John Bercow: 'I don't agree with Michael. I believe the Prime Minister has been honest about the war'

The Monday Interview: Conservative MP for Buckingham
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The Independent Online

After the 1997 election John Bercow entered the Commons as one of the most right-wing MPs in the new Conservative intake. Now he sits over coffee at Westminster, hailing Tony Blair's courage and vision, praising Alan Milburn, criticising Michael Howard's opportunism and urging his party to move to what he calls the "progressive centre".

He attacks several of the Conservatives' policies as well as their broad approach that he claims is too narrow. Some of Mr Bercow's Conservative colleagues tell me warily that he is on a political journey. If they are right, Mr Bercow's political travels have reached an important and perhaps decisive phase.

The context of his analysis is what he sees as the dangers facing his party with the general election likely next year. "The Conservatives have to be a progressive modern political party, capable of appealing to people in all walks of life in all parts of the country," he says. "At present, the Conservatives' biggest problem is that our support is disproportionately concentrated in rural areas and shire counties. We have to be as preoccupied by health, education, transport, pensions and family policy as the public are. But even now we give the impression of being much more excited when we discuss Europe, immigration and tax cuts."

Mr Bercow does not believe tax cuts should be a priority for the Conservatives. He also opposes a reduction in inheritance tax. Mr Howard has said he would like to pledge a cut in inheritance tax. Mr Bercow says: "I don't meet people, even in Conservative areas, who tell me their main priority is tax cuts and I certainly do not meet many people who tell me their main priority is a cut in inheritance tax. This is a tax that is still substantially paid by people who already vote Conservative.

"We have to spend a lot more time thinking about people who don't vote Conservative. Pro- posing a cut in inheritance tax would look as if we are just appealing to our existing base."

But Mr Bercow's opposition is based on more than electoral calculations. "If we are in a position to relieve the tax burden it should be to the benefit of those working hard on low incomes. That would be an example of progressive one-nation Conservatism. I don't spend time thinking about how we can help the rich. The rich can look after themselves. It is the poor who need our help."

For nearly a year, Mr Bercow was his party's spokesman for international development. In public, he urged Mr Howard to match the spending commitment being made by the Government. Last September, Mr Howard sacked him from the post. Now Mr Bercow claims: "If I had got my way it would have sent a powerful message that the Conservatives are alarmed by the scale of global poverty. Of course, money is not a sufficient condition for relieving world poverty, but it is a necessary condition. The Conservatives have to persuade a sceptical electorate that we are outward looking with an internationalist view."

This is Mr Bercow's first interview since Mr Howard's shadow cabinet reshuffle. Two other relatively young modernisers, Damien Green and Julie Kirkbride, also lost their jobs. He does not want to talk about his own position, but calls the changes bizarre. He tries to be restrained as he reflects on Mr Howard's leadership. "Michael has displayed phenomenal energy over the past 12 months. We must hope the output reflects the input."

He is critical of the way Mr Howard has responded to the war in Iraq. Recently the Conservative leader said Mr Blair had deliberately misled the country about the intelligence available before the invasion. Mr Bercow believes such a claim was misjudged.

"I don't agree with Michael and I think it was a mistake, although I am sure that is what he believes. I believe the Prime Minister has been honest about the war and that he has displayed courage, vision and statesmanship. As for Michael's position, I do not think you can pile up votes from every category of the disaffected. The anti-war vote will not turn to the Conservative Party."

Is there a danger that Mr Howard will be seen as opportunistic? He interrupts quickly. "Not only is there a danger. It is a fact that he has been seen as opportunistic. I believe you have to be honest in politics."

In that spirit of candour, I ask him whether he agrees with the broad approach of Tony Blair and Alan Milburn as they seek to reform the public services? "Yes I do. I agree with them that we need more market orientated, flexible and consumer friendly public services. But for the Conservative Party it is vital that we underline our basic commitment to the public services.

