Thursday, November 04, 2010

In Conversation with Iain Duncan Smith: Part 2

Continued from yesterday's initial extract.

You talked a bit about Betsy at the beginning, can you take me through what's happened to her?

I won't go into detail about it because she doesn't want me to say very much about it and I can understand why. All I will tell you is that in July last year, out of the blue she discovered that she had breast cancer. There will be lots of people who read this whose wives, girlfriends or themselves as women have had this same problem. It's shocking. Then you discover that one in eight women in Britain get breast cancer, one of the highest rates in the western world. Betsy went through what lots of women have done. She's had a huge amount of chemo. She's had a whole shed load of radiotherapy. Three operations. We now think she's recovering. It's very slow. The thing is that all that treatment takes the stuffing out of you. She's not a huge person so she doesn't have huge reserves of energy. She finds she gets tired very easily. But, you know, we're getting there really. It's a slow process. Maybe another operation to come.

And how has that affected you because I know before the election and the years before that you spent a lot of time caring for her. That must have been very difficult.

When she told me, I packed my bags here and I went home and I said look, I'm going to be here. Somebody said, that's all very well for him, he can do that, but to be honest, I did all my work that I had to do. I didn't stop working. I did as much work as I could from home. I came up here to the Commons when I had to, when I was needed for votes. What I didn't do was spend my days here doing my work. I transported it back home so that I could be close to her and help her and you know, there were times when you needed to be there really, a lot of times. It's a difficult process and I feel sorry for somebody who doesn't have somebody else with them because it's a mental process as much as it's a physical process.

Because she took a lot of flack when you were leader, didn't she?

Well at the end, unfairly too. She was used by some people as a way of getting to me. I don't mind. I'm broad shouldered. I'm a politician. I expect what comes with it. You know, you live in a goldfish bowl, you get attacked. I never used my family so they were always out of bounds, and I didn't really use Betsy either. The fact was, she was wrongly accused of something, which was that she had not been working for me when we were able to show she did. She's an expert in doing what she did for me, and she did it properly. It was all properly above board. Life's too short. But I do say that was unfair. And actually interestingly, a lot of Labour politicians came up to me and said to me this is not in the rules. We don't take out each other's wives.

This is seven years on from all that. Can you forgive people who did that to her?

Yes. I mean my job is not to sit here with vendettas.

Forgive but not forget, maybe?

Forgetting is a different matter as well but I just get on. I'm not going to spend my whole time saying I wish or I'm going to get even. No point. You know, you pick up things, you learn stuff about yourself when you go through difficulty. It helps, strangely enough. I had an objective which was that I had promised that we were going to focus on social justice. I gave that my word and I tried to stick to it.

Have you ever thought about quitting politics completely and do something completely different?

Yes, the whole time really. You know, when you sit here frustrated, you think to yourself, God, why am I doing this all in the last seven years. Of course I did. I'd be a liar if I told you there aren't times when you think to yourself, you know, I could be doing something different. But my wife often tells me, the problem is that you're driven and you'd never give this up without wanting to come back into it again.

What do you think you might have done?

That's the sixty million dollar question. I don't know, business? I love how business works and I was always involved in that. I was on a board of a company before and I've always taken a fascinating interest in how entrepreneurs work. How do you make an idea take from nothing to making a business success.

Do you think true friendship is possible in politics?

It is, it is difficult but it is possible. And the trouble is, with politics is, you're always left with a dilemma of the final moment when it's either your friendship or the decision you have to take about what comes first, national interest or friendship? And these are the really difficult decisions which have broken friendships. You go down through the ages. People come in, they're close to each other. I mean look at the Brown and Blair friendship. It's pretty much like that all the way through.

Have you ever had to do anything in your political life, like when David Cameron fired Hugo Swire from his shadow cabinet? Hugo had been with him right from the beginning and I did think that displayed a certain ruthlessness. Have there been occasions like that when you've really had to wrestle with something you know you should do but friendship has sort of got in the way?

