Doctor in the House
With prescriptions for healing the economy and solving the Conservative Party’s European debate, perhaps Liam Fox is also ready to revive his own political fortunes?
"I still write prescriptions for people here and I can still treat people in an emergency…It’s a very convertible currency.”
Sitting in his Commons office, Dr Liam Fox has a characteristically impish smile on his face as he reveals that his medical qualifications are still valid. “Technically, I can still prescribe. That lasts for about two more years.”
With the Conservatives narrowing their focus on victory in 2015, the former Defence Secretary’s timetable is perhaps apt when it comes to his own prescriptions for Tory party policy and direction in the run up to the next election.
Looking relaxed and trim (“the tennis court and the pub are a wonderful combination”), Dr Fox has spent the past year setting out the tough medicine needed for the economy, as well as diagnosing what he sees as the Brussels disease that currently holds Britain back.
Yet despite the laid back demeanour, it often feels as though Fox is as busy as he was in Government. He has founded the GiveUsTime charity to provide holiday homes for servicemen and women, travelled to conferences from Dubai to the US, given setpiece speeches and started writing a new book due out this autumn. Typically expansive, the book takes on everything from terrorism to Islam to commodity prices. In the last two days alone, he’s met Tony Blair and Condoleezza Rice to discuss global affairs.
“The book is called Rising Tides,” he explains. “It’s about how we deal with the challenges of the era ahead, everything from global financial imbalances to the threat of transnational terrorism, the risk of failed states, competition for commodities and, as well as my own narrative, I’ve done a number of short interviews with people.
“Tony Blair talks about the strategic consequences of the Iraq war, Condi Rice is talking about how America dealt with its unipolar moment, Donald Rumsfeld talks about transnational terrorism, Bob Gates talks about the future of Nato, the Crown Prince of Bahrain about Islam in the Gulf and quite a few others.”
Like many of his Tory colleagues, Fox is not exactly enamoured of the other ‘coalition of the willing’: the Lib-Con partnership in Government. The doctor suggests an increasingly painful bout of yellow fever is responsible for many a backbencher’s ills.
“The bottom line is that most backbenchers don’t like the fact that we’re in a coalition and a lot of the party are unhappy that we didn’t win an overall majority in 2010,” Fox says.
However, there isn’t an immediate cure. “As I used to say to my patients, there’s no point complaining about the air when there’s nothing else to breathe. It’s what we’re stuck with and if you don’t like it then get out and work harder so we can win next time.”
Discontent is being expressed on a well-trodden Conservative battleground: Europe. On Wednesday an amendment, tabled by two Tory backbenchers, expressed regret that the Government had not put forward an EU Referendum Bill in the Queen’s Speech and prompted the Government into rushing out a bill promising an in/out referendum by 2017.
It left David Cameron looking worryingly like a leader following his party rather than leading it, and drew comparisons with John Major’s euro battles.
“I don’t think the two are comparable, because in John Major it was how many new powers should we give away under the Maastricht Treaty. This is a different process now,” replies Fox, who served under both Tory Prime Ministers.
As for next year’s Euro elections and fears that UKIP will top the poll, Fox is relaxed. “It’s very hard to convince people that how they vote in Parliamentary elections will materially affect their future. I think first of all we don't need to panic about UKIP and I think that we have a sophisticated electorate in this country who are more than capable in using their votes differently in local elections, European elections and general elections and the era when people would vote for the same party in every kind of election with blind loyalty is behind us and I know plenty of Conservatives who would vote UKIP in a European election but never dream of voting anything than Conservative in a general election because the cost in a general election they perceive as being much greater if they get it wrong.
"And so I think we don't need to panic. However, I do think we need to try and understand why UKIP picked up support and I think one of the main reasons is they were seen as the anti establishment party and a lot of votes that would traditionally have gone to the Liberals or Lib Dems mid term are not going there at all because they are part of that establishment to an extent they have become the repository of protest. I also think it's quite interesting to look where they did well and if Europe was the reason behind their success. l expected them to do well in the South West of England but they didn't, in fact ... we got some of our best results in the country and they got some of their worst. Where they picked up strongly was Essex, Norfolk, Lincolnshire, areas that have been the most effected by economic migration from Europe and I don't it's too difficult to draw a conclusion from that."
So should a promise to limit freedom of movement be part of a Conservative manifesto in 2015?
“That's something we need to consider in terms of our future relationship with Europe and I think immigration policy is a whole other issue that we need to look at in the round I think that we need to be very clear that we will need to import economic skills given the structure of our population, our demographics but I don't think people have a problem with people who are coming to the country to help generate wealth. And I think that if you look at surveys of people generally they see immigration as being a net benefit - if people are contributing to the wealth of the country. So I think we do need to have a thoughtful and mature debate about the whole issue of immigration."
