Conservative MP and former Shadow Home and Health Secretary Ann Widdecombe addressed members of Conservatives Abroad last night over dinner at the Club de Mar in Palma While having a clear and determined message for Tory voters in Majorca, with European Union enlargement looming, the MP for Maidstone and the Weald warned that no present members, especially regions such as the Balearics which receive substantial amounts of cash aid from Brussels, should put too much faith into assurances from the European Union. We're all going to have to pay for enlargement, she said, The EU is going to have to look at the cost and the money's got to come from somwehere. The Balearics needn't even waste their time looking for assurances from Brussels, they're not going to be worth anything at all.
Who would be your candidate for party leader?
Iain Duncan-Smith is the leader of the party and it is the duty, I believe, of all true Conservatives, to back that leader.
Is it the case that Clarke and Portillo are plotting in the wings?
I don't actually think that they are leading any counter candidates, in fact I am sure they are not.
Could Britain leave the European Union within 24 hours?
No, No... well, technically yes, I suppose we could renounce our treaties in five minutes if we wanted to. In practicality no.
Do you think Britain should?
That is the better question and the answer to that is no. I think we should draw a line in the sand and try to prevent any further erosion of national sovereignty...I really believe that, I think it's gone far too far, but I think coming out would be thwart with difficulties, the huge loss of investment, for example. If we were no longer in the EU, the loss of trading advantages, we would have an enormous problem on our hands
I think it is much better that we stay in and to try to influence the EU is the way which we should be going.
I also think that with enlargement in 2004, it gives us a real opportunity to try to reduce the amount of bureaucracy. Some of the new countries coming in such as Latvia and Estonia, are not going to be able to absorb the hugely extensive regulatory mechanisms that are inflicted on us by the EU, which needs to be much less interventionalist.
Britain needs to freeze its EU position as it is?
Yes, I think that sums it up. I like to think that we could get back some of the things we've lost, but that's a much more long term issue.
I mean, when we are over-ruled by the European Courts in matters where we have quite consciously passed legislation because we believe it to be right and we find it's in conflict with EU legislation, then I think there are areas that we should try to get back.
What isn't the Human Rights Act helping? Immigration?
No, it's not helping anything, quite honestly. We said at the time that we didn't want to oppose it in principle because who wants to oppose Human Rights, but on the other hand, we could not see that it conferred any rights that our own laws did not account for already, such as free assembly, freedom of speech. I don't think it has benefited anybody.
Gordon Brown is now warming to the euro referendum again....
Yes and I would welcome a referendum because I think our side of the argument would win and most people would say no. But I have no faith in Blair, I don't think he will go for a referendum unless he thinks he can win and I think going into the single currency would be a disaster I'm not convinced it's going to work economically, though I suspend judgement on that, I do believe that politically it would put unacceptable restraints on any participating country I think we would gradually lose control over our ability to tax and spend as we wish. Look at Germany which used to be the economic measure of Europe and bank-rolled enlargement, it's in a nasty hole at the moment and 2004 is going to be a very testing time. Further, what I think is undeniable is that, if we have the euro, it will be inflationary, many single currency countries have already seen that this year, but we in the UK also have first hand experience with these things, I still remember what happened with decimalisation and that was inflationary. But, I think that is less of an issue, although massive to an individual faced with rising costs, the issue of loss of the ability to control our own economy - that is what is crucial, but unfortunately, a lot of people voting in our country have not experienced directly the inflationary impact and are perhaps too young to remember what happened in decimalisation. Those people will think of the euro as an economic convenience rather than thinking about the political consequences.
Do you think that on the whole, when it comes to voting in the UK, politics is no longer the issue it was ten years ago?
Yes, I think you have it right, because if you look at the last election, the biggest casualty was not the Conservative Party, it was democracy itself. A lot of people stayed at home, but more worrying of all, is that first time voters just did not bother to vote. You put your finger on something when you said ten years ago, because take us back ten years, the Berlin Wall had come down, but not by very much as there was still a huge division between the two parties. The world was divided into two great conflicting ideologies and that conflict was mirrored in individual western democracy, with socialism instead of communism, but that conflict was mirrored and people understood the differences between the two parties, emotionally, not just intellectually, they were emotionally engaged. I think now they look at us, and let's take an obvious example, Blair has not only not re-nationalised everything that we privatised he's done his own privatisations - so people look at the two major parties, they scratch their heads and then wonder what the major differences are.
What and where is this choice which is fundamental to democracy?
You pointed to something that's really important and that is, if we're to re-engage people with politics, you've got to give them choice, we've got to open up differences between ourselves and Labour which are real. I don't mean lurches to the right or the left, no nonsense like that, but that out of the 30 or 40 policies which typically fill up a manifesto, two or three should offer serious, big, immediately comprehensible differences between ourselves and Labour.
So, is democracy dead in the UK at the moment?
