This article is from the August issue of Total Politics
BD: Why did you stick that Harry Lime [The Third Man] quote on your wall? [“Would you feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you £20,000 for every dot that stopped – would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”]
DD: [Points to the London Eye, visible from his office window] Because I hate the ‘Ferris Wheel’, which is a great reminder of totalitarian and bureaucratic mindsets: “Those little dots down there, they’re people.” I’m mildly surprised to be interviewed by you – I’m not sure what’s interesting about me...
You’re always interesting…
[Laughs] You caught me in the middle of a million things.
Are you pleased with the Conservative language coming out of the government? We’ve had the O-Levels, the welfare speech…
Directionally, certainly. Currently, welfare is unaffordable. More importantly, it creates incentive for unemployment and makes the transition into work really difficult. We need to do something about it.
I don’t know if you remember, but the Americans imposed in a few states a five-year lifetime limit, as it were, on the unemployment benefit you could get, and then two years at any one point in time. It’s been very successful. There were huge, 40 per cent-plus, cuts in unemployment levels, and no queues at soup kitchens.
The fear was that everyone would get thrown out on the streets, but it didn’t happen. People responded to the incentive – as we know they do. To be fair, the Americans had an absolutely last-resort default, but it wasn’t an obvious one. It was difficult to get, so people sorted themselves out.
I can’t be the only one who’s seen these Panorama programmes of English workers turning down jobs that Polish or Romanian workers are happy to do… There’s something in that, too.
Does this spell danger for the relationship with the Liberal Democrats? Both parties are differentiating. How do you control that process?
My cruel comment about the Lib Dems is that they have the best seats on the aeroplane and no parachutes. And that still applies.
I come from the perspective that sometimes the Lib Dems aren’t Lib Dem enough. I wanted them to stand out on tuition fees, because I would have been with them on that – albeit alone.
Similarly, I would have wanted them to stand out more strongly on some of the so-called civil liberties issues – again, I was nearly alone in that lobby.
But that notwithstanding, I’ve always thought the coalition would go the distance, and would find mechanisms for speaking. The day after the election, David Cameron called me to talk about the possibilities, and one thing I said to him was: “You have to find a co-existence mechanism.”
For example, immigration, we have completely different views. The Lib Dems do not have to vote for something, because the numbers are such that, so long as they abstain, we can carry a policy. They’re allowed to speak on an issue before a vote, but the agreement has got to be to allow us to carry it through.
The coalition agreement was based more on a single-policy line rather than something that allowed the diversities to co-exist. So, it didn’t quite work. But I’ve long thought that was the question because of my observation of continental coalitions.
I’m always a Free Democrat, not a Christian Democrat. They didn’t quite take licks out of each other, but back in Germany they had explicit differences of view and were mature enough to carry that off. We should be mature enough to carry that off.
There’s a difference between “We should be mature enough…” and “We will be…”
A different strategy would allow each party to take credit for something. Let’s imagine that the decision on tuition fees had gone a different way, and that the Lib Dems had been allowed to take the credit for it. And, on immigration policy, the Tories had been given the credit. It would have been quite possible to do that, but it didn’t work out that way.
It’s understandable – crikey, the bloody thing was put together in three days over a stretched weekend – so we can’t complain. But we may evolve towards that style, something slightly more distinctive. We had to play the cards that the electorate gave us. [Laughs] We can’t get around that.
Are you confident of a Conservative victory at the next election?
No, because a fair number of ex-Lib Dem voters have decamped to the Labour camp. Where before they sat at a minimum of 29-30, they’re now sitting at a minimum of 35. In fact, it’s a bit above that.
That means that we’ve got to find a way – or, more importantly, the Lib Dems have got to find a way – of enticing back that five per cent. That’s the biggest risk… that, and the economy. The economy is the herd of elephants in the room. [Laughs.]
Is there enough Conservatism on show to make voters think, “They’re not doing particularly well in the polls, but we trust them to sort out the economy, and we like this and that Conservative policy”?
I’m always going to argue for more. If Paddy Ashdown says, as he did in the papers a few weeks ago, “We should still join the euro”, you’ll find me saying the opposite. There’s bound to be a lot of that – someone like me pushing them on the immigration policy, for example.
Damian Green [immigration minister] is a great pal and a past protégé of mine. I want him to succeed…
Is it enough? It’s hard to tell yet. We’re in the mid-term blues, and you can’t know how much of the grumbling is about the economy and how much other things.
There’s an attractive package to be put together, and what we’ve seen in the last week, be it welfare, immigration or whatever, is an important part of that.
We will be partly judged on delivery. Certainly, immigration is going to be judged only on delivery, because through the last decade or so in this area there’s been a lot of talk and no action. Damian and Theresa May have got to get to the right numbers by the time we get to the next election.
The other area in which delivery is similarly important is the referendum in Europe. A referendum has got to be pretty much locked in – but all three major parties, Labour, Lib Dems and Tories, have changed their stance, and for perfectly good reasons.
In the Tory case, the Lisbon Treaty was already signed, so we couldn’t revoke it. Nevertheless, the public is very suspicious of us, so we’ve got to find a way of saying, “This time, it’s going to happen.”
