The making of blue Peter: In the last two years, Peter Lilley has shot from obscurity to Euro-baiting stardom at Tory party conferences. Is the minister who begat the Child Support Agency as right as he's painted?

Mark Lawson
Saturday 02 April 1994 23:02

THERE has always been an air of mystery about Peter Lilley. People have tended to ask: 'Who is he?' 'What is he?'

In the early years of his political career, the first question - 'Who?' - took its most basic form. Although a member of the Cambridge generation which transferred in bulk to the Conservative Cabinet table in the 1980s - Clarke, Howard, Gummer, Lamont - Lilley alone had made no public mark in college, too frightened through shyness to debate. He was 40 before he reached the House of Commons in 1983, and was late among his intake to make his maiden speech.

When he entered the Cabinet in 1990, his name had, virtually uniquely in a leaky age, not appeared in any of the newspaper form guides. Throughout his early period at the Department of Trade and Industry, he regularly showed up as the least-known Cabinet minister in public recognition polls. Two years into his tenancy, a Tory-supporting newspaper ran an article asking whether there really was a Secretary of State for Trade. Presumably on the basis of making do with what you hadn't got, each of his early speeches to the party conference included an 'Invisible Man' shtick. His lack of splash became his trademark. Heseltine had hair and oratory. Clarke had jazz and fags. Lilley had anonymity.

In 1994, obscurity is no longer his problem. On ITV's Spitting Image - a maker of far more political celebrities than Radio 4's Yesterday In Parliament - Lilley was accorded one of the highest-profile, if nastiest, satires: as a Nazi commandant. For the last two years at Tory Party conference, Lilley's speeches have received the loudest roars in the hall, and it was on his sound-bites - about single mothers, socialists and Europeans on the make - that the tabloid press most lip-smackingly snacked.

No newspaper needed to ask whether there really was a Secretary of State for Social Security. Once too shy for student politics, Peter Lilley had become, in the allegedly grown-up version, a coconut-shy. In February 1993, lunching with Conservative students at the London School of Economics, he was pelted with eggs, flour and orange juice, on behalf, he was yellingly informed, of pensioners and the unemployed. Earlier this year, the door of his London home was daubed with slogans criticising the Child Support Agency, the controversial make-stray-dads-pay scheme which was one of Lilley's initiatives.

Few now could reasonably ask, in the simple sense of name and face: 'Who?' But questions are still asked about Peter Lilley. His life shows a trail of strange bedfellows. One of the most rabid Tory opponents of European integration - 'Frankly, I would have preferred no deal at Maastricht,' he once said - he is a French-

speaking Normandy chateau-owner. Regarded as a doctrinaire Thatcherite right-winger, he has belied the label in at least four ways. He has voted consistently against capital punishment. He was the first of Mrs Thatcher's Cabinet Praetorian Guard to abandon her during her final passion in November 1990. He has fought in the annual spending rounds to maintain the DSS budget, the Tory Right's most cursed purse. And, in February of this year, when John Major was experiencing one of his worst spasms of unpopularity, Lilley argued at a dinner of right-wingers that Major, whom this section of the party detests, was the only man to win the next election.

There is a thing that Conservative right-wingers have tended to say, when comparing Peter Lilley with that other Cabinet minister of the same generation and ideological persuasion, Michael Howard: you know where you are with Lilley, they boom, whereas with Howard you do not. From the outside, though, you might worry about going in to the jungle with either of them. Howard is slippery. But Lilley is mysterious.

IN MERE biographical terms, the answer to who Peter Lilley is, is as follows. Peter Bruce Lilley was born in Hayes, Kent, in 1943, the son of a BBC personnel officer, the distant descendent of Dutch immigrants to England 300 years ago. At Dulwich College, Lilley came out as a Conservative, finding his mainly left-wing class-mates 'negative'. At Clare College, Cambridge, he switched from natural sciences to read economics, spending the first six years after graduation in 1966 as an economic adviser to developing countries.