I wouldn't say dead, but it's pretty sick.
Who's to blame?
I think Blair has contributed a huge amount to it because before 97 he promised the earth and because he's an intelligent man, he must have known he couldn't deliver. He promised the earth and I think after 18 years of one government there had to be a different way of doing things that would be better without stopping to ask themselves why we (the Conservatives) have not done it. They really did believe there was a lot of goodwill and extra cash there that was going to solve problems and he deceived people into believing that. I do feel though that people are starting to realise they've been deceived, that after five-and-a-half years the health service has not miraculously recovered, that in fact it's got into bigger problems, that law and order has not taken crime off the streets, people are feeling deceived, let down, so I think Labour has contributed to that and also the sheer sidelining of parliament, or parliamentary democracy which that government has gone in for on a scale I've never seen before, has contributed. But I think the real underlining reason for the general apathy and lack of interest in politics is the voters can't see the differences between the two parties and therefore why go out and register the choice.
So what difference is the Conservative Party going to offer?
I can't prescribe now. I think this is something that over the next 12 months, we've got to find two or three key policies, we're not short of policies, we saw that at the party conference, in big key areas, like health, like education, like law and order. Let's taken an example, and this is an example, not a prescription, the first thing we would say is Giuliani style zero tolerance. Suppose that is what we said, people a. understand immediately because they think they know what zero tolerance means, b. they know it is something the Labour Party is not doing so it offers a difference and c. they believe it can work because it did work in New York. So, you've got something there and you need the equivalent of that, easy tounderstand and not being done by the present government, that can work. If we can home in on two or three of those we can offer a real difference.
So you're looking for practical differences as opposed to political?
Well, given that this government has accepted, in theory, that you can't tax and spend your way out of a problem, it's accepted that there must be a public-private mix. Our biggest problem in 97 was not just we lost the election, but we won the agenda and given that we have won the agenda, there is no point opening up sweeping philosophical differences. We have to open up practical ones until the natural difference returns and we've started to see the start off with Labour, although they will not admit it, going back to high tax, high spend, high borrow that was the essence of the pre-budget report. We've never been the party of high tax, high spend, high borrow, so a natural difference is opening up again. It's happened before, the Conservative Party is not in a unique period.
Events over the past week surrounding Cherie Blair would have been a national scandal some ten to 15 years ago, why not now?
I'll tell you why, I think, again, people have become very disillusioned with politics and the essence of politics. Tony Blair promised before 1997 that he was going to have a government purer than pure, whiter than white and again, people believed it and that sleaze was somehow confined to the Tories and this was going to be a new era. But they realised within a few months that it wasn't a new era - we've had the lot, Vaz, the Ecclestone Affair, you name it and in fact, if not just as bad, this lot are even worse. I think this past week, people have simply shrugged, I think the underlying text almost is, well, did we expect anything different? I think that's a pity because if the public does not care about standards in politics, then it's an invitation for politicians not to care. You've got to believe that there is an underlying public pressure all the time to have high standards in government.
Why did she lie?
You can't be responsible when you hire lawyers, financial advisers, you can't run a personal check on all their backgrounds. The fact she had consulted a man with a dubious background, doesn't actually bother me, it was an accident, what bothers me is the lying, why didn't they just say yes, but it's none of your business. Why did just the one newspaper run the story, the BBC and Press Association failed to pick up the story at first and the other papers tried to play down the story while a few months ago they all had a field day with John Major and Edwina Currie. There were eventually banner headlines on her lies, but there's still a residual attitude that sleaze and the Tories go together. I also think that Alistair Campbell, who is a very slick operator, perhaps has too much power in that presentation can draft decisions and presentation shouldn't.
Is presentation preventing Britain from tackling immigration, does David Blunkett's desired line not match Labour's image?
I think they have a problem. We put forward the only viable solution at the last election which is all applicants are held in detention, they are dealt with very quickly, those accepted are given Welcome to Britain packages and with the case of those which are rejected, you know where they are when they have to be returned home. The biggest magnet in Britain is not social security, it's actually the ease with which you can disappear. We put that forward, they called it racist, but Blunkett has been advised that this is about the only way of properly tackling the problem and I think he would like to say yes to universal detention.
Tony Blair was praised in some circles for having Done a Maggie over the firemen's strike. Has the problem been resolved or is Britain facing a winter of discontent?
I think it is entirely possible. The fact is firemen are not the worst paid and their entry rates are better than the police, nurses and armed services, etc. If they received spectacular reward it would indeed spark vast discontent and strikes. We could face a winter of discontent and if so, winters of discontent, high tax, high spend, high borrow, we're back to Labour as we knew it. We took on the miners and won and if necessary, this government has to be prepared to take them on and win. But if any government is faced with a pay demand it can't reach from the public purse then, in the end, the government has got to be strong. I agree, they're in a Catch 22 situation which they have already spectacularly bungled.