Chris Patten: 'UKIP lives in a fantasy world of Dambusters, Panzers and conspiracies against Blighty'

The Monday Interview: European commissioner for external relations
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The Independent Online

Chris Patten, the outgoing European commissioner for external relations, has just three weeks left in office and he is clear about his next objective. While he was governor of Hong Kong, Mr Patten was nicknamed "Fatty Pang" and, though he subsequently shed pounds, he fears that the combination of endless travel (180 flights last year) and a sedentary job has put some of them back.

Chris Patten, the outgoing European commissioner for external relations, has just three weeks left in office and he is clear about his next objective. While he was governor of Hong Kong, Mr Patten was nicknamed "Fatty Pang" and, though he subsequently shed pounds, he fears that the combination of endless travel (180 flights last year) and a sedentary job has put some of them back.

"I haven't taken a lot of exercise and I've put on weight," he says bluntly. "My first priority when I leave here, apart from writing a book, is to lose weight."

Mr Patten is a politician to his fingertips and knows that even his waistline could be used against him by Eurosceptics. So he adds quickly: "The weight isn't about spending every night with my snout in the trough at [the Michelin-starred restaurant] Comme Chez Soi. Last night it was an omelette and a bowl of soup."

That such a qualification is necessary says much for the reputation of the EU, particularly in the Conservative Party of which Mr Patten was once chairman. As the morning sun streams though the window of his 15th-floor office, illuminating a fine view of Brussels, Mr Patten pays generous tribute to the "professionalism and competence" of Michael Howard, the Tory leader and former cabinet colleague. "Anyone who suggests it is just the same as it was in the days of Iain Duncan Smith is talking rubbish."

But once these pleasantries are out of the way, the gloves come off. Mr Patten does not conceal his alarm at a rightward drift on immigration and Europe, which he believes is profoundly counterproductive.

Elections, he says, cannot be won "if you focus on a core group which gets progressively smaller" or by "talking to a dwindling band of people."

At the party conference in Bournemouth last week, the shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, claimed that Britain's "treasured" values were threatened by "uncontrolled immigration". Mr Patten responds: "I have no doubt at all that we should try to have a modern, effective, fair system of controlling immigration and asylum. But do I feel at all that Britain's national identity or heritage are threatened by immigration? Of course I don't. Like millions of others, I come, on one side, from immigrant stock which, doubtless, used to suffer, in the slums of Manchester, a good deal of prejudice against Paddies. We are made up of migrant groups."

He predicts that, if the party sticks on its current poll position, it could pick up between 30 and 50 seats in the next election, given the likelihood of support declining for Labour and rising for the Liberal Democrats.

"But that would leave us camped rather depressingly at the foothills with the Himalayas still ahead," says Mr Patten. "What most worries me is the impression that has been given - which I hope is wrong - that the first thing we have to do to get out of the foothills is to chase after the UKIP vote. UKIP got 10 per cent in the Hartlepool by-election [in which the Tories came fourth] and the Liberal Democrats got 34 per cent. Which is the target for a serious party?

"To give the impression that we are reasonably comfortable travelling on the same train as UKIP, but just want to get off two or three stops before the terminal, is very damaging."

On UKIP, Mr Patten shows flashes of the colourful political thuggery he used to reserve for Labour during his days at Conservative Central Office. At one point he refers to "UKIP and all those who believe in little green men". At another he says: "UKIP represents a particularly unattractive, blazered, xenophobia. They live in a fantasy world of conspiracies against gallant Blighty, white cliffs, Dambusters, Panzer helmets, a world in which every foreigner is a threat, a world which is totally at variance with the one in which we have to earn our living and keep the peace. For modern Conservatives, there should be not a moment's hesitation in rejecting that political approach rather than flirting with it."

Mr Patten concedes that the Tory party's centre of gravity has shifted away from him on Europe, but adds: "That doesn't seem to have led to spectacular electoral success. I was talking to a group of Conservative MPs this summer. One of them said I didn't understand what had happened in the party, that I had lost the plot. Well it was quite a good plot, it was a plot that used to help us win elections, that made us the natural party of government."

Speaking in carefully constructed sentences, he delivers a forensic dissection of official party policies, including a negotiated withdrawal from the common fisheries policy and social legislation, and of calls for Britain to reject the supremacy of EU law.