Are you surprised – or not – at Cameron’s performance so far as prime minister, and how he’s developed in the role?
He’s gone into it like a hand into a glove. In a way, he’s the strongest part of the government. Both at PMQs and generally he carries the job off well. From that point of view, he’s very good.
But the Nadine Dorries-type arguments which flare up are more about the overall flavour of the government. It’s not principally about David. I have no doubts at all about his ability to do the job.
Regarding your general political principles, I’ve seen you described as a mass of contradictions…
Aren’t we all?
... and Tony Blair wrote admiringly of you in A Journey that you were a unique and principled politician. Why do you think you’re hard to put in a certain box? Do people misunderstand you?
Never worry about that. If you worry about being misunderstood, don’t go into politics, because there’ll be lots of people who deliberately misunderstand or misrepresent you.
I didn’t realise Blair had written that… The misconception about modern politics is that Tories have to be authoritarian. And right-wing Tories have to be more authoritarian. That’s oversimplified. Most of the preceding generation in Parliament, the ones who retired when I came in, fought in the Second World War.
They would have been in favour of hanging. They would have been hard, very pro-market, and so on. Yet they were very tough-minded about freedom, for which they’d put their lives on the line. So they had that understanding.
There’s also a misunderstanding of Conservative beliefs about liberty and justice. When Margaret Thatcher was PM, she used to talk about “liberty under the law”. To a large extent, it was almost a cliché, because it wasn’t really challenged. It was only in the Blunkett/ Blair… maybe Straw… years that there was a shift and Labour became very authoritarian… and I guess Michael Howard before, on our side. Secondly, there’s this old ‘right–left’ thing, which people really don’t understand.
I’m a great believer in the use of markets, for two reasons. One, because government fails more often than it succeeds.
The law of unintended consequences is the dominant law in Whitehall – I say that as an ex-public accounts committee chairman – but markets don’t have the same problem. They decentralise power. I’ve always been suspicious of centralisation of power.
A lot of the problems of the modern world arise because bureaucracies get carried away with themselves. The Eichmann trials – it was about him that Hannah Arendt used the phrase, “the banality of evil” – highlighted the extremes of that phenomenon. Regimes, though not always killers, often end up doing perverse things. You could say the same thing about some of the current problems of the European Union.
One way of dealing with this is to limit a bureaucracy’s power, which, again, makes it pro-market. That said, markets are tools, not ends in themselves. There’s an internal contradiction in that, which may not be apparent from the outsider’s point of view.
Similarly – probably unusually for a Tory – I’m obsessed with social mobility. None of the parties have a proper grip on it, partly because they have an aversion to selective education.
Britain is the only country in the world that has that aversion. Again, outsiders looking in might see that as soppy thinking: “I want to help poor people, but I also want to have grammar schools, some sort of selection to make sure the kids get the right sort of education.” It looks like a contradiction, but in some ways it’s extremely rigorous logic.
In my teens, I would start with each issue and try and work it up from basic principles. I never liked taking my politics pre-digested.
You deconstructed everything?
Most things. Probably the first public film of me is at the Tory Party conference, when I called for an experiment in worker participation in management. It didn’t happen, but would have been seen as a left-of-centre viewpoint, although I was already a monetarist and a strong Thatcherite.
If you deconstructed the thing, you would end up thinking consistency is an overrated variable, or that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, to quote somebody… [Ralph Waldo Emerson.]
The 2005 Conservative leadership election, and your resignation as shadow home secretary, were fairly dramatic political events in the last 10 years. Do you wish you’d done certain things differently?
There’s no point in regretting mistakes because everybody makes them. Some believed the 2005 leadership contest was a mistake, that it wasn’t done properly. But we have a saying in Yorkshire: “He who makes no mistakes makes nowt.” So, don’t make mistakes twice, but don’t worry about them.
I went through the by-election in 2008 in almost excruciating detail. I considered all the various permutations, and the worst outcome in every permutation, bar one, which didn’t come up. Because I couldn’t take advice – to do so would have created conflicted loyalties, Christ knows what else – I had to go pretty much solo, apart from my wife.
Firstly, the outcome I was aiming for – a change of perspective on civil liberties, freedom and justice – has been achieved. The mindsets of the British public and the Westminster village are now different, notwithstanding my arguments with the government over things I think it gets wrong. Even here, it’s defensive.
What surprises me is that I’m still here. One scenario included the end of my political career, but it didn’t happen because people still listen.
The summer after the by-election I thought: “I’m going to sit down and do about three big things a year and see if I can have an impact.”
The first one was Afghanistan – I spent that summer reading approximately 28 books on Afghanistan, hundreds of papers, and I went there, conducted about 50 interviews in seven days, with everyone from the Taliban to the head of the secret police…
He must be a lovely guy.
Actually, given the circumstances, he’s more civilised than you’d think – but so is the KGB… Anyway, on my return I had 24 hours’ kip on the Saturday, went on Andrew Marr’s programme on the Sunday morning, and said: “If we carry on like this, we’re going to lose.”
