Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Theresa Villiers Interview

No one could accuse Theresa Villiers of being cuddly. When I met the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury in her Westminster office, she was brisk, businesslike and didn’t crack a smile once, though she did accuse me of libelling the Conservative party.

I have to admit that at our meeting just before the parliamentary recess I found her slightly intimidating, a feeling that some of the MPs opposite might have experienced during her strong appearances at Treasury questions. She was yet another surprise choice for David Cameron’s team, taking on the number two role under the 35-year-old boy wonder and Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne. Villiers is 38.

Neither of them was even in Parliament when Gordon Brown presented his fourth budget. At Treasury questions they face the longest-serving and most successful Chancellor in history, and his experienced team of ministers.

To make the slightest impact would be quite an achievement, but both Villiers and Osborne have scored some palpable hits against the Treasury in the last session.

If the economy continues to stall we can expect to see the Chancellor, or whomever he eventually appoints to replace him, facing some lacerating questioning from Osborne and the stern, forensic Villiers.

Her training as a barrister comes across strongly in conversation, and she confesses that she had parliamentary aspirations: “from quite far back, I wouldn’t say always but yes, quite early.”

Villiers grew up in north London, and took the well-established path of the law as a good grounding for politics. A First from Bristol University led on to BCL from Jesus College, Oxford.

By the age of 26, she was lecturing in Law at Kings College, London and working as a barrister. She gave up teaching to run for the European Parliament. Villiers was elected as MEP for the London constituency in 1999, and was re-elected in 2004.

In Brussels, she was a well-regarded member of the conservative EPP grouping, and campaigned successfully for Cypriot entry into the EU, a matter of considerable importance to many of her north London constituents, many of them refugees from that troubled island. She also campaigned on animal welfare issues, with support from like-minded mainstream conservatives from across Europe.

Why then does David Cameron want to rip the Tories out of the EPP group?

“When we form our new group we will be even more influential in the parliament.” Villiers responds.

“We shall sit with others who share our view of Europe, which is a free market, free trading nations, rather than a federalist United States of Europe, which the majority of the parties in the EPP want to see.”

Although the policy of withdrawl has now been postponed until 2008, William Hague had a series of meetings with fringe parties, many of them ‘extremist’ in Western terms. Villiers reacted passionately to the charge that her party was courting bigots and homophobes:

“We are proposing to link up with the Polish Law and Justice Party, which is quite different to the Polish League of Families.

“I deny the libel that we are going to link up with parties that are homophobic. I can assure you that I wouldn’t support a move which had that effect.”

Her high regard for the Polish Law and Justice Party is misplaced.

Party leader Lech Kaczynski repeatedly banned gay rights marches while mayor of Warsaw, and called homosexuals deviants.

He was elected president in July, and his twin brother, Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, is in coalition with the Polish League of Families, an openly and viciously homophobic party, who organise a youth wing, reminiscent of the Hitler Youth, who regularly attack gay people and gay events.

No less a figure than the EU Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, raised his concerns about gay rights in Poland at his first meeting with PM Kaczynski.

Villiers draws a lawyer’s distinction between the two parties. Others judge the Law and Justice party by who they get into bed with, and the Tories should be cautious of being judged the same way.

Villiers is insistent that disquiet about the Conservatives leaving the EPP is all the work of those working towards a federal Europe:

“The reason why the federalists are deeply resisting what we want to do is because if we form this group there will be for the first time a real opposition in the European Parliament.”

The formation of an informal group, called the European Demorcrats, led by the Tories, has been a PR disaster.

The ED still sit within the EPP group and have no staff or funding. Apart from the 26 Conservative MEPs there are a mere 12 Czech MEPs from one party and four further MEPs from three other parties.

Despite her opposition to closer integration, and a trenchant dismissal of the introduction of the Euro to Britain no matter what, Villiers is upbeat about EU expansion:

“I think it’s possible that the EU will expand further. It is already under discussion to extent the borders beyond Europe with negotiations with Turkey. With countries like Belarus and the Ukraine, which are European countries, the question of EU membership will arise.”

In an attempt to lighten the atmosphere, with the threat of libel hanging in the air, I asked if perhaps we might look to the European Broadcasting Union to decide who is and is not in Europe? Villiers seems taken with the idea:

“That is the question, can Israel join the EU because they are in the Eurovision Song Contest? I have wondered about that but I don’t think there is an appetite either in Israel or the EU to go that far! But you never know.”

