Francis Maude: Big Society? It's nothing to do with us

The ultra-modern minister on having unions on speed dial, courteous coalition rows and why the government must explain better what it's up to. Matt Chorley and Jane Merrick meet Francis Maude

Whatever happened to the "Big Society"? The last time we interviewed Francis Maude he could not have been more enthused about it, heralding the "end of the era of the big state and big government". Mischief-makers suggest the term has been quietly dropped, and will not feature in the main party conference debates. Surely the man in charge of ensuring the policy is a success will quash such talk? He is bound to use the phrase, isn't he? "I don't know. I would have thought it will come up." Oh? Apparently the "Big Society" is now not a "separate entity". "The 'Big Society' is not a government programme: it's an idea of what you want society – what you want Britain – to be like," says Maude. But the public service shake-up, devolution of power and volunteering is all "kind of cheerfully going on". However there is not a "particularly sharp set of metrics you can use to measure whether it's happening".

For many the concept took a knock in the wake of the riots, when a more hardline David Cameron emerged, threatening to bring in the Army and evict troublemakers from their homes. Maude is more measured. "I don't think anyone is saying that parts of the country are sick," he adds. He obviously wasn't paying attention when the PM told the Commons: "There are pockets of our society that are not only broken, but frankly sick."

On the one hand, the 58-year-old can seem laid back, indifferent even. Then, in the next breath, he is vowing to take on the unions, accusing the National Trust of peddling "bollocks" about planning reforms, and insisting it is "insane" that Britain does not already have high-speed rail line: "Actually you have just got to take a view that this is in the national interest and see it through."

The Cabinet Office minister and Paymaster General is axing quangos and slashing spending – £4bn saved in the first 10 months in the job. But he is also an uber-moderniser, a Cameroon before David Cameron. As party chairman for two years from the 2005 election, he began the detoxification of the Conservative brand.

Now, as the Tory minister leading talks over changes to public-sector pensions, Maude seems to be quite matey with the union barons threatening major strike action on 30 November. They often call him on his mobile, when they can "talk very freely". His announcement this week of a ban on full-time civil service union staff being paid by the taxpayer will put the "personal relationships" under further strain. Maude warns that there is "not all that much public sympathy" for the threatened "war" this autumn from those in the private sector who do not enjoy the same pensions. He holds out the prospect of changes to union law, noting that it is a "completely perverse incentive" that a union which has balloted for industrial action must stage a walkout or its mandate will lapse. At the Liberal Democrat conference, Vince Cable claimed the Tories were "descendants of those who sent children up chimneys", while Chris Huhne attacked the "Tea Party tendency" on the party's right. Maude implausibly claims to not "quite know what the Tea Party is".

But he insists relations with coalition partners are "absolutely fine", and while there are arguments between "grown-up people taking difficult decisions", they are "better tempered and more courteous than they would normally be".

Some Tories are enjoying coalition life. There is even talk that if Cameron only just sneaks over the line at the next election, he might pick up the phone to the likes of Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander and David Laws and ask them to join him in government again. "I have heard people speculating, and they will continue no doubt to speculate," Maude says, before trotting out the line that the Tories will campaign hard for a "good majority". But asked several times about the idea of Lib Dems sitting around the cabinet table again, he retreats to the same construction about its being "pointless to speculate" about the result of the next election, which is "a long time ahead".

No one would accuse Maude of being on the right of his party. His comments on Europe will likely send shivers down the spines of the new 2010 intake who have just formed a more hardline Eurosceptic group, "We are not a party which is anti-European. We are not an anti-EU party."

Much of what he says is counter-intuitive, surprising, though there is no sense he is trying to shock. He is just happy to say what he thinks. He concedes that ministers "always need to explain better" and admits having no answer to how the Tories could win back the support of women. He also volunteers the information that he thought Andy Burnham would have posed the biggest threat to the Tories if he'd become Labour leader. His office overlooking Horse Guards Parade is the same one occupied by his father, Angus Maude, from 1979-81. A more recent occupant was Ed Miliband.

It is such a pity, he says, that Miliband did not "get a grip" on spending, which would mean "there'd be less of a reckoning now". The day of reckoning for the Tories may be three years off yet, and he refuses to speculate about what might happen in the relative fortunes of the parties. "We're sticking with doing some difficult things," he repeats with quiet determination. "In the old phrase, no one said it was meant to be easy."

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