Conventional wisdom at the time was that Iraq was a bad war, this was a good war and we were winning, so I waited for an avalanche of opprobrium to land on me. But I came in here on the Monday morning, and the first half-dozen MPs who saw me said: “Thank God somebody said it, at last.” The papers responded well.
The events of the next three or four weeks re-enforced my comments. There were killings, regrettably, and so on, that impacted on British forces and civilians… and all of a sudden, there was a 180-degree change in conventional wisdom.
Secondly, later on, I got a call from a journalist: “Can I talk to you for five minutes about a subject you haven’t dealt with?”
It was about the old ‘rendition torture’ chestnut, and they couldn’t get coverage for it. The BBC, the papers, all the security experts had concluded that the stories about Guantanamo were just the “left-wing fantasies of liberal lawyers” – that was the phrase.
He said nobody could accuse me of that, and would I look at it?
I started a point of order in the chamber, which I’d pre-cleared with the Speaker and the clerk of the House. Then I spent from 2pm until 7.30pm doing non-stop interviews. The issue had been bubbling along, and some people had done some very good work on it, but, bang, the next day it was a front-page issue in every paper.
That’s the great advantage – having a combination of freedom, on the one hand, to say what I like, and, on the other, being listened to. I’m dead lucky, and I didn’t expect it. So, no, I don’t regret things.
Are you saying that your decision to resign has had no impact on your political ambitions, because you’re able to achieve things in your free role now? If you were in a government position, would you technically have lots of power, but only within a structure?
It’s a difficult question to answer. When you say ‘political ambitions’, people normally say, “Do you want to be prime minister?”, or whatever…
Okay, achieve things that are good, according to your political beliefs…
By that definition, it’s certainly as good as. And that was not planned – it was a surprise. As far as I was concerned, the by-election washed its own face, in financial parlance, it paid its own price.
If I had died soon after, it would have been worthwhile. I’ve got this bonus.
But you’re right. If I’d been in government, I couldn’t talk about the euro, or about Afghanistan again, about aid, about what I’m going to do with David Lammy on the riots and the use of intercepted evidence – they can’t have an inquest on the guy who was shot. I couldn’t have done all the stuff I’ve done on prison votes…
Regarding prisoner votes, I talked to my old pal Dominic Raab, and to Jack Straw, and we moved the government’s position by more than anybody inside the government could have done.
People now say: “Oh, it’s what we wanted to do all along”, but nobody had done it. Had it not been for the prisoner vote debate in the Commons, the government would have given up and given four years by now. And that’s also altered the dynamic in Europe, because other countries had assumed the European Court of Human Rights always gets its way.
The civilised nations are beginning to say: “There are limits to this, and this is real”, and that’s a big constitutional change.
How you value something like that versus being in charge of a department, I don’t know. I deal with the things that matter to me, and on the vast majority we get an outcome.
You could pick more minor, workaday things, like the issues surrounding the changes on the policy on tax in charity, tax in caravans in my constituency – on which we’ve had victories – or the bigger issues, where you can move things. But how do you compare the value? From my point of view, I’m comfortable with it. I like doing what I do. You can probably tell.
You do seem to relish it.
Well, there’s a lot of mundane stuff in being in government, too… but I’m also lucky to have a lot of sources. Some are journalistic sources, some are people who ring up from various government organisations.
People send me things they think are going to be interesting. And far more come to me for help than I can help. One of the downsides of a public reputation is that people see you as a knight in armour, and you can’t do all that. That apart, it’s pretty good going.
The other advantage I have is having been the public accounts committee chairman, which gave me an amazing insight into how government works.
So, when an issue comes up in a department, it’s easy for me to understand how it’s likely to work and what it can and can’t do. A lot of government is about recognising early on what government is not capable of.
One of the problems of modern governments – of all colours, but more so Labour than Tory – is over-estimating your capabilities. Not wasting political capital on a non-starter, and spending it on something you can achieve, is an important part of political wisdom.
Do you regret that there are not more MPs like you in the House of Commons?
From working-class backgrounds.
Most people of my generation lived on a council estate, or in rental accommodation. Most people went to a state school, and started out without much by way of assets.
I’d like there to be more, but my hunch is that, gradually, there will be fewer. Social mobility is getting worse, which is far more of an issue to regret.
At some point it will cause a problem because the only justification for a free, open society is that everyone should have the chance to make £100m in a year.
Unless you have that, people will get increasingly resentful, which will strangle even further people’s aspirations.
Which non-political ambition have you yet to achieve?
I once flew around America in a light aircraft – in twister season, so kept having to land and tie the bloody thing down. I’d like to do it again, visit new places.
What did being in the territorial SAS teach you?
Which politician, past or present, inspires you?
The Duke of Wellington; he wasn’t a great politician, but if something wasn’t working, he’d change the policy. He was physically brave and clever, a lot of things.
Do you read novels?
I read science fiction. My favourite series is Iain Banks’ Culture series. Banks, a socialist, creates an intergalactic world in which a genetically modified, long-lived people, the Culture, don’t use money, are essentially altruistic, but incredibly calculating. Great escapism.