Not in a direct sense but the decisions you often take which you feel are not quite what people would have expected of you who are your friends. That's always a difficult moment. Being Prime Minster or even leader of the Opposition is a pretty lonely place. Having done leader of the Opposition I just know what it's like when you're alone with your thoughts at night and things aren’t going right and you've got problems. There is nobody you can turn to really. You have only yourself. It's a lonely, lonely place. It's different from any other job. It's very difficult to explain to people who are not in politics or, actually even politicians who have never been leader, what being leader is really like. It's not like doing what I do, being secretary of state. That has responsibilities, it has difficulties, it has problems. But having done leader of the opposition and now I'm doing this, I can tell you that the leader of the opposition's job is tougher by a country mile than this because there is no rest for you. It's a seven-day-a-week job. You know, suddenly somebody does something stupid in cabinet and suddenly bang, its 2 o'clock in the morning on Sunday when you thought you had Sunday off, you don't have Sunday off. You're back up, you're on Prime Minister's Questions every week, there's no escape for you if you make a mistake. The ground doesn't open up, you have to stand there and take it. These are the things that happen to Prime Ministers and to Leaders of the Opposition because you are on your own and they are unique, and until you've experienced them, you cannot describe them to anybody.

Is it easy to develop a bunker mentality, where you think that everyone's sort of out to get you but actually maybe they're not?

It's too easy to do that. As prime minister you have patronage. As prime minister you have real power, as prime minister the world is prepared to listen to you. As leader of the opposition everyone assumes that you have power, you have none. You have absolutely no patronage to persuade your colleagues to toe the line or to do something. You ask them to do jobs that they aren't being paid for. And you live off a shoe-string, and often with support that may not really be the top quality support. So if you're in trouble it's quite easy to split into a bunker because there's nowhere else for you to go. As PM it should take you a lot longer to get to the bunker. Gordon Brown made it to the bunker in the end and he never really emerged. It is easy, because you're on your own at the end of the day and bunkers are designed ultimately around you.

Margaret Thatcher said her overthrow was treachery with a smile on its face. How would you describe what happened to you?

Politics. Politics is a rough trade, I know that. I think we did some great things as leader of the opposition, I think many of them still stand. Just one which no one ever remembers going back is the fact that we're not saddled with the Euro at the time of the recession is because had I not been elected we might have actually divided, split, except on the Euro we didn't. Little things like that which you can do and we influence what happens nationally. You can make mistakes... sometimes you get things right, sometimes you don't. It's tough like that. But I just don't even look back and think about it in any way at all. Some people didn't want me there. Some of it was get-even for the fact that I was quite rebellious in my first parliament over Maastricht. So there's mixtures of stuff, but, hey, I've moved on and that's what you do.

Do you sometimes have a little wry smile on your face when you see what's happened now with female candidates for example? That actually was started under you but no one remembers that now.

Yeah, occasionally I look at things and say "I think we started that process". We started opening up the party to the gay community, I was there, it was a tough struggle trying to manage the processes. Getting [section] 28 out. We took some strides towards that, we didn't complete it. Cameron completed it. No problem with that. Managing the party so it didn't break up on stuff was a key consideration for me, because we had to be at the other end with our meagre resources to still be there as a party. Andrew Marr summed it up when I went I think. I remember seeing something on the news there was a clip that said "these are the things that happened under him, that he had taken the part from A to B but no one's gonna thank him for it" And I accept that. But the key thing was that I came in to try and get the Conservative Party in the right direction. I hope we made some good changes. Lots of them were stuck to. There were other things we've since changed. I mean the social justice agenda was embedded in. I like to think it's embedded in. If you want to know what I'm most proud of, it’s that my party has moved to recapture the ground that says we're decent, reasonable people who care about society regardless of whether they vote for us and we're here for the poorest as well. Now that to my mind is a big shift from where we were by the time we hit 1997. And getting that back is enormously important, so for that I'm enormously pleased.

