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Sunday, March 28, 1999 Published at 15:44 GMT 16:44 UK

UK Politics

Blue Peter's recipe for victory

Each week BBC News Online's Nyta Mann talks to a politician making the news. This week: Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party Peter Lilley.

Some say Peter Lilley is a marked man. The Conservative Party deputy leader is an icon of the Thatcher years. A bone-dry monetrist, Euro-sceptic stalwart of the No Turning Back group, he was - still is - one of Maggie's boys.

After shadow foreign secretary Michael Howard's announcement earlier this month that he would be leaving the front bench, William Hague signalled further changes were on the way.

[ image: Peter Lilley has been a Treasury minister,  trade and industry secretary and social security secretary]
Peter Lilley has been a Treasury minister, trade and industry secretary and social security secretary
To establish the new caring, compassionate image the party required, declared the Tory leader, "of course, we have to change some people as well. I have to bring some new people on."

Hague's comments left the shadow cabinet places of surviving senior members of John Major's government looking vulnerable.

As a frontline figure of both the Thatcher and Major administrations, Lilley is an obvious reminder of the Tory past Hague wants the voters to forget. His name immediately appeared on lists of the soon-to-be-discarded drawn up by Westminster commentators.

Peter Lilley on drawing a line under the past
"I didn't even see that," Lilley says with breezy unconcern. "If I had I would have discounted it. But I don't think it's true." He drily adds: "I am, as everybody knows, a very caring and compassionate person."

As if to prove it, he's wearing that emblem of modernised Conservatism, a woolly jumper. "I intended to take if off before you reached here," he protests when I remark on it.

So it isn't a sign of the new caring, sharing, shirtsleeves-and-casual-sweaters Tory Party? "It's a sign that it's a cold room!"

No touchy-feely Tory

Given his past form it would certainly take more than a woolly pully to recast Lilley as a touchy-feely Tory.

Lilley it was who launched attacks on, for example, single mothers who "get pregnant just to jump the housing list", on "benefit tourists" coming to the UK armed with a spongers' phrasebook to claim the dole, and on the EU's scope to force "policies made by foreigners, for foreigners, which only foreigners can change" on the UK.

[ image: Michael Howard, another veteran of the Thatcher and Major years, is to leave the front bench]
Michael Howard, another veteran of the Thatcher and Major years, is to leave the front bench
But things are undoubtedly different now. As part of the long haul to electability, the party has spent the last 18 months proclaiming its willingness to get in touch with the people.

Gay men, single mothers, ethnic minorities and even public sector workers have all been extended the Tory hand of friendship.

Peter Lilley: "There is a temptation to say we must diffentiate ourselves from Labour"
Lilley is in charge of the party's policy review process. The first, "Listening to Britain" public consultation stage has just been completed. Next comes the policy formulation process.

The actual policies themselves will take some time to be hammered out. But Lilley has already pledged they will keep the party "firmly rooted" in the centre ground - which he is determined to recapture from Labour.

Was this an admission that the Tories were in danger of positioning themselves too far along the right of the political spectrum?

"No," he insists. "But there is a temptation, because the Labour Party have moved somewhat in our direction and in some areas they've actually endorsed what we've done, for people to say 'Oh well, we must differentiate ourselves', and therefore that we should consciously adopt things because Labour doesn't agree with them in order to differ from Labour, rather than because we do agree."

[ image: William Hague reshuffled Peter Lilley from the shadow chancellorship to the deputy leadership last year]
William Hague reshuffled Peter Lilley from the shadow chancellorship to the deputy leadership last year
Instead, Lilley gives what amounts to a repudiation of the "clear blue water" approach favoured by some in his party: "We will adopt policies because they're right, because we agree with them, not in order to be different from Labour."

Getting back to the future

But coming back from the worst general election defeat since elections began is tough. Hague is still having to make speeches full of apologies for past Tory offences.

Peter Lilley: "Labour would have won earlier if they'd have changed earlier"
At the Tories' spring conference in Reading in early March, the Opposition leader stressed the importance of "quality of life" issues, declaring that there was more to life than money.

What does it say about the state of a political party that its leader, this long after Labour's landslide victory, feels he needs to make such a platitude the centrepiece of an address - after all, who argues otherwise?

The importance of Hague's Reading speech, says Lilley, was its marking of the cut-off point at which the Conservatives stopped justifying, apologising or even praising their record in office.

"It was saying 'let's draw a line, let's break free from the past' - both our successes and any mistakes that we made," he explains.

"We've recognised that we did make mistakes and we want to learn lessons from them. But we also had tremendous achievements."

But "if we allow ourselves to be dragged into arguments about the past and saying 'Gosh, yes, we did some wonderful things', and 'Oh fair enough, we did some bad things which we've apologised for', that's not where the election's going to be fought, and [where] we mustn't let it be fought."

