V IRGINIA and Peter Bottomley have been Conservative Members of Parliament for a combined total of more than 50 years and both have held ministerial appointments. During a visit to Majorca to speak at a dinner meeting of the Conservatives Abroad, held last night, they were interviewed by the editor of the Majorca Daily Bulletin, Jason Moore, and the newspaper's political columnist Ray Fleming.

BULLETIN: Mrs Bottomley, after many years in the House of Commons you have decided not to stand again at the next election. Why is that?
VIRGINIA BOTTOMLEY: I will have done twenty–one years and I think it's time to make way for a younger person. But even though Peter will have done thirty years he feels he's got new energy and drive. Of course I spent many years as a minister, I think I was the youngest woman Cabinet minister. I enjoyed that but I feel my time has passed and it's time to make way for a new generation to support the Conservative leader. It's been a huge privilege. I think it was Disraeli who said, “The greatest honour for an Englishman is to speak in the House of Commons” but once you begin to feel less excited by it you should make way for someone who thinks it the most exciting and important thing to do.

BULLETIN: And you've been feeling less excited about it?
VB: I'm underwhelmed and disenchanted by Mr Blair. I had a great sense of pride and achievement and fulfilment over the years in government but I find the nature of opposition antipathetic. I like to be constructive rather than negative but Mr Blair has breached a huge number of the conventions in the UK about the nature of the relationship between politicians and the civil service. Margaret Thatcher was a prime minister I worked for along with John Major and they would say if it isn't hurting it isn't working, for politicans to do difficult things. But the current regime is all about focus groups and will tell you whatever it is you want to hear, as opposed to the kind of leadership I'm more comfortable with.

BULLETIN: Surely the best place to fight out these issues is in the House of Commons?
PETER BOTTOMLEY: That's right, and when the Conservatives come back to power it'll be time for a younger generation to take it on. The last seven years have been a challenge for those who have a respect for what's proper in public and political service.

VB: I'm very excited about the new generation joining the Conservative Party. There's a great range of candidates who want to be Tory MPs. Two nights ago we were at a reception with Margaret Thatcher to welcome this cohort of women who are trying to get into the House of Commons, and I feel a real changing of the watch in the authority, the calibre and the commitment of the people who are going to be tomorrow's stars in the Conservative Party.

BULLETIN: Shouldn't we see some of these people in the Shadow Cabinet. We all know Michael Howard but shouldn't we get to know some of these new people?

PB: Michael Howard's job is first of all to win and secondly to combine those who have experience with those younger ones who are very talented but need more experience, and bind them togther. So you want to have a Cabinet that reflects the contribution that of those in their 60s, 50s, 40s and 30s.

BULLETIN: So, that leads us almost immediately to the question, Can you win? Will you win?
PB: Well, we're not going to say what will happen because if we knew that there would be no need to hold an election. There are three tasks. One is get those who actively want a Tory government to combine with those who can't stick the present government, its ways and its prime minister, and don't want Gordon Brown either. We must also remember the 40 per cent of people who do not think about politics day–to–day. And the way I think it's going to be done is to put three propositions to people. Each one, I think, is incontrovertible. First, there are too many Labour Members of Parliament. Second, when was voting Liberal the answer to any serious national problem? The generous answer would be 1906. Third, the Conservative Party at our best is the national interest party: part international, part national, part local. In that way Conservatives combine the political and the non–political, getting support from Conservatives and those who are not Conservatives but will give their votes to us, partly to show that they are not impressed by the present government, partly because they think that we can do better, partly to send a signal to the present lot that they've been complacent and they've been wrong on major issues.

There's a further point. What makes Britain great, what has helped Spain transform, what's helped this island to be good, is a mixture of liberty and caring for others. The present Labour government of Britain is not too hot on the liberty bit and their idea of caring for others is to employ more public servants and to launch initiative after initiative and carry none of them through. Between 1979 and 1997 Britain was transformed. It went from being a country that had to be apologised for to a country that everyone round the world was interested in. It's time we did that again.

BULLETIN: Having said all that, do you think you can win the next election?
PB: The answer is Yes.
VB: In '97, after 18 years in power we had laid the foundations for ecomonic success but people had a sense that they'd had enough, that we had run out of energy and many people gave Labour the benefit of the doubt. But now there's a massive loss of trust in Tony Blair, there's a hostility between No 10 and No 11 Downing Street and there is profound disquiet about the way Tony Blair has handled the relationship with the public service, and the situation over Iraq. All these provide the pre–conditions for a Conservative victory. Michael Howard is a leader people trust. It is the loss of trust in Tony Blair revealed in poll after poll which is striking. He is so alienated from elements of the Labour Party. He has no reservoir of good will in the Labour Party and his liking for the celebrity bright lights and his lack of authenticity on so many issues have caught up with him.

