He’s the quiet man of the cabinet, yet one political observer has named him as its most Conservative member due to his record on public sector reform and the abolition of quangos. But he’s also an über-moderniser. He was a Cameroon before Cameron, and is a man of few regrets. I met him in the office formerly occupied by his father, Angus, in the Cabinet Office.
ID: How do you find being in government this time compared to last time? What are the differences?
FM: Quite a lot of people ask me that, and I can’t work it out. It’s obviously very different, coming in to the new government. I joined the government in 1985, the mid-Thatcherite reign – two years as a whip and five years as a departmental minister. It’s different running your own show. What else is different? Not a huge amount, actually. Same sort of challenges: how do you keep 35 balls in the air? Or plates spinning – whatever the correct cliché is.
What’s the difference between David Cameron’s style of government and John Major’s, apart from the fact that Major didn’t have much of a majority?
I missed 1992. I was on my sabbatical then. It’s okay, the wound has healed. I was being liberated by the electors at that stage. I did the first 18 months or so of John, which was fine. He had quite a relaxed style. David’s style is good. He takes on the central things, and lets people get on if he has reasonable confidence in what you’re doing and you keep him broadly informed.
Is that a problem? I got the impression that David quite happy to let people get on with it. But is there a risk with that? If things go wrong and No10 isn’t in the loop, then the press might jump on it. We’ve seen that in one or two instances…
You can’t micro-manage everything. David has the right approach, which is to have a small, strong centre with a strong, strategic direction. But small, physically small, so it can’t focus on everything. My classic story on this – I was a very young junior minister in the Department of Trade and Industry. I had this tricky European issue: do we want warfare or should I duck and dive and do a deal and negotiate our way through? So, I sent an elegant note to the prime minister, setting out the alternatives. The note that came back from Charles Powell, the private secretary, simply said the prime minister “has read your note with great interest and agrees that it is a very difficult issue”. It was both scary and empowering. The message was: ‘Why the hell do you think we have ministers? Get on and sort it out.’ This is neither central nor strategic, it’s either political or tactical. Sort it out – with a bit of a subtext: ‘If it’s wrong, you’re on your own.’
When we talked a couple of years ago, I remember you were determined to avoid the mistakes Blair made in his first term, like delaying some of the big things for the second term.
The one criticism we’ve had is that we’re doing too much, too quickly. We haven’t put off difficult things, we did prepare very carefully. Thank God we did. When you have an unexpected result, you get a coalition, with secretaries of state who didn’t expect to take office. Lots of them weren’t expecting to have that portfolio or, in some cases, any portfolio. There was a plan. It wasn’t the right one for everyone, because it needed to be subjected to ‘coalitionising’, but it beat the hell out of a blank sheet of paper.
We put into place within ten days the controls on spending that we exercised here. We thought about it all – no leases to be signed, no break point that needs to be passed, with me signing it off, no advertising or marketing spend over £20,000 without me signing it off – the same with any ICT spend over a million. Quite anal stuff, but when you’re in a really serious mess, you put the stopper on a lot of spending. No department is allowed to hire consultants without it being signed off by a senior minister, no vacancies to be filled, no external recruitment. In fact, here in the Cabinet Office we still do this, and will carry on for a little time. This time last year, I was embarking on a series of enlivening conversations with the biggest suppliers to government. As a result, we took out £800m of savings in that first financial year alone.
How do you divide work up with Nick Clegg?
Well, our paths don’t often cross here because we’re out doing very different things. I think he’d say that the Cabinet Office is an accommodation address for him. It’s important that he’s close to No10, with lots of interaction. He has this specific responsibility to the constitutional reform, so that team came over from the Ministry of Justice and reports to him with Mark Harper. But I, as a minister in charge of the department, take care of the department. It’s a funny department.
As you have such a large remit across government, how do you think other government ministers see you? You have to force things on them about what they should be doing. It’s not an easy situation.
It’s a bit like a chief secretary. I’m often in a position in which I tell people they can’t do things they want to do.
The Ministry of Defence seems to blame you for all their trials and tribulations.
I’d be surprised if that’s a widely held view, because I’m not stopping them doing anything at the MoD at all. I had almost nothing to do with them. I’m not stopping them doing any ICT projects that I can remember.
Going on to Parliament, you were party chairman when many of the current MPs were selected as candidates. How do you see them as a group of people, compared to previous intakes?
It’s a very high level. They rate fairly highly on the ability front. They’re pretty independent-minded, as well. We didn’t call it the A-list, but it became known as the A-list. Everyone said: ‘These are just Cameron clones who are going to do what they’re told.’ It was absolutely the reverse. The public wants very independent-minded people who aren’t slaves to the party machine, and we’ve been successful from that point of view.
