BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 10.11.02

Interview: LORD BRITTAN, Former Conservative Cabinet Minister.

Is Iain Duncan Smith's position as Tory leader safe?

ANDREW RAWNSLEY: And I'm joined now by the former Conservative Cabinet Minister and Vice-President of the European Commission, Leon Brittan. Is it possible, Leon Brittan, that we are witnessing the strange death of Tory England? SIR LEON BRITTAN: I don't think so. The Labour Party was considered doomed when we beat them hollow in election after election in the 1980s and look where they are. What we need... RAWNSLEY: Not a great parallel for you of course because they spent eighteen years in opposition. BRITTAN: They took a long time. I was going to say the question is how long it will take to get back, not whether we'll get back and what we need is cooler nerves and a less frenetic atmosphere and a longer timescale and a longer view. The point is that the strategy that has been followed by the Party, I believe, has been roughly right, the tactics, as we've seen in the last week, have been pretty unfortunate. RAWNSLEY: You say we need cooler nerves. Now, who are you talking about, are you talking about Conservative MPs, or are you talking about the leader? We heard a Conservative MP saying in public just now in the report what many of them are saying in private, that Iain Duncan Smith has to raise his game and he's only got until next summer to prove he is up to the job. Is it his problem, has he created this febrile atmosphere you talked about? BRITTAN: No, we all have to is the answer. RAWNSLEY: Oh, you're all to blame? BRITTAN: In a way, because Iain Duncan Smith has made mistakes, nobody's doubting that, himself as well, but he hasn't exactly had much support from the Party in the House of Commons and by all this kind of talk that we have of deadlines and timescales and so on and so forth, it doesn't help the Party. You can't stop commentators and journalists doing it, but I think the Party itself ought not to join in. One thing is quite clear, if anybody thinks that another contested leadership election with all the passions and disagreements that goes with that is the way to improve the position of the Conservative Party in the country, they really need to think again, that is not the way to do it. RAWNSLEY: Let me be clear about this. You're saying then that Iain Duncan Smith should remain safe as leader until the next election? BRITTAN: No, I think Nigel Waterson's right ... RAWNSLEY: Or are you not saying that? BRITTAN: Nigel Waterson's right in this sense that politics move fast and you can never be sure of anything, but I think to talk about having a leadership election at this stage is a great mistake, what you need to do is quite clear. You need to press the points made at the Party Conference, the new ideas on policy, on the public services, that's what you've got to stress... RAWNSLEY: Okay... BRITTAN: And then, of course, see how it goes. RAWNSLEY: Ah, see how it goes at this stage. So how long do you give Mr Duncan Smith? BRITTAN: I'm not's not for me to give him or any... RAWNSLEY: But you've a very experienced seasoned Conservative politician - how long do you think he's got? BRITTAN: I don't think there's any particular period of time that he has got, or that the party has got, and I think the less you talk about periods of time, the less you talk about leadership elections and the more you talk about the actual issues, about the mistakes the Labour Government is doing...making, about the policies that were put forward at the Party Conference, that increases the chances of us making progress. How quickly we make it, and how the leader will fare and how he will do, I think focusing on that is the best way of ensuring that we don't make the progress that I think we can make, faced with a very vulnerable Government and perfectly sensible policies except, of course, on Europe, where I do disagree with them... RAWNSLEY: Yes, we'll come that in a minute. You see, admire Mr Duncan Smith or not, the Conservative Party did elect him for a Parliament, he was elected by a majority of Tory members, what right have Tory MPs to reverse that decision before the next election, however he performs, whatever rating the Conservative Party gets in the polls, you're stuck with Mr Duncan Smith until the next election, aren't you? BRITTAN: Well, it's not a question of stuck with him, he has been elected leader of the Party. I have made it quite clear that I don't think a fresh election for the leadership of the Party... RAWNSLEY: Just now. BRITTAN: Or generally - I can't think of any situation in which an election for leadership of the Conservative Party is going to be a way forward. On the other hand, you know, the Parliamentary Party are keeping, they see what's happening on a day to day basis and they have to take their responsibility to do what they think is in the interest of the Party. RAWNSLEY: If that includes putting a revolver to Mr Duncan Smith's head and pressing the trigger? BRITTAN: Well, I've just now said that I think having a leadership election isn't now going to help... RAWNSLEY: Now? BRITTAN: And I can't see any circumstances in the future where a contested election of that kind with somebody putting up against him is really going to help. RAWNSLEY: You see you voted for your old friend Ken Clarke last time round, it was defeated then and by quite a large margin. He was defeated the time before. Twice now, Ken Clarke has been rejected by the Conservative Party. Isn't it time your old friend retired gracefully from the scene because every time Ken Clarke talks about his continuing ambitions to lead the Tory Party, he simply undermines Mr Duncan Smith? BRITTAN: But he doesn't keep talking about his ambitions. RAWNSLEY: He did only the other day. He said he's got this hobby of running for leadership. BRITTAN: What he said...well what he actually said is that he is not seeking the leadership of the Conservative Party but people like you keep pressing him and say... RAWNSLEY: It is our job. BRITTAN: Of course it's your job keep saying do you rule it out?, is it impossible?, is it inconceivable? Well anyone who is seriously on the political stakes is not going to say that because the circumstances... you don't know what might arise and he has a perfectly honourable ambition, he's not pressing it, he's not pushing it, he's not part of a plot. I think it was a mistake of Iain Duncan Smith to accuse those who voted on a particular issue of plotting, that was unsustainable and, of course, it's particularly difficult for a leader of the Party who made his reputation by voting again and again against John Major's Government to play the loyalty card. RAWNSLEY: There we must leave it, I'm afraid, on that advice to Iain Duncan Smith. Leon Brittan, thank you very much indeed.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.