Liam Fox: 'There is a level of self-confidence and self-belief that I cannot remember since the 1992 general election'

The Monday Interview: Conservative Party Co-Chairman

Liam Fox is surrounded by shaggy-haired students as he sets out his vision for higher education. They have pierced eyebrows, nose rings, pink hair and Che Guevara keyrings. But as chairman of the new all-inclusive Tory Party, he does not look at all fazed.

He is using the student gathering at Bath Spa University College as "a gigantic free-focus group" and is bouncing around ideas about how to fund universities, and stem voter apathy among the young. "Is the level of cynicism all pervasive?" he asks. "Is this generation as cynical as their parents? Is it a generational thing or not?"

The shaggy-haired lot are paying attention, and the Tory chairman gets articulate and well-informed replies. A fellow with an earring notes that Shakespeare used the phrase "scurvy politician" as a byword for dishonesty.

Dr Fox, a former Beaconsfield GP, is not affronted. He laughs and says he is well aware of politicians' poor standing among the public. "In the table of most-hated people politicians are second top, second only to traffic wardens," he says. "So moving from being a doctor to a politician makes me the most downwardly mobile person I am aware of."

The Tory co-chairman - a job he shares with the advertising guru Lord Saatchi - is on a mission to attract first-time voters to the party and win back those who abandoned the Conservatives for Tony Blair.

The MP for Woodspring, who during the last Tory government was Michael Howard's parliamentary aide, is optimistic about his task. He blames cynicism about politics not on previous Conservative governments but on the "impenetrable self-righteousness" of Mr Blair. "The mood in the Conservative party is terrific," he says. "Morale has been incredibly lifted. There is a level of self-confidence and self-belief that I cannot remember at any time since the 1992 general election."

As he describes his party's burgeoning fortunes, Dr Fox is ebullient and chatty and smiles all the time. The MP's polished profile matches his shimmering shoes, immaculately starched white shirt and his Union Flag cuff-links. He bounds from meeting to meeting, shaking hands and cracking jokes with perfect strangers who are taken with his energetic politician's charm. The open-minded enthusiasm of young people invigorates him, he says. He likes them because they are not "tribal" about politics the way their parents were.

"Cynicism hasn't pervaded the next generation and younger voters are by instinct more optimistic and less tainted," he says. The overture from from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake - the ring-tone of his mobile phone - interrupts the conversation. A Tory apparatchik is asking for his passport number. Tomorrow Dr Fox is off to the United States to represent the Tory party at President George Bush's annual state of the union address.

He should feel at home among the Republicans, whom, with his polished political style, he resembles not only physically but ideologically as well.

Dr Fox is a right-wing Thatcherite who favours the free market, birching for violent criminals and Euroscepticism. He cannot understand why the Government "hates the private sector in health care". Although he is cagey about his Washington schedule, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the MP, who in 1985 went to the US to learn Republican Party campaigning techniques, will be discussing tactics on how to unseat the Labour party.

He is also likely to be tapping American minds for what to do with the university system. For Dr Fox is on a mission to find a policy for the Tory party to adopt. Although they are set on opposing the Government's Bill introducing top-up fees, the Conservatives seem to have little idea about other options.

Dr Fox says his front-benchers plan to travel the globe to find a model that will bring in enough money for British universities and not deter qualified students, including the poorest, from attending. "We have started the most wide-ranging review of education that [has been] done in Britain," he says. "I think we need to look at what's happening across a range of other systems. We need to look at the experience of how other countries work. We will look at how we get different levels and types of funding into higher education, we will look at what other models there are."

Dr Fox insists the Tories are "opposed to top-up fees" as set out by Labour, but refuses to say whether he opposes tuition fees for students in principle. Asked if the party would repeal an Act bringing in top-up fees if Mr Blair got it through Parliament, Dr Fox is cagey. "That would depend on what ultimately becomes our settled view before the election. We cannot allow our position to be defined by what Government does."

He is limiting Tory opposition to the Government's "present" proposals for top-up fees and insists he has an "open mind" about how to fund universities. In fact, his mind is so open about fees that he has not ruled out adopting the American system where students pay massive fees and end up with huge debts, although poorer students are eligible for big bursaries. "It's a very different system. We do really need to have a look at what works elsewhere," he said. The Conservatives have been accused of opportunism for opposing the Government's Bill with no better system in mind.

Dr Fox acknowledges that the party cannot fight the next election without well-reasoned, costed and coherent proposals. "We will have to have settled answers before we produce our manifesto. When you get to an election you have to have that alternative set out," he said. But for now, the Tories are content to make Mr Blair's life difficult by opposing the top-up fees Bill which, with the backing of Labour rebels, could deliver the Prime Minister's first defeat in the House of Commons. Mr Howard's aggressive instincts - a sharp contrast to the limp leadership of Iain Duncan Smith - has revived spirits in the long-suffering Tory ranks and started talk of an electoral revival.

"It is genuinely difficult to overstate the change in morale," Dr Fox said. "It is very significant because I think that electoral recoveries are preceded by two things: one is an intellectual renaissance and the second a return of self-confidence. We have seen under Michael a renewed intellectual certainty and a resurgence of self-confidence."

Yet, despite his talk of an electoral revival, the new Tory chairman is reluctant to place a bet on his party winning the next election. "I never bet on anything," he said. "I am not a betting man." Why is he so reluctant to gamble on the electoral odds? The Conservative chairman is not afraid of taking on dangerous sporting challenges. He has already abseiled down the front of Tate Modern and walked across the wings of a biplane.

He is even now planning a fiendish stunt off the coast of South Africa. He wants to be lowered into the ocean in a cage to be among the sharks, as if the chairmanship of the Conservative party were not enough for him.

CV

Date of birth: 22 September 1961

Place of birth: Lanarkshire

Education: St Bride's High School; University of Glasgow

Employment:

1983-1984 National vice-chairman of the Scottish Young Conservatives;

1987-1991 GP in Beaconsfield

1992 Member of Parliament for Woodspring;

1993-1994 Parliamentary private secretary to Michael Howard;

1994-1996 Tory whip;

1996-1997 Parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Foreign Office;

1997-1999 Opposition spokesman on constitutional affairs;

1999: Shadow Health Secretary;

2003: Co-chairman of Conservative Party

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