Has the atmosphere in Parliament changed? Obviously, there are far more women now than before, particularly on the Conservative side, and also a lot of younger MPs.
I think so. I don’t spend much time in Parliament. I tend to stay here [in the Cabinet Office]. They’re quite intolerant of the flummery, but I’ve noticed sometimes, when we go through a period like the one we’re going through now, that Parliament becomes a cockpit of the nation – the select hearing committee [on phone hacking] for example. That’s actually good for Parliament.
Do you think Parliament has reasserted itself? Parliament has driven the phone-hacking thing, to an extent…
Yes, it’s somewhere where you can say things that you can’t say elsewhere. That’s power, and it has to be exercised responsibly. And mostly is.
How did you enjoy your time as party chairman? You got a lot of flak from a lot of people over the candidates procedure. Was it an enjoyable time in your career?
It was. I like doing things, really. Opposition was frustrating – for 13 years, I had some of the top roles in the shadow cabinet, but being party chairman… When Michael Howard appointed me, he said: “I want you to be executive chairman and run it.” That was great. It was a proper job, taking decisions all the time. I enjoyed that. Did I make some enemies along the way? Probably, but hey. I had some pretty tough conversations with a number of constituencies that were locked in the past, and wanted to do things the old way. We were in a position where we couldn’t tolerate local parties – it was only a handful – that were selfishly sitting on an office they wouldn’t share with other associations. So, you had a marginal seat desperate for support. We had to break some of that down. I’m in the latter stages of my career, and it needed someone who was willing to go in and…
Looking back on that period, would you have done anything differently, particularly on candidates?
I’m not sure, actually, on candidates. We probably should have persisted with the undiluted version of the priority list, because, within that first period, we achieved spectacular results. There were more women, some brilliant ones, some who are absolute stars of the intake now, as well as black and ethnic minority candidates. The Conservative Parliamentary Party is dramatically different from what it would have been. It tailed off a bit after that, so, with hindsight, I probably would have persisted.
Although more women were selected, I think I’m right in saying that by the end of the Parliament, the proportion of women on the candidate’s list was roughly the same, and that not enough was done to encourage women to come forward in the first place.
We did a lot to achieve that, but, no, you’re quite right; that was both a surprise and a disappointment. I thought that doing what we did to make it more likely that women would get selected – which succeeded – would encourage more women to apply. It’s worth making the point that way back at the beginning of my time as party chairman, having a discussion when someone had organised a group of senior politicians talking about this. Some Labour MP said rather patronisingly: “Oh, Francis, we hear what you say about exhortation and encouragement, and so on, but it won’t work. We tried this in the Labour Party and it didn’t work. We had to have all-women shortlists.” And as soon as that was banned by law, which it temporarily was, it defaulted right back. I said: “You know, you may be right. But, actually, if we do make a difference, without compulsion, then we will have changed the Conservative Party, or the Conservative Party will have changed in a way you failed to change the Labour Party.” I’m very proud that we achieved a very different, able, more varied bench of candidates. Every single constituency that selected a candidate could have chosen a standard-issue white male like me. But they exercised the choice. We made it easier for them to exercise the choice to pick a more varied group of candidates. I’m proud of that.
You’re constantly relaunching the big society. Why do people find it so difficult to understand?
I don’t think they do.
Do they deliberately not understand it?
Firstly, we’re not constantly relaunching it. We’re just talking about it. When William Hague makes another speech about foreign policy, people don’t say: ‘He’s relaunching the foreign policy.’ He’s not, he’s just talking about it. I don’t think people do find the big society particularly difficult to understand. They’re constantly being told by the media that people don’t understand it, and so they think it must mean something other than the obvious – which it doesn’t. We all know that society is what people do together, in association with each other. And most of what we do in our lives is done with others – work, family, friends, church, schools. Most of what any of us do isn’t done alone. And a bigger, stronger society is one where more people do more things together, in their communities, for their communities, with each other, for each other. Not hard, really, conceptually.
Do you consider yourself of the right?
I get very confused about this, because in the 1980s I was one of Thatcher’s ‘bright young things’. And I don’t think my views have particularly changed. Probably I’ve become more socially liberal over the years, which is a kind of reverse direction to how most people go. But what am I? I’m a fiscal conservative.
Someone was saying that you’re the most right-wing member of the cabinet, that you’ve done the most Thatcherite things, and people who think of you as a woolly liberal ought to think again.