In the Seventies, Lilley began to establish a reputation, through membership of the Bow Group and his writings, as a Tory intellectual. In these ruined times, this concept is often now regarded as an oxymoron, but Lilley can point to the evidence of having survived co-writing a book - The Delusion of Incomes Policy (1977) - with Samuel Brittan, the economics writer who is famous for a rather broad definition of the fools whom he declines to suffer.

A fabled brain was, though, far from a guarantee of a Conservative seat, at that or any other period. There were apparently doubts about Lilley's anti-hanging stance, about his then ahead-of-the-game Friedmanite economics, about his lack of a wife. In 1979, Lilley married Gail Ansell, a dress designer turned painter of still lifes. She is regarded in Tory circles as vivacious though somewhat highly strung. Trouble with allergies requires her to use hypo-allergenic cosmetics and even special nail varnish. They have no children.

Lilley accumulated the money cushion Conservatives traditionally require before serving their nation, as an oil analyst with the stock-

broker W Greenwell, which later became Greenwell Montagu and bought out Lilley's shareholding during the City's Big Bang in 1986. Three years earlier, Lilley had been elected as MP for St Albans, a Hertfordshire seat, which includes the Volvo-and-labrador commuter enclave of Harpenden, made famous by the comedian Eric Morecambe, who lived there. It is also where I grew up. The word from my contacts in the area is that Lilley is regarded as a diligent constituency MP, though rather sinister. The politics in this area have traditionally polarised between staunch Tory and soggy Liberal, the former outnumbering the latter by about 2 to 1. A recent brief flurry of Labour support merely ensured that, in 1992, Lilley became one of few Tories to increase his majority: from 10,881 to 16,404.

The member for St Albans is a church-going Anglo-Catholic, though without the media rent-a-sermon tendencies of the Widdecombes and Gummers. In 1990, though, he told a conference of Anglican clerics, who had accused free market economics of encouraging greed, that: 'Greed was not created by any pattern of ownership. It dates from the Fall of man . . .'

Politically, Lilley had spent his formative years at Westminster worshipping at the church of a woman high priestess, beginning his rise as PPS to Thatcher's then ally, Nigel Lawson, who subsequently asked for Lilley as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Lilley helped to build Thatcherism's parliamentary temple: the No Turning Back Group. In 1990, he expressed a hope that Thatcherism would dominate the political agenda 'for the rest of the century and beyond'.

Such beliefs helped him to leapfrog several more visible peers, when Nicholas Ridley presented European integration as a kind of bureaucratic Nazism in an interview with the Spectator and was required to resign from the DTI. Watching her back, and the balance of her Cabinet, Thatcher wanted a true believer. Lilley, who in nearly all political tests had stained the litmus paper brightest blue, came in, at 47, as Mr Who? He tactfully declined to answer reporters' questions on his views of Mr Ridley's views on Europe, although the Tory right was generally content that Cheddar had been replaced by Cheddar rather than by chalk or Jarlsberg.

The DTI had become a career death-trap. There had been seven Secretaries of State in as many years. When Lilley hung his favourite portrait of General de Gaulle on the office wall, Britain was deep in recession and businessmen urgently wanted evidence of correction. Lilley could only provide new irritations. What became known as the 'Lilley doctrine' - a ruling that all attempted takeovers of British companies by state-owned foreign firms would be referred to the Monopolies Commission - was regarded as having more to do with the Secretary of State's views on Europe than with economic policy.

What would prove to be Mrs Thatcher's terminal troubles had begun. It was generally assumed that Lilley would be one of the last to lose faith, going down lashed to the Thatcherite mast. But Lady Thatcher's memoirs record that, after her failure to win on the first leadership ballot on Tuesday, 20 November 1990, her Private Office telephoned Lilley, inviting him to add some right-wing beef to her reply to a Labour motion of no confidence two days later. Lilley replied that there was no point, as she was finished. Lady Thatcher writes: 'Coming from such a source, this upset me more than I can say.'