What the UKIP rise clearly shows, he says, is that critics who warn against “banging on about Europe” don’t realise that a debate on Europe includes the economy, immigration, welfare and beyond. “When the BBC and all those other euro apologists tell us that we should not be talking about it [Europe]because that’s not important to people, what they are not doing is aggregating all the other issues that people do think are important but that are inextricably linked to the European Union issue.”
Fox also can’t resist a bit of mischief on the question of whether Nigel Farage should take part in the televised leadership debates in 2015. "That's a decision that's got to be taken much closer... but they have no Members of Parliament, so what do you do? Do have an ICM threshold?” He smiles, pausing for comic effect: “In which case, at the moment you would probably have Labour, Conservative and UKIP."
Fox is as Eurosceptic as any Conservative, but like the Prime Minister he wants to see a proper debate on how to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU preceding a promised referendum.
He praises David Cameron’s “very clever” approach, and describes his party leader as “genuinely Eurosceptic… I don’t think he has any emotional attachment to the European project”.
And some of this week’s backbench manoeuvres, says Fox, are both unhelpful and damaging.
“We’ve got an opportunity to set out what sort of renegotiation we want,” Fox says. “The debate we should be having at the moment is what sort of renegotiation we want and what sort of looser relationship we want. If we don’t have a proper debate on-going about this issue then I think we create a political vacuum into which is drawn all sorts of procedural wrangling which doesn’t actually help us move towards our manifesto position but does cause a lot of internal strife. Some of this week’s distractions about process at Westminster haven’t done anything to take the content of the debate forward so now what we need is a process, not waiting for the Foreign Office’s assessment, but to talk about what kind of relations…we want to have with Europe and pointing out the unsustainability of the current European model.”
The dig at the Foreign Office is telling. Does Fox share the view of some in his party that William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, has “gone native” after three years of international summitry and ambassadorial cocktail parties?
“No…” he replies, before describing Hague’s department’s “most overwhelming trait” as its “deep affinity to the European Union.”
“I think the Foreign Office is instinctively deeply steeped in the EU – its instincts and everything else that flows from it – and I think that we need to re-establish the idea that the world doesn’t end at the southern border of Greece – it’s where it begins.”
Hague escapes direct criticism, but Michael Gove and Philip Hammond, who have let it be known that they would vote to leave the EU tomorrow, do not.
“I think it’s always better for the Cabinet not to answer hypothetical questions…” Fox states, adding when asked about Wednesday’s vote: “If I were a minister I would abide by collective responsibility – as I always did.”
Fox makes clear that this week’s Queen’s Speech amendment vote was not the real issue for him. At a time when it was unfashionable in Downing Street, he was among the first last year to call for a renegotiation and then a referendum on the outcome. Although often portrayed as an ideologue, Fox has always been keen on the practicalities of politics. Despite being a keen Atlanticist, he nevertheless pushed hard for joint military working with France while at the MoD, for example. And on the EU, the real focus now should be how to change the UK’s relationship with Brussels in the next few years, he says.
“I don’t believe our current relationship is in our national interest and I want a different relationship. I have no fear of life outside the European Union. I can see many ways in which I think it would be beneficial to the country. That’s not to say it would come without costs. Our debate now should be to quantify these things so that we know the real terms of debate,” he says.
But Fox is notably loyal to the PM and says David Cameron himself does not need to talk about life outside the EU. “I think there are plenty of people in the party making that point. And the Prime Minister has also got to convince our European partners that his negotiation is genuine, that he would like it to succeed and that it’s not a ruse to justify leaving. And so I think he does need to remain engaged in the debate.”
As well as the Prime Minister, Fox is keen to praise the Chancellor for emerging intact after a difficult 2012. “I think George has massively consolidated his position as Chancellor and I think that he has done a lot of things within the Coalition that people might have thought weren’t possible,” he argues, pointing to labour market reform and “bearing down on the cost of welfare”.
Not that Fox wouldn’t do things differently if he were in Number 11. “We need to get ourselves into a position where the public finances are even better consolidated than our current plans set out,” he says, repeating his call for a five year plan on public spending. “I think we need to understand still the scale of the problem that we are facing and the fact that we will need to contain expenditure for a long time. Our spending is too high. This is probably the high water mark of public spending and we will need to find ways of living within our means.”
