Former employment secretary Lord Tebbit refuses to be left on the shelf when it comes to giving his opinions. Political editor Daniel Wainwright reports:
The bright red ministerial briefcases on the top shelf look almost as good as new, with the exception of one that has a couple of strips of masking tape.
Their owner is someone who has certainly refused to be left on the shelf when it comes to giving his opinions.
Norman Tebbit continues to speak out on the sort of issues that many Tory grassroots supporters wish David Cameron had thought more about in 2010, when he did not quite win the general election.
But at 82, Lord Tebbit is a great political survivor – in more ways than one. He and his wife Lady Margaret Tebbit were injured in the IRA bomb blast at the Tory conference in 1984. It hospitalised Norman and left Margaret confined to a wheelchair.
Their home, an attractive townhouse in Bury St Edmunds, is adapted with a lift and carers look after her needs.
When the issue of gay marriage came up a few months ago, Lord Tebbit’s outspoken remarks provided one of the more colourful aspects of the debate. He said it would make it possible for him to marry his own son or for a lesbian queen to accede the throne and provide an heir through artificial insemination. He has since satisfied himself that the succession laws do not make that possible.
“I object strongly to a Bill in Parliament which changes the meaning of words that have had the same meaning for very, very, very many years,” he says and gets up from his study armchair to fetch a dictionary
“This tells me that ‘a husband is a married man, especially in relation to his wife’. The legislation now says a husband is a man or a woman, married to another man or woman.
“I kind of object to the arbitrary usurpation of language. The fact that one has a power does not mean that it is necessarily right to use that power. That’s what the change from an absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy was all about.”
The legislation is blamed on the Quad – David Cameron, Chancellor George Osborne, Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander – not discussing matters with the cabinet enough.
“The gay marriage decision was publicly made after a quarter of an hour’s discussion in the cabinet that morning,” Lord Tebbit says. “It did not allow it to be crawled through and debugged and thought through, which also meant that not everyone was committed to it. The proposal did not have the full consent of the cabinet.”
One thing the coalition Cabinet could not agree on was whether or not to give Britain a referendum on the European Union.
It ended up having to be a Tory backbencher who introduced a Bill to enshrine David Cameron’s promise of a vote into law.
But first the Prime Minister wants to get Brussels to agree to a new relationship between the UK and the continent. Lord Tebbit believes it is time to leave.
“I take the view that we should remain an independent, self-governing country, or even, one might put it, that we should be an independent self-governing country,” he says. “Therefore we should not remain in an organisation that has the objective of being a single state of which we would be a province. So for us to remain would require a fundamental change at the very heart of the European Union treaties. I don’t see that change coming.”
That does not sound as though he has much faith in the Prime Minister to get Britain a better deal, I say. Lord Tebbit replies: “I’m not optimistic.”
The coalition with the pro-EU Lib Dems, he says, should never have been formed and Lord Tebbit believes it is only a question of when, rather than if, there is a divorce.
So what is it that the Tories need to do to win a majority next time around?
“There is a grave confusion in things that sound alike but are very different,” he says.
“That is the common ground and the centre ground. As you move, the centre ground moves as well. I’ve agreed with him (he points towards the photographer) that his view was correct, not mine, and in doing so I’ve lost touch with my friends out there. That’s what went wrong in the 2010 election. It was predicated on the idea that to deal with the Lib Dem problem, taking our votes, we had to move towards them.
“But every time we moved towards them we were giving them added credence.
“We were suggesting they were more correct than we were and we were losing touch with our own supporters. That was the basic flaw in the campaign.”
He believes that the proposed referendum on Britain’s place in the European Union is a chance to draw a line in the sand for the Lib Dems to cross. He sets out a scenario where Nick Clegg will be asked to either support appointing a minister for the purpose of renegotiating Britain’s relationship with the union, or leaving the coalition.
“That is partly because the EU is one of the issues on which one can establish the common ground as opposed to that fatal place, the centre ground,” Lord Tebbit says. “There are a huge number of Labour supporters who think we should not be in the European Union. That was the policy of the Labour party not long ago.
“You straight away have a common ground policy. The others are immigration and welfare.
“Those most hawkish about welfare are not the people who live in big houses with gravel drives and two Volvos and three au pairs, they’re the guys who drive lorries or buses and come home every evening having worked pretty hard to look over the garden fence to see the chap next door still sitting in his garden having not done any work with a similar standard of living.”
He accepts that there is not a single right answer to how much someone should be able to get from the state, even though the coalition government has set a cap of £26,000 a year. “It has problems because of the great regional differences in the cost of living,” Lord Tebbit says. “But at the end of it the aim is not to impoverish people but to provide incentives to get on.
“Let me give you an example. I had a letter from a bloke who said ‘It’s all very well for you to talk but the only job I can get is in a call centre. Would you want to work in a call centre?’.
“I wrote back and said ‘No, I wouldn’t want to work in a call centre. But I wouldn’t want to live off the back of the guy who works in a call centre’.
“We have to establish that if you want to get to the top of the ladder you have to start on the bottom rung.”
He smiles as I suggest it sounds a little like his most famous misquoted catchphrase ‘On yer bike’. What he actually said in 1981 was that his own father was unemployed and that ‘he got on his bike and looked for work and he kept looking ’til he found it’.
“I love sending up lefties,” he says. “If I’m speaking to a mixed audience I venture the opinion that there should be a time limit on how long you can draw unemployment benefit, lest men become habituated to idleness. That normally rouses the screams.
“Then I say they’re not my words, they’re the words of William Beveridge (the architect of the welfare state).”
He gives an example of where he thinks the system has gone wrong since the 1940s.
“Let’s say there are twin sisters sharing a room with another sibling, neither does well at school, both leave at 16,” he says.
“One is determined to get on, takes a job as a shelf stacker at Tesco on minimum wage, has bus fares and things like that and still lives at home. The other becomes pregnant, she gets a flat, not a nice one, but she has her own front door, some furniture, some income and is a person in her own right. Who is better off? Which way are the incentives stacked?”
I suggest that the reason this might happen is because the State is trying to give the baby the best chance in life.
“Yes indeed,” says Lord Tebbit. “There are all sorts of good reasons why it’s happening, but there’s a construct there. And if she has a second child, even better.
“She’s trapped because if the father of the child lives with her he’s probably worse off than if he didn’t. If they live together, which is a good thing broadly speaking, and don’t own up they’ll be drawn into the world of criminality. It’s around those margins that the problems arise.”