The intricacies of how exactly Mrs Thatcher went - who was where, who talked to whom - are by now of interest only to a few superannuated politicians. It suffices to say that Lilley's behaviour seems to have been noticeably more

pragmatic than that of such natural right-wing bedfellows as Michael Portillo, John Redwood and Norman Tebbit. The minister told Thatcher, in her private meetings with ministers on the eve of her resignation, that the 'game is up' and took the same line, against die-hard denial, at a meeting of the No Turning Back Group. He was also one of the first to telephone John Major and urge him to stand, subsequently working on Major's campaign team.

The new Prime Minister kept Lilley at the DTI, but he had a rough 1991. His temper kept making headlines. Echoing his old mentor, Nigel Lawson, he accused the Today programme presenter, Brian Redhead, of being a Labour supporter. His dismissive remark that a row over exports of nuclear material to Iraq before the Gulf War was a 'fuss over nothing' looked nave as further details emerged. Sleeker senior ministers were drafted in to charm Britain's business leaders in advance of the coming election. When that day arrived, in 1992, few expected Lilley to survive beyond it.

In fact, the victorious John Major sent him to Social Security, where you get to spend the largest departmental budget - pounds 70m - but with nothing to show for it except moans from the recipients and the political Left that it is too little, and from the political Right that it is too much. This appointment was generally regarded as equivalent to Mary Whitehouse becoming madam of a brothel. There were two theories as to the move's meaning. One was that Major wished to humiliate the Thatcherites by making their man eat ideological dirt. The other was that, because of Britain's near-

bankruptcy, he needed to cut welfare expenditure and had sent Lilley in to do it.

As John Major's authority diminished, during the rows over the negotiation of the Maastricht Treaty, a third explanation offered itself, which now seems the most plausible: that Major was terrified of the Right of his party, and had hoped for approbation by sending one of its wildest animals into a field which that section of the party regarded as enemy territory.

Consequently, as the Right became more suspicious of Major over Europe, Lilley and other right-wing ministers gradually acquired the insurance of virtual immovability. Their sacking would activate a split. Lilley used this protection to behave in a way which would have been problematical under a prime minister with more conventional powers of patronage. During the Maastricht negotiations, he attended a meeting of Euro rebels. At the 1992 and 1993 party conferences, he appeared to be openly playing to the intolerant and dogmatic flank of the party.

If the content of Lilley's speeches suggested one private strategy, the style revealed another. Although powerful in one-to-one interviews - his mauling of the ex-Newsnight presenter, Francine Stock, is thought to have contributed to her failure to become established as one of the show's regular hosts - Lilley was a poor speaker to large audiences. In the last two years, however, he has deliberately worked on his oratory, with the assistance of a young Saatchi & Saatchi executive, Steven Hikon. His aim was set-piece moments appealing more to Joe Six-Pack than Sam Brittan.

At Brighton in 1992, the crowd-pleaser was a parody of The Mikado, itemising those whom the Lord High Executioner of the Welfare State wished to eliminate:

I've got a little list

Of benefit offenders who I'll soon be rooting out

And who never would be missed

They never would be missed

There's those who make up bogus claims

In half a dozen names

And councillors who draw the dole

To run left-wing campaigns . . .

Young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing list

And dads who won't support the kids of ladies they've just kissed

And I haven't even mentioned all those sponging socialists

They'd none of them be missed. In a conference where they laugh at Jeffrey Archer's jokes, this was almost Dorothy Parker, and anyway, the real point was not the prosody but that, for the delegates, the lines rhymed with the times. Building on his new reputation as a wit, Lilley brought more gags

to last year's conference in Blackpool. His

initial model here seemed to be Les Dawson, for he became the first senior Tory in recorded history to tell a mother-in-law joke: 'When

I went to the DTI, my mother-in-law complained that Gail had married a man who went in to trade. Imagine her feelings now I'm on Social Security]'

But the true presiding comic spirit of the Blackpool text seemed to many to be less Les Dawson than Bernard Manning, the comedian of racial stereotype. This year, the set-piece section of the speech was:

But (European) Community rules have opened up a new abuse. Benefit tourism . . . People travelling round Europe pretending to look for work . . . No so much a Cook's Tour as a Crook's Tour . . . Just imagine the advice you might find in a European phrasebook for Benefit Tourists . . .