What's it like being in a cabinet run by the two people who used to brief you for PMQs? You must at times think: "That should be me."

I honestly do not. I sit there and I accept that it's like policemen – am I getting old or are prime ministers starting to look younger?

I can’t believe all the three party leaders are younger than me now so...

[laughs] I get on well with David. Much of his programme, as you know, I support. A lot of it was stuff that I initiated so I'm very pleased. He was a great help during prime ministers' questions preparation because we shifted our system. We changed the style.

Boris used to do help as well, didn't he?

Yeah, Boris would come in and read the paper and say a couple of things and then he would leave! Boris was always late. He’d say "it's all going wonderfully!" and then up and leave. I love Boris to bits but he'd be the first to admit that he didn't really produce that many one-liners. George and David were very good on the one-liners. Sorry, Boris will kill me for that now, saying "no, no, I was really influential!"

People always try to keep religion out of politics, do you think that's a good thing, or do you think actually religion ought to matter more in our political system?

First of all I think we've tended to look at religion from the standpoint of where we are now, and I don't think it's always been like that and I don't think it'll always be like that. I think these things are cyclical. I think politics is a living breathing animal and it doesn't stay the same at any stage. If you go back to the middle of the 19th century religion was absolutely part of politics. You know, Shaftsbury driven by his religious beliefs to make the factory changes, the change to chimney sweeps. He was driven by that evangelical determination. Then there was Wilberforce. After that period in the 19th century, then we come into a period that that becomes much more secular. America has those cycles very clear identifiable. The constitution was written in a secular period. Had it been written 50 years later when Lincoln and co were around you would have had much greater references to religion and schools. So first I think it's cyclical. We've been in what I think is a very strongly secular period in a sense that we don't "do" god, we don't talk about it. It's very much a part of the last government. I think that will shift and change simply because it changes with the characters who occupy the posts.

I think in the UK it's a slightly more balanced approach. In the you'll go through periods where it's very secular and periods where religion takes a strong role.

The Republican Party in the States has almost become a quasi-religious sect rather than a political party.

Well, there are elements of it... I remember talking at length about this but there are large swathes of the Republican Party that are not. You tend to only hear from the bit that is. Having said that, the Democrats are also just as involved. Theirs tends to not be so dominant in the way that it shapes politics, but it's very strong. You will never get an American politician saying that he absolutely does not care about religion in the way that you can get a UK politician saying that.

If Nick Clegg had been in America he could not have admitted to being an atheist, could he?

Absolutely not. If he did he'd have known very well that he could not be making it to top office, that's a fact of life. And certainly he might just have got away with it in the States in the North East but you would not get away with it anywhere else, and even there's it's debatable.

How did you find your relationship with him when you were leader? Did you think that he was someone who was genuinely motivated by trying to do the right thing, or did you see that messianic zeal in his eye that made him go off course on one or two things?

I don't really know. I think there are two Blairs. I think there's the Blair that got elected and governed for the first four or five years, maybe six at a push. And then there's the Blair that occupied the office for the next six years. And the reason I say they're different is the first Blair that came in was conscious of always one thing, which was his place in history, being re-elected, being the first Labour politician to be Prime Minister through two terms. And I think that was drummed into his head. Campbell was aware of it, everyone. So their first parliament was really risk averse and there were things they should have done – things like we're trying to do at the moment. Welfare reform was dumped. There are a lot of things they didn’t do. They really didn't do the health service at all. And that was at a good time for them. He was scared stiff of the Tory party. He felt that if he gave us an inch we'd be back straight away. I think he completely overestimated our capacity for recovery and underestimated the damage that we had taken in the last four years of the Major government. History relates that quite clearly now, but I think they were just obsessed by it. So the first four or five years were wasted years for Blair. Most of his politics was presentational. My general feeling was that Brown ran domestic policy.