This, he says, represents a "sort of virtual reality. Why should our partners in the EU let us simply jack out of anything we don't like but let us stay for the ride where we think it suits us. Are we prepared to let the French and the Germans off the hook on state aids or aspects of the single market or competition policy? What is sauce for the goose is presumably sauce fore the gander."

He ridicules the notion that leaving the fisheries policy would help when "the problem of fish is over-fishing", arguing: "If you decide to repatriate fish policy are you going to depend on our fish being taught to swim only in our territorial waters? Is this the real world?"

On legal powers, Mr Patten says: "Are we actually saying we reject the ultimate authority of the European Court of Justice, because, if we do, it is goodbye to the single market."

A referendum on the EU constitution can be won, he believes, but only provided Tony Blair and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown "engage in the campaign" and he seems unconvinced of the commitment of either. The referendum, he thinks, may be seen as an opportunity to oust Mr Blair early, now that the Prime Minister has outlined plans to serve a full third term (or, as he puts it, "12 years - four years more than any American president - quite a long time".)

"Has Mr Blair taken advantage of his huge majority to deal once and for all with the existential question about our membership of the EU? No he hasn't. Why hasn't he? Partly, because he is so extraordinarily deferential to [Rupert] Murdoch and his newspapers. How does he put up with Mr Brown's personal campaign to demonstrate that Europe, to borrow from that column in Private Eye, is the new Africa?"

The irony, says Mr Patten, is that things really are going Britain's way in Brussels. "A lot of people are going to ask us to throw over a [constitutional] treaty which, more than Maastrict, Amsterdam, let alone the Single European Act, encapsulates the British view of Europe. A Europe of nation states where economic and political integration is not a remorseless enterprise. The cards are stacked in our favour. At that point we try to sweep everything off the table and start again. It's crazy."

Now counting the days before his departure, Mr Patten no longer bothers with diplomatic formulations over the Iraq war. He says he "always thought it was a mistake" and describes the occupation as "botched" but adds: "That doesn't do any of us any good because we've all got to deal with the consequences."

One of those is, he says, that it "will make it a lot more difficult to carry opinion next time we are faced with the need to take preventative action."

It will worry some that Mr Patten thinks something similar might be contemplated but, asked whether pre-emptive action may be needed, he replies: "Absolutely, there are all sorts of places. I hope that we can deal with the problem of Iran through negotiation. But we are living in a world in which there are pernicious relationships between the horrendous tech of modern warfare, terrorism, human rights abuse and failing states."

Mr Patten does not dispel suggestions that he had frustrations during his stint as a commissioner. It cannot be compared to being a cabinet minister, he says, let alone governor of Hong Kong - a place where he "got things done and got things done quickly". The Patten epitaph on Brussels is a bit more sober: "An interesting five years. I accomplished quite substantial reforms in the way we manage our business but I can't hide from you the fact that that has been, sometimes, rather uphill work.

"Inevitably, even though people here are good, bureaucratic rules reflect 15, now 25, bureaucratic traditions. Things are sometimes slow and opaque. But I think most people would concede that I made a difference.

For all his frustrations, Mr Patten seems to harbour a lingering regret that, when he was canvassed as a potential Commission president, his nationality counted against him. Instead, Mr Patten will now busy himself with writing two books, co-chairing the International Crisis Group and serving as chancellor of Oxford University.

As for Peter Mandelson, Britain's incoming EU trade commissioner, Mr Patten believes he "has all the capacity to do the job exceptionally well". Though the two men are not friends, they have met a couple of times and Mr Mandelson has taken some of the Patten team. The outgoing commissioner also says he knows Mr Mandelson's chef, Brussels-speak for chef de cabinet or most senior aide, before adding - maybe for the benefit of those UKIP critics - "I mean his head of cabinet, not his personal cook".


Born 1944

Education Balliol, Oxford

1966 Conservative Research Department

1974-79 Director of CRD

1979 MP for Bath

1983 Junior minister at Northern Ireland Office

1985 Minister of State, Department of Education and Science

1986 Minister for Overseas Development

1989 Secretary of State for the Environment

1990 Tory party chairman

1992 Hong Kong governor

1999-2004 European commissioner