Wo ist das Hotel? . . . Where is the Housing Department?

Ou est le bureau de change? . . . Where do I cash my benefit cheque?

Mio bambino e in Italia . . . Send child benefit to my family in Italy

Je suis un citoyen de l'Europe . . . Give me my benefits or I'll take you to the European Court. But next year's edition will have just one phrase - Ou est la societe de something for nothing? Sorry, Jacques, Britain's branch is closed.

Newsprint, however, does not do enough injustice to the performance. You need videotape for the full sense of the number of English sit-coms like Duty Free and Don't Drink The Water] Lilley must have watched to develop the accents and gestures for each hapless Euro- character. More seriously, if not more subtly, Lilley warned of the European Community's wish to impose on Britain 'policies made by foreigners, for foreigners, which only foreigners can change'. The audience swooned. Sir Edward Heath called for the minister to be sacked. The leader of the Christian Democrats in Europe called the speech 'offensive'.

This was the new Peter Lilley. And yet the mysteries remained. At the department he actually runs, he has so far thrown few scraps to the Right, fighting hard against reductions in his budget. He distanced himself from a pamphlet by his own No Turning Back Group, calling for all state benefits to be means-tested. There was, admittedly, a new 'objective' medical test for those claiming disability benefit, and the Child Support Agency, which, in making absentee fathers pay for their children, combines reduction of state pay-outs with the smack of moral punishment. Yet the controversy about the CSA has resulted not from general hostility to the principle - which is in theory even broadly feminist - but from the zeal of those administering the system, and the pressure on women to name fathers. More than one suicide has been attributed to draconian maintenance demands.

And, just when John Major was looking on the way out, who made the strongest speech of support? Peter Lilley. You know where you are with Lilley, they say. Well, I didn't.

THE PORTRAIT of Charles de Gaulle hung in the Secretary of State's office, where lush pink drapes were tied back to show the now standard-issue floor-length bomb-proof net curtains: the two contrasting fabrics symbolising the combination of splendour and terror in modern political office. There was a view on to Whitehall and the ornamental gates outside Number 10 Downing Street. One of Lilley's favourite jokes is the apparent Civil Service jape by which Environment has the ugliest offices, the Treasury the costliest and Social Security the most luxurious.

Peter Lilley is blond and compact, an unlikely 50, and with a voice as soft and occasionally faltering as a teenager at a first job interview. He sat in a nest of chairs and sofas at one end of the improbably long office. The usual slip-

catchers positioned for ministerial interviews - a policy adviser and a press officer - flanked their man.

'How difficult is it coming to work every

day as a member of such an unpopular government?'

'Not terribly difficult. I travel by bus and tube more than most of my colleagues . . .'

For a moment, I thought he had misunderstood my question - 'What's it like coming to work . . ?' - as a query about transport conditions but then I saw the point he was making. That it was quite safe for him, as a minister in the current government, to mix with the general public.

'You don't get abused . . .?'

'No. Once, on a bus. And that was by someone with a fruity middle-class voice . . .'

'But people talk to you . . .?'

'Yes. They come up, if the train is late, and say please tell your colleagues that this is a regular feature of Southern Region, or whatever. The interesting thing is that, though we are shown up as far from popular in opinion polls, there is not the aggro in the reaction you get that there was in mid-terms in past parliaments, or that perhaps there was a year ago. I'm not saying people are full of suppressed enthusiasm, and it's going to be our task to get people out in the district and European elections, but they are more willing to be convinced - well, perhaps that's too optimistic - but they're not hostile. There's no door-slamming . . .'

This sounded unexpectedly gentle: people politely asking Mr Lilley if he could make the trains run on time. Perhaps he is lucky with, or choosy about the routes he uses. On the lines I travel, the general sense is of a government in unprecedented crisis: shaken by the nearly weekly resignations over matters of sexual or financial conduct, following the launch of John Major's 'Back to Basics' initiative. Indeed, one of the lost colleagues - the Environment minister Tim Yeo, who resigned over an extra-

marital 'love child' - was widely regarded as in part a victim of the campaign against single mothers begun by Peter Lilley.

