Bill's Archived Comments

Monday, 21st January 2002

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Conservative Gagged - John Bercow Forbidden from Giving Interviews

(see also the article "Civil Partnerships Bill [HL} Second Reading" in my Comment Page for 4th February 2002 - click  to go there now)

John Bercow, MP for Buckinghamshire, decided to write a 'New Year' letter to Conservative Party members in his constituency - a charming and courteous thought, one might have imagined. Being a thoughtful person, he decided to write, as part of his four-page letter, about what he sees as a major problem for his Party - his belief that the Conservative Party is widely viewed as "racist, homophobic, sexist and anti-youth". One right-of-centre political commentator (Matthew d'Ancona, writing in 'The Sunday Telegraph' on 20 January 2002) commented that this was "stating the obvious". Mr Bercow also commented the Conservatives were in the "worst state" he could recall and must "adapt or die". He also suggested that "Even when we were right ... we must recognise that we sounded shrill, paranoid and even nasty." (Read the final parts of the interview given by Mr Iain Duncan Smith, and quoted in the article below - does it strike you, as it strikes me, that Mr Bercow has got it absolutely right?)

From Mr Duncan Smith's perspective, Mr Bercow's comments were particularly unfortunate as they coincided with what some within the Party believed was a 'mini-revival' in its fortunes . Personally I think the comment about a 'mini-revival' in the media is far-fetched in the extreme at this stage (see the 3rd article on this page, which discusses the findings of a recent opinion poll survey and which seems to confirm my feelings). News of Bercow's letter also clashed with a major speech Duncan Smith was due to give the same day that the story broke; reportedly he was furious and it is further reported that he instructed Mr Bercow not to give media interviews.  Highly ironic, in that his speech included the pledge never to copy Labour's "obsessive media manipulation, the suppression of debate".

In an interview on the 'Today' programme a couple of days later, Mr Duncan Smith opined: "I am a great believer that people should be able to express their concerns. I will deal with what I believe to be the right ones and I will deal with people in my party in the way that I believe", widely interpreted (I think correctly) as a public rebuke to Mr Bercow and an indication that his future on the Opposition Front Bench may be short-lived. Mr Duncan Smith may say that the perception that his Party is 'intolerant' is incorrect, but that is very different from proving it - for example read the next article.

Duncan Smith: Problem with Gays? (Definitely!) - Homophobic? (Probably!)

Conservative Party Leader, Iain Duncan Smith, had his New Year outing (geddit??!!) on 'Breakfast with Frost' yesterday on BBC1; last week it was the turn of our beloved PM and next week it will be Kennedy's moment. Anyway, Duncan Smith said nothing of note, or in any way surprising, certainly nothing to indicate that the review of policy which is said to be going on is having any impact at all on his 'thinking'. Frost is considered by some to be a 'soft' interviewer and it is certainly true that he avoids aggressive questioning; however, he does usually manage to get his interviewees to reveal rather more than they might believe they have. Frost mentioned the 'gay' word quite a number of times when seeking clarification from Duncan Smith, but not once did the latter use the word, or any equivalent (i.e. homosexual); he was obviously determined not to do so. Whilst Duncan Smith generally guards his emotions fairly close to his chest, he does occasionally smile, or make a few hand gestures. However, during the section of the interview when David Frost sought to get him to talk about the Party's policies on women, ethnic minorities and gays (and particularly in follow-on questions relating to gays), his body language was noticeably more wooden than during the rest of the interview and he seemed to be speaking through gritted teeth - I hope he visits his dentist regularly.

It is not possible to get a full picture of my interpretation from the transcript of the relevant part which follows, but I do believe it conveys a flavour of what I am referring to. You be the judge:

Partial text of an interview given by Mr Iain Duncan Smith, Leader of the Conservative Party, to Sir David Frost - 'Breakfast with Frost' (BBC1) on Sunday 20th January 2002

(I have eliminated 'ums' and 'ahs' from both interviewer and interviewee, which would I think detract from the clarity of the interview, but the transcript is otherwise as accurate as I can make it, having been prepared from a video recording I made of the interview)

(1) Sir David Frost (DF): John Bercow said lots of things that were quoted this week. One was that the Tory Party was still grossly unrepresentative of the country at large. And Steve Norris this morning on the radio was saying the words that you've been uttering this week have been well received, but now you've got to make some controversial decisions. How do you really make the Tory Party more representative of the country at large?

(2) Mr Iain Duncan Smith (IDS): Well, I like to think that the Conservative Party is, when you get out into the country, pretty much like everybody else - its members are all people who have to put up with poor health, circumstances, can't get their treatment in the health service - they're the ones who go to work on the railways and find there's a problem, they're the people that worry about rising crime on our streets. There's nothing peculiarly different about the Conservative Party out there in the country. The problem for us is the perception of us has been obsessed with specific issues, unable apparently to be able to take key decisions that are relevant to peoples' lives, so what I've done from the start is said we will now look again at the things that worry people most and that's their public services, their health services, transport, rising crime and come forward with solutions to those, showing that the Labour Party frankly has absolutely no idea what it's going to do. That's the key, to get people to recognise we care about the things that they care about most of all in their lives.

(3) (DF): What do you do though, Iain, about where people say - no black MPs, no Asian MPs, no gay MPs - I mean how - only 14 women MPs - what do you do about that, how do you change that dramatically? You've said you don't like the idea of all-women shortlists, for instance ...