Michael Howard is clear, seasoned, hugely talented as a leader and he's bringing in a team of fresh faces. His challenge is to see that we see more of those new faces in time so we will know about them.

BULLETIN: Accepting all that you say, the fact is that the polls say something different about the next election. Can you explain that?
PB: First of all, the polls said that Ted Heath would not win in 1970. The polls weren't certain that Margaret Thatcher would win in '79. The polls said that the Tories could not win in '92. You should read the polls in the same way that you read predictions of who's going to win a horse race. But the key point is that between now and the election our job is to say that if you want a Conservative government, vote for it, if you want to give a lesson of disapproval to Labour, vote Tory, and if you are thinking of voting Liberal or UKIP or abstaining remember that actually the alternative to Labour are the Tories. I'm not predicting anything, but if all that happened you might get headlines saying Tories Surprise Win, Cheering in The Streets.

VB: We're here because between ourselves we've 50 years of working for the Conservative Party and I feel more passionate about our message, our values and our policies now than at any time in our political career.

BULLETIN: You don't seem to be getting your message across, though.
PB: Oh we are. I think if you asked the British man or woman in the street here in Majorca whether they would vote Conservative or Labour, four out of five would say No to Labour and Yes to the Conservatives.

BULLETIN: That's here. Do you think the answer would be the same in the UK?
VB: The trust is over. Tony Blair's bubble has burst. He remains a skilful politician. His skill is that he knows the weakest card in your hand and the strongest card in his own hand, and he plays them and plays them and plays them. But is he the person that people want to see lead the country for the future? That is what the people of Britain over the next months are going to decide.

PB: People will vote on their experience, their fears and their hopes. The result of the election is uncertain but the situation is far more favourable to the Tories than it was in 2001.

BULLETIN: So it's all to play for?
PB: Yes and that's why it's so important that everyone here on Majorca qualified to vote should register so that they can do so. Which party they vote for is a second issue. I ask people living here who have been out of Britain for less than 15 years to register to vote from here. If they want to find out how to do it, log–on to Electoral Commission on the internet, or get the form from Conservatives Abroad.

BULLETIN: The biggest issue in Britain seems to be Iraq. There doesn't seem to be much difference between your policy on Iraq and the government's?
PB: The question of whether Saddam Hussein should have been left in power given the nature of his regime and that he was a danger is common ground. But then you ask the question, do you want a government which quite clearly distorted, disguised and earned the distrust of people everywhere and that ran a campaign to vilify the scientist David Kelly? But we are where we are today in Iraq with its appalling problems and the Conservatives are not prepared to pull out tomorrow. We have a responsibility to see the job through. The situation in Iraq will look different next May. If Iraq is still a serious issue it will get serious attention in our election campaign but it is not the Conservative intention to make Iraq the main election issue. The main issues will be process of government, trust in goverment.

BULLETIN: Do you recognise the sense of disappointment felt by many people that Michael Howard has failed to deal with Blair's deceptions and mishandling over Iraq?

PB: Can I answer that with one sentence? I am pleased that Michael Howard does not play party politics over Iraq. That is a straight answer. It is a comprehensive answer.

BULLETIN: In other words, he held back?
PB: No, I precisely say, I am glad Michael Howard does not play party politics over Iraq.
BULLETIN: Gibraltar. Do you think is there is going to be any progress?
PB: We are not here to discuss Gibraltar. We think your weather is marvellous.
BULLETIN: You were talking earlier about the right of some expatriates to vote in British elections and the importance of them registering so that they can do so. What about the right of expatriates living here to have the same pension rights as people living in Britain? Although they get the basic state pension there are various supplementary allowances available in Britain which they cannot get even though in some cases they are living in poverty. Do you think that is right?

PB: I don't know the answer to that. But what I would say is that there is an earlier question which concerns nearly half of British pensioners living abroad in Commonwealth countries who live on the pension they were entitled to when they retired without any subsequent uprating. The first priority is to get that situation rectified.

BULLETIN: But don't you think that people living here should be entitled to additional benefits if they qualify for them?
PB: Pensions is not my area of expertise apart from saying that I think that is worth looking at but I think you would agree that getting the state pension uprated for all overseas pensioners would be an even more important priority.

BULLETIN: What are you going to say to those at the Conservatives Abroad dinner?
PB: First, we are going to urge everyone to make sure that they have registered to vote in the next general election in Britain if they have lived in the UK in the past 15 years. And we are going to encourage them to talk to British friends and other people they know to make sure that they register also. This is part of what I call “Being an ally of democracy”. And we are going to say that if you want to send a message to Tony Blair that ”Britain could do better”, vote Conservative.

VB: I will be saying that there is a new energy and dynamism in the Conservative Party, that we've served our time in opposition and now we're ready for government again. Hungry for government. The situation in the UK now, the disillusion, disenchantment over New Labour and Tony Blair means that we need just that extra momentum to get back. We are united and determined.


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