I’m a fiscal conservative, economic liberal, always have been. I’m socially quite liberal, and I’m probably more socially liberal. That’s probably what people think when they loosely say: ‘Francis is on the left of the party.’ It’s baffling, but it doesn’t particularly bother me. I just get on and do what I think.
Public sector pensions: you’ve been leading on that. In the media interviews I’ve seen you do, you’ve been quite trenchant in your position. Is there any possibility of coming to a deal with the unions, or are these negotiations with an inevitable outcome?
We have to reform public sector unions, public sector pensions, no question about that. They’re unaffordable as they are. If we didn’t put in place proper reforms, they wouldn’t be sustainable. No one seriously quarrels with that analysis. I don’t lead on it, Danny Alexander does. It’s a Treasury responsibility.
You seem to be the public face of it.
Danny and I share it. We’re doing some stuff today, which Danny will do, making an announcement and doing the media. I oversee the government’s industrial relations strategy as far as the public sector’s concerned, not the economy. So that’s why he and I have managed this together.
My experience of this, many years ago, was that you had the unions round the table and they’d be quite constructive and emollient. Then they say: ‘When we go outside we have to say something a bit more extreme than we’re saying in here.’ Does that happen in your dealings?
We don’t really talk about what happens in the discussions, but there are reasonable working relationships, which we started to… Brendan Barber was very keen that we establish proper relationships before the election, which we’ve obviously kept going. We all see a lot of each other. But the unions have to represent their members’ interests. No one thought we’d get through all of this without there being any industrial action. But the prospect of prolonged, concerted industrial action in the autumn – it hasn’t disappeared, but I think most public sector staff will ask themselves whether there’d be public sympathy for action that would damage the economy and their own livelihoods.
Is there any case for reforming industrial elections? Boris Johnson, clearly, would like to. Are you going to look at that?
We keep these things under consideration. We certainly haven’t ruled it out. And during the public sector strikes on 30 June, it was notable that, in the case of all three unions that went for strike action, turnout [for the vote] was well below 50 per cent. For PCS, the big civil service union, it was 32 per cent. It wasn’t an overwhelming vote in favour, 60/40. So we haven’t ruled it out. But we think, by and large, that the law works quite well. The courts interpret the law quite strictly, and there’s greater protection for union members who don’t want to strike. On 30 June, only 40 per cent of PCS members went on strike. Mark Serwotka couldn’t even get a majority of his own members out.
You’re famously very cool and unruffled. What causes you to lose your cool in government?
I never do, as my team will vouch [laughter]. I get really irritated if things don’t happen. We have a spending meeting on Monday mornings, where we look over the diary for the next fortnight and go through what we’ve got going on. Once I saw something hadn’t happened that I wanted to happen, and I got a bit… mildly irritated. We had a new private secretary come in, and I suddenly realised that this was poor Vicky’s first meeting. So, I said to her: “Vicky, don’t worry, I’m not normally like this.” And, with one voice, the rest of the team said: “Oh, yes he is. He’s normally worse than this!
What are you reading at the moment?
Rather sadly, Rob Wilson’s book [5 Days to Power: The Journey to Coalition Britain] about the forming of the coalition.
When was the last time you went to the cinema? What did you see?
We saw the last Harry Potter on Saturday.
A favourite country you’ve visited?
I spent part of my childhood in Australia, and I adore it.
Do you have an iPod?
I do, but I don’t use it any more. All my music’s on my iPhone.
Most embarrassing song on your iPhone?
That’s asking for it! I have quite a bit of Lily Allen. Some might be thought mildly embarrassing…
What makes you cry?
Lots of things. Wonderful music… I cry terribly easily.
Your favourite Labour MP?
I’m going to say two of them. I’m very fond of Frank Field and Graham Allen. Over the years, Graham and I have done various things together, and I have a really high regard for him.
Your favourite view?
I really like the view here [in the Cabinet Office]. I think it may be [where they’ll be hosting] one of the beach volleyball games next year.
If you were to go on a reality TV show, which would it be?
I just wouldn’t. The only programme I’d love to be on – and it’ll remain an ambition until I die – is Desert Island Discs. It’s my dream.
Worst gift you’ve ever given anyone or received?
I’m really bad at gifts; I get really stressed by having to give presents. It’s no good asking my team, because they’ll say I’ve never given them any! The worst gift I’ve given is nothing, actually.
Do you collect anything?
No, I don’t think I do. I’m very disorganised. Collectors are quite organised people, and I’m totally fragmented.
Which three items would you take to a desert island?
I still have the flute I had from school – I’d take that. I’d also take a Kindle stuffed full of books, and I’d like to have a ball.