Norman Tebbit: True blue torch-bearer of the Tory right

From 'Chingford skinhead' to octogenarian blogger of Britain's decline, the Conservative peer remains a man of public passion and private pain. Matthew Bell meets Norman Tebbit

Norman Tebbit turns 80 on Tuesday, but he might as well be 100. Not because the "semi-house-trained polecat" is showing any signs of slowing down, but because he's one of those timeless obelisks on the political landscape who's always been there – a Tony Benn or an Ann Widdecombe. Like a church marooned in a housing estate, he is a reminder of a disappeared age, when politicians held strong beliefs and weren't embarrassed to pronounce them.

Some of us were still bobbing about on space hoppers when Tebbit stepped down as chairman of the Conservative Party in 1987. It's nearly 20 years since he gave up his seat of Chingford, in 1992. Back then, he was portrayed by Spitting Image as a skinhead in leathers who beat up politicians for Margaret Thatcher. Today, with the exception of Nigel Lawson, Tebbit is the only member of the 1981 cabinet still engaged in public life, still carrying the torch of true-blue Conservatism, which David Cameron snuffed out and replaced with a tree.

He doesn't have an office in the House of Lords any more, so we set off into a labyrinth of Wilton carpet and cranky lifts to find the broom cupboard they call the "media room". "I'm not getting any less grumpy," he says. In fact, he loves being interviewed: "What old man wouldn't love the opportunity to sound off for an hour?"

He's clearly had practice. His voice is quiet and lilting, and sounds a lot like Tony from The Archers. Despite a reputation for holding forthright views, he still has a ministerial knack for speaking in perfectly constructed sentences while never quite answering the question. So when you ask if he disapproves of the bombing of Libya, as he did in 1986, he cautiously reels off the pros and cons. Ask him for a frank assessment of Cameron, and he veers into a rant about how wanting to protect British interests is not a right-wing concept.

But of any politician, his views are among the best-known. He rails against "the god of multiculturalism", and his hatred for Europe has kept him going for years. He is paid to write a blog for The Daily Telegraph, which he enjoys, as writing has always been one of his greatest pleasures, and he still thinks of himself as "a wordsmith". Clearly his readers like him too, as each of his blog posts attracts hundreds of comments. Part of his blog's success – apart from the forthright views – may come from his old-fashioned habit of replying to many of his readers.

As we thrash through immigration (bad), education (terrible) and crime (worse than ever), it becomes clear there's little point trying to challenge a credo that hasn't changed for 50 years. He backs up all his arguments with facts and citations from select committee reports, but the negativity is a little relentless. When he steps off the train into London, doesn't he see an exciting and creative powerhouse, fuelled in part by the injection of foreign blood and money? No, he says, he worries that Londoners are being pushed out of their own city. But weren't most Londoners once immigrants themselves?

Anyway, he's not racist, he says, and he certainly disapproves of the BNP. He almost reels out the immortal line "most of my friends are black" when he says how much he admires Bishops John Sentamu and Michael Nazir-Ali. And not all immigration is bad: he likes Poles, as we would have lost the Battle of Britain without them. But what about the Nigerian man operating the lift we just stepped out of – what would Tebbit have him do? "As long as he is integrated into the country – that's fine."

His main concern is the effect of cultures, such as Islam, that are "antipathetic" to our own. He makes an intriguing argument about Islam's need for an overhaul similar to the Reformation, which helped to free Christianity from dogma and ritual. "We stopped trying to burn people at the stake for saying the earth went round the sun. Islam needs a reformation in order to liberate themselves – to power ahead in science and technology, where they have lagged behind."

The only time his well-rehearsed patter winds down is when the conversation turns to his domestic life. In 1984, Margaret Tebbit was left paralysed and confined to a wheelchair by an IRA bomb at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. She and Norman were trapped under rubble for four hours, but while Norman made a recovery, Margaret has needed round-the-clock care ever since. He talks a lot about the Christian faith, but has he forgiven the IRA for what they did?

"No. Of course not. Of course not," he says. His voice has dropped to a whisper, and a few unbearably poignant seconds pass before he continues. "One has to repent before one can be forgiven. They haven't repented. The cheap little creature that actually planted the bomb seeks to justify it. Those who procured him, paid him and organised it haven't repented. It may be that in his wisdom, God will forgive them, but I wouldn't have minded bringing forward the date of the interview. I'm not sure how good a Christian I am anyway."

