David Willetts: 'We have not converted deep disillusion with Labour into active support for the Tories'

The Monday Interview: Conservative MP for Havant and spokesman on work and pensions
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The Independent Online

David Willetts is driving through his constituency in his battered, blue Volvo. "This is the Tampax factory," he says. "We used to be Britain's biggest supplier of Tampax. If you looked closely at a Tampax packet it said 'Made in Havant'. Now it says 'Made in Romania'."

David Willetts is driving through his constituency in his battered, blue Volvo. "This is the Tampax factory," he says. "We used to be Britain's biggest supplier of Tampax. If you looked closely at a Tampax packet it said 'Made in Havant'. Now it says 'Made in Romania'."

The collapse of the feminine-hygiene industry in Havant is of considerable concern to Mr Willetts, whose urban sprawl of a constituency has a disquieting level of unemployment. Luckily, for the people of Havant, their MP is an employment expert, brimming with ideas on how to find them jobs. Indeed, he is so dedicated to improving their prospects he donated his shirts to an employment centre so youngsters from the local council estate could look presentable when they went to interviews.

'People did not have smart clothes for interviews so I contributed these shirts," he says. "They were normal shirts. I don't wear Jermyn Street. The problem was my bloody neck has thickened."

At the Wheatsheaf Trust job centre on the Leigh Park estate, where, it seems, Mr Willetts' smart Tory shirts have been quietly disposed of, they are pleased to see their local MP. The shadow Work and Pensions Secretary is immediately accosted by several job-seekers, one of whom saw him on television at 2.30am commenting on the Hartlepool by-election.

Mr Willetts had the unenviable task of explaining why the Conservatives came fourth behind UKIP and the Liberal Democrats. "It was a blow," he says. "I wouldn't disguise it. "The fact that the Lib Dems almost took Hartlepool is very frustrating. It is disappointing and the frustration is that we have not yet convinced people. We have to do more to show that we have a practical set of politics that will make Britain a better place."

Mr Willetts believes this week's conference must be used to show the Conservatives have answers "for making mainstream British life better". But he suggests the task will be an uphill struggle.

"We have not succeeded in converting this deep disillusionment with Labour into the active support for us I would like to see," he says. "We still need to do more just to show we are comfortable with British society as it is, and tackling the problems in Britain today."

As one of the few caring Conservatives left in Michael Howard's senior team, Mr Willetts thinks the party must do more to demonstrate it is "rooted in everyday Britain". He adds: "There are still people who think Tories are people in three-piece suits being served dry sherries by their butlers. You would be amazed the number of people who think that is what we are like."

Mr Willetts, who slows his car down to point out a building destroyed by arsonists, says for the Tories to have any hope of regaining power it must win urban constituencies much like his own. "One of the problems is that we have been driven back to our rural heartland. It is very important that we make progress in urban Britain."

Mr Howard, in his call to arms before becoming party leader, said Conservatives must be "broad in appeal and generous in outlook" and "capable of representing all Britain and all Britons". Mr Willetts, one of the original Tory "mods" who backed Michael Portillo against Iain Duncan Smith, warns Mr Howard not to stray from the laudable aspirations he set out in the Saatchi Gallery last year.

"It was a very powerful speech. It was a great speech. That is still the lodestar that has to guide us," he says pointedly.

But it appears Mr Willetts' pleas to stay on course could be ignored. In the recent reshuffle, he was moved from his role overseeing the party's election manifesto. He was not the only moderniser to be shifted aside. Damian Green and John Bercow left the Shadow Cabinet with Julie Kirkbride, one of the few women on the front bench.

"I am sorry to see Damian leave the front bench," Mr Willetts says, almost wistfully. "I was sorry to see Julie go; I was sorry to see John Bercow go."

Mr Willetts continues to hold the torch for caring Conservatism in the Shadow Cabinet. He says any tax cuts promised by the Tories at the next election should be for the poorest "who pay the highest proportion of their income in tax" and those struggling to save for their retirement.

