration, talking about exactly these things and how it's very important that people come to respect us, and - in the way we conduct ourselves; so that message I think is understood by the administration, certainly in the conversations we had at the State Department, that was understood and also by people like Senator McCain, who are obviously going to play an influential part in future foreign policy in America.

JON SOPEL: On Guantanamo Bay, the UN says it must close sooner rather than later. The US Administration said that the report was a discredit to the United Nations. Where do you stand?

GEORGE OSBORNE: Well I agree that it, Guantanamo Bay is a, an anomaly, which I think does damage to the reputation of the United States and it should close sooner rather than later. This incidentally was exactly what I also heard Colin Powell saying, and I think the United States Administration, as far as I'm able to judge, seized at that point.

JON SOPEL: John Reid said this morning on - that he thought that it was actually, should be left to the Americans to decide what was best.

GEORGE OSBORNE: Well I, I think it made it clear that that's a decision obviously for the American Administration to make. But my own personal view, since you ask, is that it should be closed sooner rather than later.

Listen, I am someone who has supported the Iraq war, who believes very strongly in the relationship with the United States as being at the centre-piece of foreign policy, but we've got to have moral authority in the way we conduct these things, and I think there are few people in the world who would not say that Guantanamo Bay has undermined the moral authority of what we're trying to do.

JON SOPEL: And moral authority is being called in to question by the behaviour of certain British troops in Southern Iran, the pictures we saw in the newspapers and in video released last weekend. John Reid, the Defence Secretary, has said, we should understand a little more and condemn a little less. Is that your view?

GEORGE OSBORNE: Well I had a brother in law, I've got a brother in law who served in Iraq for a year and there - the British troops are under enormous pressure. I think they're doing a fantastic job. As far as I can tell, incidents like the video film we've seen are isolated and I think we do have to understand the pressure they're under.

Of course, we want misdeeds dealt with, and dealt with quickly and it does do damage to the reputation of British soldiers who are otherwise doing a very very good job out there in Iraq, but let's understand the pressure those soldiers are under.

JON SOPEL: But we're just hearing in the news just then that Iraq is reducing co-operation with British troops in the area of operation in Southern Iraq. I mean that is a very worrying development.

GEORGE OSBORNE: I agree with you and I think that's a mistake. I mean the British soldiers are there to provide security for the Iraqi government and the Iraqi administration and I think the Iraqi authorities should understand that.

JON SOPEL: Yes, let's just talk about your area of responsibility, the economy. I mean, John Redwood, who's chairing your economic policy working group, believes that the State is too big, that ... taking too much of the cake, that it's taking 43% at the moment, he believes it should be closer to 30%, do you agree with that.

GEORGE OSBORNE: Well I agree that over time, over an economic cycle, we should try and reduce the share of national income taken by the State, by sharing the proceeds of growth between lower taxes and investment in public services.

In the conversations I had in Washington, we talked about this competitive threat from China and India, and indeed the opportunity that poses, but frankly, an ever-rising tax burden, ever more regulation, ever more state spending, is not going to be the answer. A bigger share of the, of the national income taken by the State is not the answer. So we have set out ... (interjection)

JON SOPEL: (overlaps) Are you and John Redwood on the same page on this. Are you singing from the same hymn sheet, to use all the clichés under the sun.

GEORGE OSBORNE: Well I, we set out our position, David Cameron and I, which is that over an economic cycle, the share of national income taken by the State should fall. That we should put the country on a path of sustainable lower taxes, as and when we can afford it. I suspect, unfortunately, we will have to sort out the public finances first, given the way that Gordon Brown is managing them.

JON SOPEL: And what about on inheritance tax because we're hearing ever more middle-income families, not wealthy people, who are being caught by that. Is that something that - in the past the Tories have said they're going to deal with. Would you like to commit to scrapping it or raising the ceiling on it massively?