Twenty-seven years have passed, and the Tebbits have learned to live with Margaret's disability. After much physiotherapy, she can use her hand to operate an electric wheelchair. A few years ago they moved from Sussex to a house in the centre of Bury St Edmunds so that Margaret could go shopping by herself. They employ two full-time carers, at £400 per week each, plus expenses, which is one of the reasons Norman continues to work, although they did receive a lump sum from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority.

The Brighton bomb took its toll on Tebbit's career too. He stepped down from frontline politics much sooner than he would have liked because of the demands of caring for his wife. And after Margaret Thatcher was toppled in 1990, many expected Tebbit to stand against Heseltine and Major to succeed her as prime minister. Does he regret never making it to the top?

"I suppose it has to be a regret, when you're in a position when the conventional wisdom was that either Heseltine or I would follow Thatcher. So yes, it was a regret." Would he have made a good prime minister? "I would have done a lot of things differently [to Major], but who can say?" At every subsequent election he has urged the party to move to the right, though when Michael Howard tried that in 2005 it failed spectacularly. "That's because the election campaign was a disaster," he says, pulling a wry smile when I point out that it was run by David Cameron.

One reason why Tebbit thrived under Thatcher could be that they shared a similar background. He was also one of few people who dared stand up to her, and tell her when she was wrong: "I can recollect at least one occasion when I walked back from No 10 to my department when I was not sure if I would still be secretary of state by the time I arrived at my department. But I was never frightened of her. The most she could do was sack me. I didn't see any point in not standing up to her. Either your advice is useful or it isn't. She didn't always take my advice, but that was her privilege."

When he looks back over his career, his over-riding impression is of luck. Born in Ponders End in north London, he won a place at Edmonton Grammar School, before joining the Financial Times as a trainee aged 16. He enjoyed National Service so much that he gave up journalism to train as a pilot with the RAF. He once crashed a plane into a cornfield and was lucky to escape with his life, though he still doesn't quite know how it happened. Later he joined BOAC, which became British Airways. His good luck led him into politics, when he was unexpectedly selected as the candidate for Epping and won in 1970.

And yet, for all his good fortune, his assessment of the world remains relentlessly downbeat. "One of the things that really depresses me is that the kid who is born where I was born has got a less good chance of making his way up," he says. "I didn't call my memoirs Upwardly Mobile for nothing. I find it very depressing that upward mobility has fallen – and for that to have happened under a Labour Party, under a socialist party, is a really terrible thing to have happened."

What if he hadn't won that place at grammar school, or been selected as a pilot, or an MP? What if luck hadn't been so kind? "It's difficult to say. I suppose I would have found some other way to try to assert myself." He might have had to get on his bike. "But I would have been a totally different guy."

Curriculum vitae

1931 Born 29 March in Ponders Green, Middlesex. His father was at times unemployed, which led Tebbit famously to say: "He didn't riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking 'til he found it."

1942 Passes the 11-plus, landing him a place at Edmonton County School.

1947 Joins the Financial Times as a trainee reporter.

1949 Does National Service and is selected to train as a pilot with the RAF.

1953 Joins BOAC as a pilot, marries Margaret. Go on to have three children.

1970 Elected MP for Epping.

1974 Elected for Chingford.

1978 His long-term sparring partner Michael Foot calls him a "semi-house-trained polecat" during a debate.

1981 Joins the Cabinet in charge of employment.

1983 Moves to Trade and Industry.

1984 During the party conference in Brighton, he and his wife are injured by the IRA bomb.

1985 Becomes chairman of the Conservative Party.

1990 Proposes the "cricket test", saying: "A large proportion of Britain's Asian population fail to pass the cricket test. Which side do they cheer for?... Are you harking back to where you came from or where you are?"

1992 Stands down as an MP so he can dedicate more time to his wife. Is made Baron Tebbit of Chingford.

2005 Backs David Davis for Tory party leadership.

2009 Publishes The Game Cookbook, a surprise publishing mini-sensation.

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