And that means no departmental budgets are safe. “I don’t like the concept of ringfencing. I think it’s helpful for the Chancellor, and the Government in general, to make adjustments to priorities in the light of circumstances.”
Talk of the internal Coalition wrangling leads on to the question which is increasingly vexing Tory MPs: can the Conservatives actually win an outright majority in 2015?
“Yes,” Fox emphatically replies, arguing that there are “four very clear dividing lines, maybe clearer than at any time since the 1992 Election… potentially a bigger gap and clearer choice at this election than there ever was in the Blair years.”
The first, predictably enough, is Europe. “It looks as though we’re going to go into a General Election with both the Lib Dems and the Labour Party refusing to trust the people of Britain on an issue which is absolutely fundamental to their future. If we say ‘we will trust the people’ and they say ‘we will not trust the people’, I know which side of that argument I would rather be on.”
The second is welfare, with Labour “the party of welfare and we’re the party of hard working people”. The third is the Conservative willingness to decentralise, particularly on education. The fourth, of course, is the economy. “We want to see the Government pay down its debts in the way that families have paid down their debts in recent years and Labour want to borrow and spend more,” comes the familiar mantra.
And, adds Fox with a trademark mischievous smile, there is an added bonus. “We are lucky in having uniquely incapable personnel in the guise of the Leader of the Opposition and the Shadow Chancellor.”
Although keen on an EU referendum Fox is however not convinced about recent calls to give the public a direct say on same sex marriage. “I think it’s very clear from opinion polls that the public tend to favour the concept, especially younger voters, so no I don’t think you can put every issue into a referendum. I think referenda are about constitutional issues.” But that’s not to say he’s happy about the bill heading to the Commons this week and the Lords after Whitsun. When asked how much damage the bill is causing in Conservative Associations, he replies: “There’s no doubt some people are deeply unhappy about it. My objection to the whole thing really revolves around the involvement of the state in telling the churches what to do and the idea that we would pass legislation that would tell the Church of England what it can’t do, opening up a whole can of worms legally, and then differentiating the Church of England from other Christian churches on the basis that quotes they’ve always been opposed to it. I don’t recall the Cardinal Archbishop showing his support at any point.
“I think the House of Lords will probably have a more fruitful debate than we’ve had in the House of Commons on it. They are of course free from the electoral connotations that go with it. So we’ll see where that debate goes, it will be interesting to hear the views of the bishops themselves.”
“I was in favour of civil partnerships because there was a perceived and a real discrimination problem and the remedy only affected those involved. The problem with same sex marriage and which has produced a lot of argument against it is that a change is being made for a small number, who incidentally don’t seem to have been particularly vocal about it anyway, but that affects everybody and I think that’s where the difference lies, that’s where the political difficulty has come.”
Fox also sums up his real objection to the gay marriage idea. "I didn't come into politics to interfere with the Churches or the press. I came into politics to do exactly the opposite, to get the state the hell out of people's lives."
He also cites principle when asked about the recent controversy over the PM’s meeting with the Dalai Lama and China’s decision to postpone his visits as a result. "I think the Prime Minister is right, he's courageous and should be supported. I don't think that we can be blackmailed into abandoning what we believe to be right. I think that we must be true to our values. Religious freedom is one of those key values and the Prime minister deserves and should get our support on that.
“And I would ask another question which is what if in the Cold War we said well actually we have to give a bit of ground to the Communist and totalitarian view. Where do you think that would have got us?”
As his new charity for servicemen and women shows, Fox retains an affection for the defence brief he occupied for so long in Opposition and Government. Does he miss it?
“Yes and no. In politics, ministers move departments anyway, so whether it’s a move for one reason or another, you have to be prepared for that,” he says, before explaining that he had achieved much of what he’d wanted before he resigned over the Adam Werrity controversy.
“We had done most of the reshaping and reforming of the MoD itself, dealing with inherited debt, restructuring the department, trying to get costs under control, working out how we achieve procurement. All those things were done and were I suppose the most exciting bit of it. And we still have a number of legacy issues to deal with.”
Fox says that he is in contact with his successor (“Philip and I talk. I think he’s done a very good job”) but he has concerns over further defence cuts.
“You can always find savings, the question is what capabilities do you think you need to have and what capabilities would you be willing to do without? I don’t think there is much room for manoeuvre without losing further capabilities. Now, it might well be decided that the country’s finances are such that we can’t afford those capabilities. But that is a big debate that would have to be had. And I think that the reductions that we have made in the security budgets have been really quite large. You can’t go into a process that says you can constantly go to the same departments for reductions in expenditure and not touch others. I think in particular we need to find more savings from the welfare budget.”