'Does the 'Back to Basics' campaign still exist? And what does it mean to you . . .?'

'Yes, it does still exist. And it means that we should be concentrating on things that are of basic importance to ordinary people, and the values that Conservatives and the general public have . . . Prejudging your next question: is there a moral dimension in it? There's a moral dimension in everything. It's a sad weakness in British life to assume that morality and sex are the same. In terms of my department, we have to decide where responsibility lies, and responsibility is a moral concept. We, thus, have to decide, for example, who is responsible for supporting children? Is it mother, father, is it both, is it the taxpayer, and in what proportions? But that isn't quite the same as laying down a list of rules about people's personal lives . . .'

'But it clearly did happen that 'Back to Basics' became associated with personal sexual morality, particularly of politicians. How did that happen?'

'I think a number of newspapers realised they could take advantage of a public discourse where morality and sex are related and move the gossip page on to the front page . . .'

'But many people in your party wanted 'Back to Basics' to mean that. For example,

you look at Tim Yeo's constituency party,

who decided he should resign. There are people in your party who want 'Back to Basics' to mean individual sexual morality . . .'

'Yes. I'm sure there are. But that's up to them in terms of their relationships with their Members of Parliament . . .'

'Does the atmosphere there is at the moment add to the pressure of being a politician?'

'You mean, do we have to ration the number of mistresses we have at any one moment?'

He laughed. 'My wife says it's absolutely

wonderful. She now feels much more relaxed.'

'Did she feel un-relaxed before?'

'You'd have to ask her . . .'

Subsequently, I did ask her, but Mrs Lilley declined to be interviewed for this piece.

'But she thinks,' said her husband, 'it's a very good thing that they get their come-

uppance if they stray. . .'

'So the answer to that is that the mood hasn't increased the pressure?'

'That's not so much 'Have I stopped beating my wife?' as 'Have I stopped meeting my mistress?' I'm sure it does add to the pressure on many politicians, and make them think twice . . .' I think we could conclude from this exchange that here was a man who was either a very good actor or was genuinely not worried about being involved in a scandal with a woman.

We moved on to the subject of the man with whom he had recently been closely linked politically - to the surprise of many.

'In a speech in February, you told a meeting of the right-wing 92 Group: 'John Major is the only man who can lead a united party to victory at the next election.' Do you still believe that?'

'Yes . . .'

'Why did you make that speech?'

'Numerous journalists have heard me utter that sentiment in private in the last year, so it's not terribly surprising that it came out in public. I was part of John Major's campaign team. He's always had the support of me and 'the Right'. There's a lot of misguided comment in the press that somehow he's threatened by the Right. On the contrary, he's widened his support from the Right to the whole party. He's the best person to lead us . . .'

'Would you classify John Major as a right-winger . . .?'

'It's better to let people classify themselves. It's clear he's the best person to unite the party. You don't necessarily assume - or want - that the party should consist of clones of whatever one's own view is. I don't take that view of the Conservative Party . . .'

'Is he the best person for the right-wing per se? Or because, if he went, a left-winger would take over?'

'He's the best person because he's the best person . . .'

'But, when you supported his leadership bid, you believed that he was the heir to Thatcherism . . .'

'Mm. The best person to build on Mrs Thatcher's achievements . . .'

'So did she. Does she still . . .'

'I hope so . . .'

'And do you?'

'Yes . . .'

And that was as far as Lilley would go on the question of his new super-loyalty to his teetering leader, and his frankly incredible claim that Lady Thatcher still regarded Major as the heir to Thatcherism. The most plausible explanation for this curious strategy was that the Right wished to shore up the incumbent until it had a plausible heir of its own: probably Lilley's close friend, Michael Portillo, with, in his dreams, Lilley as Chancellor, free to take a robust line on European matters.

'Some people regarded your speech at last year's conference as racist . . .'