GEORGE OSBORNE: Well I'm not about to write my 2010 budget here in 2006. (interjection)

JON SOPEL: Sure, give us an idea of ... (overlaps)

GEORGE OSBORNE: But I think inheritance tax is an example of a stealth tax, the way the thresholds have been manipulated, more and more people find, completely ordinary people, not er extraordinary rich people, who caught in any case avoid inheritance. More and more people find their home caught in the inheritance tax trap. (interjection)

JON SOPEL: Is this an urgent priority for you.

GEORGE OSBORNE: Well it is one of the things that we will look at but I'm not about to give a commitment for what we're going to do in 2010, 2011, because that would be pretty irresponsible of me.

JON SOPEL: Just a final question if I might. There's obviously growing concern now that bird flu has been found or H5N1 virus has been found in a bird in France. Is the British government doing enough? I hear the Tories say, we ought to be testing things a bit more. What does that mean?

GEORGE OSBORNE: Well as I understand it, they're planning a contingency exercise to test Britain's defences, but they're not planning to do this till April. Well given bird flu has been discovered in France, on our border, I think and the Conservative Party argues, this should be brought forward. We should test our systems now.

And the other point I make is that there needs to be much more public information here. There has been some communication with large holders of poultry, but there are many people who have small numbers of chickens and things at home and a better public information campaign, to say, well this is exactly what's going to happen if we have a bird flu case in Britain, I think is called for now.

JON SOPEL: Okay, George Osborne thank you very much indeed.

End of interview

Chris Huhne MP
Chris Huhne MP

Interview with Chris Huhne MP

JON SOPEL: And Chris Huhne joins us now from Edinburgh. Chris Huhne, welcome to the Politics Show. We heard there from Emma Nicholson's ... say taking someone with negligible parliamentary experience, and totally unknown to the pub, unknown to the public, she's right isn't she.

CHRIS HUHNE: Well all party leaders are unknown to the public before they become party leaders, and even someone with the standing of Ming, for example, had less than half of the recognition of Charles Kennedy. And I think parliamentary experience does count in the European Parliament.

I've been a parliamentarian for six years, that's two years longer than David Cameron, and I think too that people like a bit of hinterland, some experience outside politics, in journalism for many many years, ending up editing a business section of the Independent, the Independent on Sunday, after many years writing a column for the Guardian, and then starting a business, building it up to be the largest team economists in the City of London over a five year period. That's relevant experience too in terms of team building and communications. (interjection)

JON SOPEL: But Paddy Ashdown, who was, you know, did very well as leader in the Liberal Democrats, said it was like "entering a Secret Garden, almost nothing you have done beforehand except experience in Westminster politics can do it. I was not a good leader of the party for the first years, it took me a while to learn, experience is an important aspect."

CHRIS HUHNE: I think it's very interesting to note that if you look at the people who are backing me, they include two of the party's former cabinet ministers out of three. Ming has one, and George Thomson and Bill Rodgers, both of them former members of Labour Cabinet are backing me, and they've known me for a long time.

Other ministers like Bob McKlen and Dick Tavern, with ministerial experience are doing the same, because they actually believe that I've got what it takes. It's not for me to say, I think if you have to say that, you probably haven't. But look at the support.

JON SOPEL: Well okay, let's just develop that argument because it's an interesting point you make. That you know, okay so 97% of the British public don't know who you are, but among the MPs and the MEPs who probably do know you best, they seem overwhelmingly not to be backing you.

CHRIS HUHNE: Well remember also that one of the things that happened was that Ming announced his campaign well ahead of er, my campaign, and people didn't think that I was even going to be putting my hat in the ring.

So a lot of people were rushing to Ming's standard I think before they knew what the whole field was, and one of the things I want to do for members is provide them with a real choice, I think we've all got qualities as candidates, no doubt about that, we've all said we'll work as a team, but the mix of qualities is slightly different in my case because I've been involved in the bread and butter issues which usually determine a British General Election: Health, Education, the Economy.

When Charles Kennedy wanted somebody to pull the party together and unite the party on a public services reform agenda, he asked me to do that during the last parliament and that's one of the reason why I'm well know (interjection) ... outside my region.

JON SOPEL: (overlaps) Can you explain this to me. Can you explain this me. Why does Emma Nicholson say that you're not popular among the MEPs.

