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Last Updated: Monday, 4 October, 2004, 16:47 GMT 17:47 UK
Interview: Julie Kirkbride
By Ben Davies
BBC News Online political staff

Until a few weeks ago Julie Kirkbride was one of the few women in Michael Howard's frontbench team.

Then he sacked her - along with two fellow Tory modernisers - prompting one senior Conservative to suggest the reshuffle might be seen as a "lurch to the right".

That claim was fuelled by the return of arch-eurosceptic John Redwood to the frontbench for the first time in more than four years.

Julie Kirkbride
Kirkbride is the MP for Bromsgrove
When we spoke ahead of Tories gathering in Bournemouth for their annual conference, Kirkbride defended her leader's right to choose his own team.

She also insisted progress is being made on getting women and members of Britain's ethnic minorities selected in winnable Tory seats - though she concedes there's more to be done.

"I personally think it was disappointing to see John [Bercow] and Damien [Green] go because I think they were very good at what they did and I think it did help us to be portrayed as a broader church, coalition party, which is after all what we are...

"I don't particularly think it was a good idea to drop them but I respect his (Michael Howard's) right to choose his own team and as I say politics is a bit like an adults' game of snakes and ladders."

Family ties?

Kirkbride, who is married to fellow Tory MP Andrew Mackay, says she isn't sure why she was demoted and she adds: "It doesn't help to speculate in public."

I do not believe many people who vote UKIP are stupid
John Redwood

But a clue for her removal may lie with her devotion to her young son Angus with whom she is looking forward to spending more time before he goes to school.

She remarks she didn't have "anymore time to give to politics than I was giving and if Michael wants to put other people in there he can do that".

Kirkbride adds that she wants Howard to be the next prime minister and is not in the business of making "life more difficult".

Off the shelf?

And she argues that the Tories have "everything to play for" when it comes to the next general election, widely predicted for next year.

You get to choose your public services like you to get choose what you pick what you want off a Sainsbury supermarket shelf
Julie Kirkbride
On Redwood she says: "I think John stands more than anything else for his eurosceptic credentials and I think there is a lot of unease about Europe as we saw in the European election campaign."

But, interestingly, Kirkbride says thinks Europe is a "very second, third issue in terms of what the public think".

She adds: "It's an important issue that Conservative voters understand what our message is but it is by no means front row territory at all".

She argues her party needs to put forward a straightforward series of messages about the "virtues" of a low-tax economy.

It should also be talking about rolling back the state, about choice "so that you get to choose your public services, like you get to choose what you pick what you want off a Sainsbury supermarket shelf," she argues.

'PC nonsense'

"It's not about having political correctness that says 'you will have these views and you will think in this way because that's what the state expects of you'," she adds.

"So loads of rolling back all that regulation and PC nonsense. I think that is a hugely powerful message for the public.

People are very undecided about who they want to win the next election
Julie Kirkbride
"And it's also having the freedom to walk out of your front door not be worried about the local gang of youths or hooligans and what they might do to you and your property."

Kirkbride warns against the Tories having an identity crisis, arguing they should instead accentuate the differences between their policies and Labour's.

"We've got lots of sensible things to say and we can't make ourselves something that we're not.

"We shouldn't have siren voices saying all we have to do is be cuddly and we'll be elected - the public want a bit more meat than that," she adds.

Playground chat?

Kirkbride, like many Tories, particularly objects to what she sees as political correctness.

She gives an example from her own constituency.

"I had an incidence in one of my schools where boys of 11 are being marked down for making racist remarks against other children," she says.

Andrew Mackay
Mr Mackay completes the two MP household
"I am not sure whether I want children of 11 indulging in playground chat to be actually marked down in that way.

"I think we have to be more sensitive about some of these things and perhaps be a bit more relaxed."

So does she think the next government will be Conservative?

"I don't think Labour thinks it's got it in the bag and I don't think we've got it in the bag by any means but the opinion polls, as the Conservative Party knows to its previous cost actually are telling us the truth," she says.

"People are very undecided about who they want to win the next election and Labour's poll rating is well down - pretty much level pegging with ours. No-one is on a winning percentage at the moment."


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