"I think it would help if more senior Conservatives used the public services themselves. People expect their politicians to be a bit more like them, to use NHS hospitals and state schools. I wish we had spent the whole of this parliament with work-experience programmes for the Conservative front bench, working in the public services, not for publicity and photo calls, but at the coal-face."

He urges the Conservatives to be more supportive of the Government in some sensitive areas. In particular, he attacks their sweeping opposition to top-up fees for universities and the gambling Bill.

"We need to acknowledge when the Government is getting it partly or wholly right," he says. "When we behave in opportunistic ways it doesn't wash with the public. For example, the Prime Minister was right when he argued that students should pay a substantial contribution to the cost of their university education. We should have agreed with him."

And he has a new concern. "I hope we will take a constructive approach to the gambling Bill. The Government wants to modernise the gambling laws. That seems to me sensible enough. We must look at the details, but we cannot have our policies derived by the contrived hysteria of the Daily Mail."

Conservative leaders might be tempted to dismiss Mr Bercow's criticisms as signs of a reckless bitterness. In my view, they would be wrong to do so. Mr Bercow's analysis has been evolving for several years and it is based largely on a detailed interest in policy matters. He has thought this through carefully, turning down numerous requests for interviews.

He is especially passionate about international policy. Like Mr Blair, he believes in a reformed United Nations. He acknowledges that others are warier of reform but suggests that at its best this is a "debate between internationalists" and that he is on the side of the Prime Minister.

Indeed, his only criticism is that Mr Blair has not been Blairite enough. "I admire Mr Blair's doctrine of international intervention. The Prime Minister has tended to apply his doctrine too selectively and sparingly. He should apply the principle more extensively. That does not necessarily mean more armed intervention, but when the Prime Minister focuses his mind on a country he can be extremely effective. Lots of areas have not received this attention."

As ever, Mr Bercow's main concern is with his own party. "At present, little is known about the Conservatives' foreign policy. We should have a moral passion about brutal dictatorships. We need to define our view of the national interests from a more internationalist perspective."

When Mr Bercow arrived in the Commons as a young MP his political heroes were Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher. He got on well with Lord Tebbit. Now Mr Bercow admires Mr Blair and has fallen out with Lord Tebbit. What brought about the dramatic change in political outlook? "It started with one issue. I voted for a differential age of consent for heterosexuals and gays and lesbians, but I wasn't sure I was right. I decided to go away and reflect, talk to gay people, church leaders and parents to gain their impressions.

"I came to the conclusion that there was no reason for statutory discrimination and told the Commons I had changed my mind. I then started to reflect deeply on other issues. The decisive phase came during the horrendous 2001 election. I repeated the standard tunes convinced that an aggressively Eurosceptic stance would win votes. I was completely wrong. The Conservatives must realise that being sceptical is different from being phobic in what is an interdependent world."

At about the time he was having these profound doubts, Mr Bercow married a strong supporter of Mr Blair and New Labour. Some have speculated that his wife, Sally, has been a big influence on his thinking. "Sally is very interested in politics and I am a politician. We influence each other. Her allegiance is to the Blairite Labour party. My allegiance is to what I hope will be a progressive Conservative Party. But I reject the fundamentally sexist notion of the woman behind the man. I believe in parity of esteem and therefore oppose any discrimination, not least in levels of pay. This should be a big issue for us."

Some senior Conservatives fear Mr Bercow will defect to the Labour Party. Mr Bercow will make no public comment about that. Instead he insists: "I am working for a modern, progressive Conservative Party."

He left our interview to speak in north London on behalf of a Tory candidate. For now, John Bercow is an active and diligent Conservative. He will remain one if the party moves "very quickly" to what he defines as the progressive centre ground.

THE CV

Born: 1963

Education: University of Essex, first-class honours in government, 1985

Married: He and his wife, Sally, have a son

1986: Conservative councillor in Lambeth

1997- MP for Buckingham

2000: Tory spokesman on home affairs

2001: Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

2002: Shadow minister for Work and Pensions

2003: Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

2004: Removed in a front bench reshuffle

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