'Tosh. And not only tosh, but offensive tosh. The only bit I did on race was condemning the Liberal Democrats for the (allegedly racist campaign) leaflets in Tower Hamlets . . '

'But what people mean is the stereotypes of foreigners coming over here and using the benefit system . . .'

'Oh, I see. Well, if you examine what I'm doing, I'm putting sensible words in the mouths of foreigners, which, when translated into our benefit rules, become stupid. This is an attack on our benefit rules . . .'

'Not on foreigners?'

'Not on foreigners . . .'

'And there was no element in that section of the speech of sending little signals of your view of Europeans . . .'

'I don't have a negative view of Europeans. It would be odd if I did, because I spend rather more time in Europe, on the continent, than most of my colleagues . . .'

This was a reference to the manor house the Lilleys own in Normandy. A standard defence of those accused of racism to Africans has always been: some of my best friends are black. Similarly, when charged with intolerance towards Europeans, Mr Lilley's response is usually along the lines of: one of my best homes is French.

From Lilley's alleged attitude towards foreigners - Benefit Tourists - we moved on to Benefit Residents. It was nearly two years since his arrival at the DSS had been regarded by many as the funeral of the cradle-to-grave Welfare State, yet Killer Lilley had not yet shown his teeth. Perhaps he had a longer-term strategy.

'In ten years' time, what state benefits would you like to see still universally provided?'

'We are reviewing the Welfare State area by area. Whether benefits should be universal or means-tested has to be decided benefit by benefit and case by case. One thing is absolutely certain and that is that the basic state pension will not be means-tested, because it provides a basic platform on which people can build. If you start means-testing it, you are penalising precisely those people who do build on it . . .'

'And child benefit, you've guaranteed for the present parliament, but that's generally regarded as the most vulnerable . . .'

'We haven't reached a long-term consideration on that . . .'

'But would you accept it's in a different

position from the pension in terms of its

security . . .?'

'It's the only one that people regularly lobby me to means-test. I'm slightly sceptical of those who do, because they mostly claim it, or their wives do. I point out to them it's not obligatory to claim it. What is obvious to me is, whatever the structure of support in this area, it would be very strange not to have a recognition in either tax or benefit system of the cost of having a family. Originally we had tax allowances and family benefit, and the two were brought together . . . and paid directly to the wife. If you took that away, or took it away from a large proportion of the population, you'd be in the odd position of recognising the cost of adults remaining alive but not of children. I do start with a presumption that the cost of bringing up children should be recognised somehow . . .'

This was a cautious answer. Certainly, it treated children more as a financial than an emotional matter, but this was perhaps understandable in a childless man. From money paid to mothers for bringing up their children, we turned to the controversial area of money paid by fathers for not bringing them up: the Child Support Agency, which had popularised (among divorced or departed men) Spitting Image-

style jokes about the knock on the door in the middle of the night from the SS.

'Was the CSA a mistake?'

'I don't think it should be a surprise that it was controversial . . . The area that the media focused on was the potential problem with women identifying the father. I was confident that would not be a major problem. But it seemed self-evident to me that if you were requiring absent fathers to pay significant amounts, that would create a backlash. Now we discovered that some payments were unnecessarily harsh. We've moved to alter that, particularly to bring phasing (of payments) in for those who've got second families . . . But it will remain controversial because it involves people paying significant sums that were previously paid by the tax-payer or the single mother . . .'

There is a current tradition that every Tory minister interviewed is asked whether - and when - they wish to be Prime Minister. Ladbrokes was quoting 66-1 on Lilley, so I asked the question in its cruellest form.

'At what stage did you admit to yourself that you'd never be Prime Minister?'

'I think out of 650 people in the House of Commons, there are only 20 who've admitted that to themselves . . .'

'And are you one of the 20 . . .?'

'I don't know. That's an interesting question. But, judging from the response Kenneth Clarke's recent open reply got, not one that merits an open reply . . .'

'In general, I'm interested in whether people ever admit to themselves that they won't be PM until they're actually carried out of the House of Commons . . .'

'You may assume that very few do

admit it . . .'-

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