On the Politics Show, Sunday 16 September 2007, Jon Sopel interviewed David Laws MP.
JON SOPEL: Well, I'm joined now from Brighton by the Liberal Democrat Spokesman on Schools and the Family, David Laws, in a rather dimly lit Brighton Conference Centre, you look rather like you're out of a Rembrandt painting there. Anyway, I wonder...
DAVID LAWS: I'm sorry about that, it's rather sunny outside though.
JON SOPEL: I wonder whether I can start by asking you the same question as I asked Lord Rodgers - how would you characterise the last year for the Liberal Democrats.
DAVID LAWS: I think it's been a, a good year for us. I mean if you look a couple of months ago, rather in contrast to the report that you had from Eastleigh, which had a feel of the politics of four or five months ago, actually, we ended up driving the Conservative Party in to third position, in two by-elections, where they actually started off in second position and er, if we were getting squeezed somehow by the Cameron Conservatives, which was really the thesis of the earlier part of your film from Eastleigh, then we certainly wouldn't be expected to be by-passing them.
What we've actually seen, over the last few months is a bubble around the rather vacuous policies of David Cameron, which now seems to have burst and we've also seen, over the last couple of months, obviously a bounce in support for the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, the new Prime Minister, which is something that we very often see when an unpopular outward, er, outgoing Prime Minister gives way to a new one.
And I think as we see ourselves going in to the autumn and the New Year, and as the public begin to focus back on the issues that they're really concerned about, about pensions and council tax and the environment, I think at that stage, the Brown bounce will fade and you will see us strengthening in our support.
JON SOPEL: So what would it take to be a bad year, two hundred and fifty councillors in England, not enough, losing power in Scotland, not enough.
DAVID LAWS: A quarter of the vote in the local elections was, was Liberal Democrat, one point or so behind the government. Bill Rodgers saying that things weren't changed very much from the time that he remembers. We've got three or four times the number of members of parliament than we had then.
We've got enormous strength, all across the country, not only in the areas particularly associated in the past with the Conservatives in the south, but also challenging Labour in their heartlands in the City and the North, where frankly, the conservatives are nowhere.
That's the picture that I recognise, right across the country and it's the big issues of substance that people are concerned about, that we're going to be debating out there in the conference this week.
JON SOPEL: So, is Bill Rodgers on another planet and the activists we spoke to in our film on another planet.
DAVID LAWS: Jon, you know as a very experience political operator, that you can always?in every political party- you'll be doing it at the Conservatives and Labour- noises off, who have grumbles and mumbles about particular things, but I think that you will find in the conference here, this week in Brighton, amongst the party members, amongst all of my colleagues in the Shadow Cabinet and the parliamentary party, overwhelming support for me.
A strong conviction, that in contrast with people like David Cameron, he's a man of substance, he's made the right judgements over big issues like Iraq, he's leading the party in the national debate on issues such as the environment, he's got good judgement, and he's a person of integrity and I think the overwhelming majority of the party, are very strongly behind him.
JON SOPEL: But Bill Rodgers is not a lone voice is he. He's too old and wily to have broken cover like that if he thought he was just an isolated voice in the wilderness, and when he didn't quite answer my questions about were there others who were plotting, it gave me the firm impression that there almost certainly were.
DAVID LAWS: Well, I like Bill very much and he was one of the very important founder members of the SDP to which we owe so much, but I thought he sounded slightly disconnected. I mean not only did it not appear that he as sort of at the conference, but actually he ? he seemed to be obsessed with things going on the fringe, but as we're actually going to be debating out here this week the core issues: the environment, education, my own portfolio, and we're going to be debating poverty and pensions - the issues that really matter, so yes, I think we are addressing the mainstream issues that matter to British politics.
We've seen off the, the Cameron bubble, we will see off in time the Brown bounce, and I think you're going to see a party that's not only very confident this week, going in to the autumn, but that is talking about the things that people in Britain care about and when they come back to those issues, the council tax, pensions, the environment, Iraq, you asked what we were for, all of those issues, they will come back, not only to the Liberal Democrats but they will also see a party which frankly, if we didn't exist, one of your earlier questions, in British politics, would make British politics almost meaningless.
How can you not have a Liberal Democrat party, when on Iraq the other two were agreed, where on the environment, they've got nothing serious to say, when on council tax their policy is the same, when on pensions, their policy is the same. British politics would be a pointless monopoly of single issue views, were it not for the existence of our party.
JON SOPEL: What about the critique that you're a think tank not a party.
DAVID LAWS: A think tank with 25% of the votes in the local elections, that's some think tank.
JON SOPEL: Okay. Well let's go on to this other policy that you seem now to favour which is that, we should have a referendum on whether Britain stays in the European Union. Why.
DAVID LAWS: Yeah. I think it's absolutely right because the background here, as you know, is the Treaty that's being debated at the moment, that's going to go to an inter-governmental conference... (interjection)
JON SOPEL: Then have a referendum on that.
DAVID LAWS: And, and, and our view is that that Treaty, is one that provided the government's red lines are respected, it's actually going to be a minor constitutional change, which frankly, very few people in this country even understand.
The point was made by Ken Clarke a few months ago, that frankly, there are some people who are so extreme on Europe, that they would have a referendum about changing the date at the top of the page and if we had a referendum on a Treaty, that respected the red lines and that was essentially not much different constitutionally from where we are now, it would in essence, really be a debate and a referendum on our future in Europe, and Menzies I think has had the courage quite rightly, to take the lead on this and say, if that's the issue, and if that's the outcome of the intergovernmental conference, let's just have that debate.
Let's not pretend that we can have some debate about whether there should be QMV in twenty five countries, or twenty four, what the date is, or what flag we should have. Those are fringe issues. If people want a debate on the core issue of being in Europe or not, let's actually have that and not hide away from it.
JON SOPEL: Okay, David Laws, in a rather gloomily lit Brighton, I hope your conference is better, thank you very much.
DAVID LAWS: It's sunny outside. Thank you Jon.
JON SOPEL: Okay, thanks very much for being with us.
END OF INTERVIEW WITH DAVID LAWS
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The Politics Show Sunday 16 September 2007 at 12:00 BST on BBC One.
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