Theresa Villiers’ appointment to the shadow cabinet is a sign of the regard she is held in by the new leader, and also a symbolic elevation of that rarest of Tory creatures, a female MP.

Villiers was elected to represent Chipping Barnet, a safe Tory seat, in 2005, one of only five women elected for the party in that general election. The party now have 17 women MPs. They had around the same number in the 1920’s.

The other noticeable difference with the five new Tory women is their age. While the LibDems have female MPs yet to reach their thirties, and the Labour party is dominated by thirtysomethings with ten years in government under their belt, the new Tory women are aged between 37 and 49.

David Cameron has taken the controversial decision of asking constituencies to choose two male and two female candidates for their shortlist. Although it falls short of the women-only list imposed upon Labour CLPs, it is still an unpopular move in some sections of the party.

While a supporter of the A-list, Villiers is sceptical about the value of positive discrimination: “I think there are all sorts of other methods available to increase the participation of women in the Conservative party, which don’t involve all-women shortlists.

“I think they give rise to a number of concerns and problems. It is very difficult to say to someone who may have lived in a particular area all his life, and worked hard for the party for many years, you can’t stand as a candidate because you are a man. My view is that we have to deal with every other option first.”

It can be hard when talking to her to remember that Villiers has only been an MP for 18 months. It is a welcome change of pace from Brussels:

“It’s a completely different political culture, I enjoy it more. It’s a challenging environment in which to operate, so I have been trying hard to live up to the responsibility that I have been given.

“On the floor of the House its very adversarial but when you work in committee it’s a lot more consensual. It has been interesting to work with Treasury ministers.”

Most of the time, however, she is picking them apart. The Chancellor’s reputation is built on the strength of the British economy. The longest period of uninterrupted growth since the Industrial Revolution. Low unemployment. Increased investment in public services. Millions of pensioners lifted out of poverty. Where is the problem?

“We are worried about the level of borrowing – 139 million over five years is very significant. Taxes have gone up considerably and we are concerned about the impact on business competitiveness.

“We are concerned also about the complexity of the tax system as that has imposed significant challenges and expenses on British businesses, which again effects competitiveness.

“As the economy becomes more globalised, it is more and more important that we are able to compete with economies like India and China that we have a streamlined tax system that is easy to operate.

“Red tape and regulation has increased significantly under the Chancellor’s stewardship of the economy. We think he has failed to deal sensibly with our pensions system.

“We had one of the healthiest private pension sectors in Europe in 1997, not it is the weakest. There are significant problems with public sector pensions. All of this provides a lot of uncertainty about the long-term competitiveness of the UK economy.”

That uncertainly may be behind the party’s steadfast refusal to promise tax cuts, even when Tory grandees like Lord Tebbit make noises about being the natural party of low taxes, and party conference delegates cheer every mention of tax cuts:

“We believe very strongly that we should only cut taxes when this would not jeopardise stability. Looking at the numbers now, we are concerned about whether the country would be able to afford it in three years time.

“We feel that it might well be very difficult for us to offer up-front tax cuts at a general election given the current fiscal position, the level of borrowing. We believe it is absolutely important that stability is our watchword and the first priority.

“We may therefore find that the country can’t afford to cut taxes at that point because we have to focus on repairing the public finances and repaying some of the debts that the current Chancellor is incurring now.”

It has been a good conference for David Cameron, and for Theresa Villiers. She got a mention in George Osborne’s speech. She was seated directly behind the Leader in many TV shots of him listening to speeches. She moderated a “meet the candidates” session with Boris Johnson, and managed not to be completely over-shadowed by the blond bombshell. She looked relaxed and approachable. The most prominent woman to join the parliamentary party in well over a decade, she has high praise for her fellow new MPs

“I think Michael Gove is brilliant, I think that Maria Miller is also really really good, in fact all the women elected with me, Justine Greening, Nadine Dorries, Anne Milton and Anne Main are outstanding Commons performers.”

Finally, when ARE we going to hear some polices, some substance to go with the Cameron style?

“David Cameron set a clear direction of travel for the party. In terms of detailed policy, we are determined to get it right. We feel that one of our weaknesses in opposition has been a tendency to announce policies which had not perhaps been researched thoroughly enough or thought through enough. We are determined not to make that mistake again.”