Margaret Thatcher famously made defence of the realm one of the defining characteristics of her politics and tenure. While David Cameron recently refused to call himself a Thatcherite, Fox has no such problem with the label.
“I joined the Conservative Party because for somebody coming from the background I did Margaret Thatcher offered the concept of social mobility and meritocracy, and they for me remain the essentially defining elements of Thatcherism upon which everything else came. The concept of free markets and so on I have no trouble with whatsoever. I regularly when I’m giving speeches refer to myself as an unreconstructed, free market, Thatcherite, Unionist, Eurosceptic, Atlanticist.”
That reference to ‘my background’ is a gentle reminder that Fox was brought up in a council house and attended a comp (the second largest in Europe, he points out). When asked how his roots affected his politics, he replies: “I didn’t know anything else did I? You didn’t join the Tory party where I came from because you were a careerist.
“I think that for me the essence of Conservatism lay in what Mrs Thatcher used to call ‘our people’. It doesn’t matter how you speak, who your parents were, what kind of school you went to, which part of the country you come from, your religion, gender or the colour of your skin, if you believe what we believe then you are ‘our people’. And I think her use of that phrase has been very much misinterpreted over time. I think that’s what she meant by it.”
Fox is also dismissive of the talk of the Right of his party being divided. “I didn’t notice that the Right of the party was in any way disunited during the entire period of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership. This idea that the Right of the party is never united and is unmanageable I just don’t buy. “ Yet is it true that during the 2005 leadership race David Davis’ campaign offered to back him if he came ahead of him in the first ballot, but he did not offer a reciprocal arrangement? “I have neither the intention nor the inclination to go back over history,” Fox replies.
Given his closeness to the Chancellor (the pair share curry nights at Number 11), it’s perhaps not surprising that Fox is not a paid up member of the Boris-for-PM brigade. “He’s a very good Mayor of London.” Would being PM be a step too far? “I don’t know. It’s a different canvas, a very different skill. He’s been a very good Mayor, he’s done a very good job and we will see what Lynton brings.”
As for Mrs Thatcher’s funeral, Fox says it had an interesting effect on current politics. “What it did was remind a lot of people first of all what a talent the Left have for hating.
“And it also reminded them what Britain looked like before Margaret Thatcher, why we needed her. What it did was to remind people, the Cold War didn’t just end, we won it. The trade unions didn’t reform themselves, we reformed them, big failing expensive loss making state industries they didn’t reshape themselves we did it. Home ownership and share ownership didn’t spring from heaven they were things that we gave them. And Mrs Thatcher’s desire to spread wealth to more people is in stark contrast to the Labour party’s view which is to take wealth from the wealthy and redistribute it. Our view, her view, is to create more wealth and share it more widely, there’s a big difference. I love to get into the ideological battles because it’s about two different types of future that you want to have.”
The new generation of Tory MPs who drove the backbench ‘regret’ motion this week are clearly more Thatcherite than not too. Fox, who often fizzes with the energy of a new intaker, is impressed: “If you look back at the 2010 intake, who comprise the majority of the party, they are very broadly speaking Eurosceptic, free market, Atlanticist, unionist. And that’s very encouraging. I think there are so many impressive members of that intake. We know the ones who’ve already got into Government but there are others who are not there yet.
“There’s still a tremendous reservoir waiting to be tapped. I think people like Stephen Barclay, Andrea Leadsom, you’ve got Iain Stewart, you’ve got Steve Brine, you’ve got young James Wharton. We really have got a real depth which I think the Labour party just don’t have..”
Several of the new intake are being lined up for promotion in the rumoured reshuffles this year. But what about Fox? Soon after he left office, he said he would like one day to get back to the front bench. Does he expect to return? “Not for me to decide,” he says, deadpan. “I’ve got plenty of things to do with my time at the moment. I’m completing and working through the charity that I set up which is really coming to fruition now, it’s a long process but that’s going to be doing very well. And I’m at the final stages of the book that I’m writing.”
Recent speculation has centred on him getting the Chief Whip post. Is he interested? “I read these things as well, I’ve decided that these conversations are conversations which if they occur at all will be conversations that I might have with the Prime Minister.”
Speaking of Chief Whips, Andrew Mitchell is also tipped for a comeback at some point. Does Fox sympathise with Mitchell’s treatment? “I’m sure he feels very sore about it and I can understand why and I sympathise. But you know, you live. As I said at the time when I resigned, no one died.”
The Doctor is still very much in the House. Far from being dead himself, he’s busy prescribing his party’s revival.