[ image: Lessons have been drawn from what Labour did when Michael Foot became its leader after losing the 1979 election]
Lessons have been drawn from what Labour did when Michael Foot became its leader after losing the 1979 election
And surely two years of saying sorry is enough? "Well, those are your words, not mine," he says, grinning.

"And it's not just of saying sorry, but it's also of glorying in past successes. You're not going to win future elections by glorying in past successes."

No more apologies

The 1980s are culturally defined these days as an ugly decade: mean-minded and money-grabbing, dominated by the pursuit of profit over social solidarity. It is also a decade that has become indelibly associated with the Tories.

Lilley goes some way to acknowledging this. "We inevitably had to focus on the economic issues in the eighties because the country was breaking up economically and we had to resolve those problems," he says.

"But precisely because we've succeeded in solving many of the problems we were elected to tackle in the eighties, we now have to face the new problems of the future, and they are far wider."

[ image: John Major: They joke about
John Major: They joke about "Bastardgate" now
The party has to "break free of the perceptions which were established over that period". The way to do this is to come up "interesting things" to say on the quality of life issues Hague spoke of: family, crime, public services, education and health.

Lessons from Labour

Lessons have been drawn from Labour's wilderness years from 1979 to 1997 although Lilley rejects any parallel between that 18-year spell in opposition and the fate of the Tories now - he says he sincerely believes they can win the next election, though it won't be easy.

He also agrees that for a weak opposition faced with a government in an extremely strong position, an irrational belief that you can win may be essential: "Yes, I think if you didn't believe you could win, that would be quite debilitating emotionally."

He points out that on the last two occasions Labour won a landslide victory, in 1945 and 1966, they lost office at the next election.

After 1979, "Labour's problem was that they thought they could win without changing, and they were reluctant and slow to change ... Effectively, they took many years before they realised they would have to change in order to win.

"We've realised that we had to change quite radically and rapidly. Not in the same way as them, because they've had to change their fundamental policies and beliefs. We had to change ourselves as a party."

He points to the introduction of more internal party democracy and disciplinary procedures. "We do have to change our policies," he admits, "but to deal with new problems and new issues rather than just re-fighting battles we've already won.

"To some extent we were seen, towards the end, as refusing to take yes for an answer. You know, that we'd won the privatisation battles, the economic things, and yet we were still treating that as if it were the only battleground that mattered."

"But we've realised from the Labour experience that we have to do it more rapidly. Had they done it more rapidly, they'd have won earlier."

Friends with the old boss

Relations between Lilley and his two previous bosses are good, he says. He gets on "perfectly well" with John Major. Lilley then adds: "Obviously, I was a Thatcher loyalist."

He was indeed. It isn't often a political journalist gets to call a serving senior politician a bastard to his face, but Lilley is one of the few with whom this is possible without getting thrown out of his office.

[ image: Margaret Thatcher: A Thatcher loyalist, Peter Lilley sees her often]
Margaret Thatcher: A Thatcher loyalist, Peter Lilley sees her often
He was one of the ministers John Major was referring to in the infamous "Bastardgate" episode. In comments intended as private but which ended up on the front pages, the then-prime minister described how a number of his colleagues of dubious parentage and Eurosceptic bent were best kept in the Cabinet tent rather than let loose outside it.

"I was one of the bastards, allegedly," Lilley concedes. He and Major joke about it now. "It was one of those things that was said at the end of a long day and without realising that the microphone was still on. And it's certainly never caused any friction between him and me.".

Intravenous Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher he sees "quite frequently". He is still a member of the No Turning Back group, she is still its president. "She remains her vigorous and invigorating self," he says.

"Every time you see her you feel, when you leave, as if you've got an extra shot of adrenalin in your arm, or probably something rather stronger still."

[ image: On and on: Lilley doesn't intend leaving frontline politics
On and on: Lilley doesn't intend leaving frontline politics "for some decades, rather than years"
Does she lecture him on what he and the party should be doing? Lilley answers diplomatically. "Well she does, I suspect, miss the opportunities for argument and debate which government provided," he says.

"She doesn't hesitate to argue and debate even with those who agree with her, by and large." Then he laughs out loud.

Peter Lilley on Margaret Thatcher
So basically, she gives him a hard time? "Yes, that's the polite way of putting it."

Lilley entered Parliament in 1983 (before that he was research director at Tory Central Office) and got his first government job a year later. He was in the Cabinet for seven years, as trade and industry secretary and social security secretary.

He came in fourth place in the Tory leadership contest won by Hague after the election. He is 55 now, and it's a fair bet that, unless the Conservatives manage to overturn Labour's 178-seat majority at the next election, he has passed the summit of his political career.

But he says it doesn't occur to him to chuck it all in. "No, I love what I'm doing."

"If I suddenly thought 'Well, I have nothing more to contribute', then I'd happily go on to the backbenches and resume a career in business ... I don't foresee that for some decades, rather than years."

Like his onetime mentor, this Maggie's Boy intends to go on and on.

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