CHRIS HUHNE: Well I didn't hear her say that. I heard her say that she thought it would be a gamble, and I quite understand that point of view. Obviously nine months in the House of Commons is a short period of time, but I do think that you have to take all of the qualities of the different candidates in to account and I think we need somebody who's got the energy for the long-haul.

If we're going to have an Election, we may have an Election very shortly thereafter, and the Leader has to be able to take us in to not just one but two elections, and build the Party on that sort of basis. I think it's a, as much of a risk in other areas - if you look at other candidates, as it would be with me.

JON SOPEL: Is Charles Kennedy backing you.

CHRIS HUHNE: I don't know whether Charles Kennedy is backing me. He quite rightly has said that he's not backing anyone ... (interjection)

JON SOPEL: It was rumoured that he was.

CHRIS HUHNE: I, I don't know.

JON SOPEL: You've had no conversations.

CHRIS HUHNE: I've had no conversation with Charles on this.

JON SOPEL: Okay. Let's talk about one of the centre pieces of your manifesto which I have here about tax. The idea that people on the minimum wage should be taken out of liability for income tax. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, that well-established independent body, has costed that at around twenty billion pounds.

CHRIS HUHNE: Twenty one billion pounds is what the (interjection) ...

JON SOPEL: (overlaps) Twenty one billion, I underdid you, I sorry. Seven pence on the basic rate of income tax.


JON SOPEL: Where does that come from. Where does the money come from.

CHRIS HUHNE: Well I think there are a number of potential sources. What we're doing at the moment is we have something called The Tax Commission, which I'm participating in as Chairman of one of the sub-groups, looking at local taxes in particular, and we will be bringing forward proposals to the Conference in the Autumn, which I think are going to be very interesting, very radical, and they're going to do a lot in terms of putting flesh on the bones of the slogan which the Treasury Team has been attempting to get across, and that is fair taxes, green taxes, but no higher taxes overall.

We don't need any increase in taxes overall, but we do need a switch, and I think one of the switches which we need to do and which I've been majoring on in the campaign, is the idea that we would have an increase in green taxation, on those activities which are leading to carbon emissions, and that would allow us to cut income tax for those at the bottom end.

JON SOPEL: I don't, I don't, I don't wish to appear disrespectful but that doesn't sound, quite sound like an answer of where twenty one billion comes from.

CHRIS HUHNE: Well, you cannot expect people in a Leadership Campaign to come up with a detailed budget, but I can tell you ...

JON SOPEL: Oh no, I think it's reasonable. Hang on, I'm sorry to interrupt you, I think it is reasonable. If you're saying that you can at one side - on one side of the ledger say there are going to be twenty one billion pounds of tax cuts to take low income people out of, however desirable, it's fair to ask, well where' the money coming from.

CHRIS HUHNE: Well, let me give you a sense. I mean the money, the proposals will come out of the Tax Commission for Conference, and they will be detailed, as they always have been, for the Party.

I think it was absolutely sensible of David Cameron, during the Tory Election Campaign for Leadership, to say to David Davis, you shouldn't be attempting to tie the party down to detailed proposals on the hoof. I think that's crazy. I think what is quite reasonable to do, is to give a sense of the overall direction, and that is what I'm trying to do. But let me give you one indication.

Green taxes, overall, raised at their peak in 1999, a little over 3.5% of our national income. They've actually been falling now, ever since then, so they're now at 3% of national income, and they're raising less than they did when the Tories left office in 1997. So much for the Labour Party's credentials as an environmentalist party.

Now, just putting that back to the peak would raise you more than a third of the way towards the cost of the minimum wage proposal we're talking about, but remember too, we're not talking about a big bang here, we're talking about a proposal for a whole parliament, and that can include a series of steps over a five year period, to reach the overall objective. I think it's very obtainable, but wait and see.

JON SOPEL: Okay, Chris Huhne, there in Edinburgh, thank you very much indeed for joining us here on the Politics Show.

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 12 February 2006 at Noon on BBC One.
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