(4) (IDS): No.

(5) (DF): So how do you do it?

(6) (IDS): Well, I've made it absolutely clear, in terms of representation in the Party, we don't set quotas, because out there in the country people don't live their lives by quotas, but what they want to know is that women who want to become MPs have a fair opportunity to do so, so I've appointed two women in charge of candidates and their job is to sort the system out, which they're doing at the moment, to make it happen, so that we can actually get many more women involved. I'm absolutely adamant that will be the case by the next election. The same goes for those from ethnic backgrounds because we want more of those in, more of them to be able to represent opinions and views and concerns from that part of the country. That is very much what we are doing, and we've set in train a whole programme of ...

(7) (DF): How soon will we see the results of that?

(8) (IDS): Well I hope as we start selecting candidates. I set a target for example to select all the candidates in Liberal-held seats by this coming summer. I stand by that, and I want therefore that process to be engaged from the very word go. I'm absolutely determined about that, 'cause it's not just because I want to be perceived in that, I actually want those talents available to the Conservative Party, and there are some fantastic women out there who just simply can't get in, and they must.

(9) (DF): And what about, I mean, gay candidates? I mean if you had two candidates, a straight candidate and a gay candidate, and they were absolutely equal, you would almost have a vested interest in hoping that the gay candidate got selected for your overall image...

(10) (IDS): (shrugs) I leave that very much to the system, once we've evolved that, as to how to resolve that, how that actually happens. Actually I think the real problem for us is mostly with women and people from ethnic backgrounds. I mean that's where we have serious under-representation and where I would want to see that  improved.  (Please see my comments following the interview text)

(11) (DF): But are you comfortable now with gay's age of consent being sixteen, or would you want to change that?

(12) (IDS): Well, I'm not going to fight past battles that have gone. I mean we happen to have had this one and dealt with ... what I want to make sure is that children who are under the supervision of adults are protected from those who want to abuse that level of trust, that's the key. But what we've really got to get onto is the issues that the public really worry about. For example, they worry about a government that has abused Parliament and may, and closed it down. (What is he talking about in that last sentence? - Frankly, I have no idea.) One of the things we are announcing today is that we're going to have Senate-style hearings for anybody appointed to quangos by this government. We're going to make sure they come in front of the House and are interrogated about what their political allegiances are, what skills they have, before they are appointed. That patronage is corrupting. (Please see my comments following the interview text)

Paragraph (10) above could be read in many ways. Is he saying that there is no problem about gays, because they are already sufficiently-represented? Or is he saying that it is unimportant whether they are sufficiently-represented or not? Or is he, in fact, implying that he does not wish gays to be represented, or whatever representation there currently is to be improved?

In paragraph (12) his first sentence is, to say the least, less than enthusiastic - it seems clear that even now, were it feasible politically, he would have preferred that the age of consent had not been equalised. The next part really seems to be a 'covert' reference to Section 28 - again he seems to be taking the "homophobe's option"  of implying that gays are [more] likely to be paedophiles, or that paedophiles are [mostly] gays - a suggestion that is both factually inaccurate and extremely offensive. The subtle implication, however, has been mooted - and not picked up by Sir David Frost. He then is permitted to veer away and waffle - making little if any sense. Then he seems to adopt the "McCarthy-ite option" - fine to 'interrogate' (I would have preferred 'question closely', but never mind) people about their skills, but to suggest that this touch upon 'political allegiances' is really startling. I think Mr Iain Duncan Smith has revealed here just the sort of right-wing extremist he is. I use that word with absolutely no apology. The man is clearly a bigot - albeit an urbane, well-educated one, and all the more dangerous because of this.

Opinion poll finds Conservatives still failing to connect with voters

An NOP opinion poll for Channel 4's 'Powerhouse' programme has found that there is no sign, so far, that the Conservative Party is close to breaking through the credibility (or perhaps the indifference) barrier with voters. In particular, the new leader Iain Duncan Smith seems singularly to have failed to persuade people that he is a credible alternative PM or that the position of the Party has improved since he took over. Amongst Conservative voters the figures are much more favourable, but this is probably to be expected and indeed could be said to show just how out of touch are the Party and its supporters with the (much more numerous) rest of the population. This is despite the media reports in the last few weeks which have suggested that the Conservative Party's fortunes are reviving. Some of the findings are shown in the table below:

NOP Opinion Poll Conducted for 'Powerhouse' Channel 4

Questions

Yes

No

Not Sure

Tory Voters

Yes

Tory Voters

No

Tory Voters

Not sure

Has the Conservative Party changed for the better since Mr Duncan Smith became Leader?
28% 41% 31% 52% 27% 21%
Is the Conservative Party out of touch with people's everyday problems?
59% 29% 12% 32% 62% 6%
 - same question to former Tory voters
67%
Do you think Mr Duncan Smith would make a good Prime Minister?
23% 45% 31% 59% 18% 23%
 - same question to former Tory voters
23%

Former Tory voters, such as me, are likely to be an important component of those Mr Duncan Smith must win back if he is to have a realistic hope of winning the next (or any future) election. On this showing, he has a long way to go.

(see also the article "Civil Partnerships Bill [HL} Second Reading" in my Comment Page for 4th February 2002 - click  to go there now)


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Copyright © 2002 William Cameron