Then I think something changed once Blair got re-elected. I think his place in history was now assured, and it was the war on terror I think that changed him. It was almost as if Blair said "now I'm gonna show everybody what I'm really worth and I'm going to step up the plate, make these decisions and make the tough ones" and from that point onwards I don't think he really cared whether they were re-elected or not. Having been obsessed with re-election he ceased to care. And when he ceased to care, that's when the gleam came and he said "this is it, my real place in history is making these decisions like Mrs Thatcher, taking the tough decisions, taking people on, doing it" and I think that's how he saw it. Now, it's not to say that he was wrong. People will decide whether the War in Iraq was right or wrong. I still believe ultimately it was the right thing to do, but the post-war in Iraq was a disaster. That was the bit we should have got right. We didn't. Nonetheless people will argue with me, I accept that. But he drove on that hard and that was the real issue so that from that moment onwards there was a different Blair in the office. It was the not the Blair that they elected in 1997. It was a new Blair and he got more strident, much more forceful, much more determined, far less willing to listen to any counter-arguments and more and more determined that somehow he had right on his side. So there were really two different Blairs completely. And my dealings with him were really more with the second Blair than with the first.

Looking back do you think he misled you at all on Iraq?

No, I never really... I mean the point was as the opposition you cannot get locked too deeply into information. Because things that we would want to disagree with, I would not have been able to raise in the chamber. So I never asked to see clear and detailed papers. What I was shown once was the report nine days before it appeared. There was stuff missing from it which then later on came out. I don't think that was them hiding it from me. I think they put stuffin at the last moment, the 45 minute stuff. I don't think was even in there when I saw it. So no, I don't think he was deliberately withholding stuff. I do think that the mistake they made was to be so narrow on the reasons for going to war. The WMD was a reason for going to war. It was not the reason. The reason was Saddam Hussein, and the reason was that country was in a total disaster and a shambles. After the Kuwait invasion we should have taken a decision about whether Saddam was tolerable there any longer. I think we should have acted, we should have taken him out, and we could have then managed Iraq into a safer place. Instead of which we put sanctions on, we then allowed him to fly his helicopters south, to beat up the Shiites. It is disgusting what happened there - the million that died there were all our fault as an alliance. We turned our backs on them. So I think that there were lots of good reasons [to oust him]. If they were explained to the British people they would have realised that this was unique because a lot of it was of our making. Not all of it, but we left it like that. Sanctions weren't working, they were being abused, we were still at war with him because we were bombing his sites, how long did you want that to go on for? Could you have him back in the UN? Was it tolerable, building his weapons of mass destruction again, even if he didn't have them? So they got very narrow and the reason they got very narrow was because Labour would never have bought the wider argument. The truth was America wanted the wider argument and we stopped that case being made and that was the tragedy. The tragedy was that the British people and everyone else were never allowed to engage with the much wider argument of why we really dealt with Saddam Hussein. And it was regime change. And the question was that in these isolated circumstances is it acceptable?


Tapestry said...

Really interesting on Blair and Iraq.

And on the Euro.

You didn't ask him whether he thought Britain should be offered an IN/OUT referendum, or a referendum on the Treaty changes to Lisbon being brought in to grant the EU the power to carry out economic governance of Europe.

DespairingLiberal said...

Very good interview. IDS's comments on Blair seem pretty spot-on to me - Blair really, really screwed up on some very important things. (1) Not making the case for the war in the terms it should have been put. (2) Playing a really poor game with the US, helping them with trumped-up intelligence in support of WMD and at the same time utterly failing to pressure them to have a coherant post-war plan.

Putting aside the tendancy to mock IDS that one inevitably feels at times, he's actually not a bad chap and in many ways quite a decent cove.

Joni said...

I admire IDS and his CSJ team immensley. They are a real credit to policy development down South. If only it was like this in Scotland. I can understand the bit about leadership being a lonely lonely place and not sleeping at night. So so true.

Wrinkled Weasel said...

"Politics is a rough trade". Another former leader of the opposition may agree with IDS about the rough trade bit, though perhaps not in the same context.