But his altruistic view that the Tories should look at where "the shoe is pinching" first could put him at loggerheads with neo-Conservatives who want tax cuts for the rich. "I very much hope and believe that those tax reductions will be lifting the burden on the people I represent here. It's very important we do that. It would be good to ease the burden of tax on those families finding it hard to make ends meet."

Mr Willetts says that over the "next few months" there will be "a Conservative debate about which taxes we are able to reduce over time". He adds: "What I am interested in is the burden of taxes on people with modest incomes. Pensioners pay almost as much council tax as they pay income tax. If there are ways of alleviating the burden of council tax on poorer people I think that would be a great thing to do."

Mr Willetts is examining ways to help reduce council tax bills for pensioners. He is also looking at reform of the child tax credit for low-income families and an overhaul of the national insurance system, which penalises women pensioners who have not had a consistent employment history.

"The national insurance contribution rules rest on assumptions about the way women conduct their lives which just no longer apply, which are not 21st-century Britain," he says.

One idea he is looking at is reform of the rule requiring a minimum 10 years of contributions before people qualify for a pension. At times, Mr Willetts he looks as if he would burst with enthusiasm, like an ultra-brainy sixth former who has done his physics homework before everyone else. With his long neck and natural egg-headedness, he retains the air of scholarship boy even at age 48. Change jangles in his blazer pocket as he walks, and he listens to bands that include Keane and Coldplay on the quiet.

Mr Willetts' latest brainy wheeze is to privatise job centres and let charities and commercial firms compete. "One of the problems with the New Deal is that so much of the money ends up going into conventional job centres and there should be more going into outside providers, charitable, voluntary sector, independent sector even commercial," he says.

Recently, Mr Willetts, who served in Margaret Thatcher's policy unit in the 1980s, came up with one of the Tories' most successful, if counterintuitive policies: he persuaded the party to restore the link between pensions and earnings which Mrs Thatcher broke soon after she took power. "With the earnings link, I was conscious that part of the subtext of it was showing that the Conservative Party is changing," he says. "It does show that we know why people kicked us out in 1997, we understand what they thought about us and we are trying to respond to that." At the party's annual conference two years ago, Mr Willetts declared historically that "the war with lone parents is over". But questions remain whether this is true. Part of the cash to restore the link between pensions and earnings will come from savings accrued from forcing lone parents with children over the age of 11 to get a job.

"Research shows the outcomes for the children of lone parents, especially the daughters, is much better if the mother is in employment," he says. "We have to look people in the eye and say this makes society a better place, this tackles a social problem." Prophetically, Mr Willetts has warned that Britain is heading for a "baby bust" when so few women are having children there will not be enough people to support pensioners.

But although he wants bigger families, the Tory MP studiously avoids encouraging teenage mothers or women living on benefits to procreate more profusely. "I am not going to pick on some groups and say have children and other groups not. I am not getting into all this class stuff. By and large, teenage parents do not [provide] good outcomes for their children so that is not something I want to encourage."

Mr Willetts blames high house prices for depressing the birth rate, saying they are "a form of contraceptive". He also believes "feminism is the new natalism" and if women are given more help to combine work and family life they will increase the size of their families.

But he draws the line at offering state cash to women as an incentive to breed. "The French have strong fiscal incentives," he says. "Here's a bribe for having a kid; out pops the baby and here's £1,000." Then he pauses, adding with wonkish enthusiasm: "They are experimenting with this in Estonia where they have incredibly low birth rates."


Born: 9 March 1956

Education King Edward's school, Birmingham;

Christ Church, Oxford (PPE)

2001 Shadow spokesman for work and pensions

1998 Shadow spokesman for education and employment

1996 Paymaster General, Office of Public Service

1995 Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service

1995 Government whip

1992 Elected MP for Havant

1987 Director of Studies, Centre for Policy Studies

1978 HM Treasury