The New Statesman Interview - Norman Tebbit
He ducked a chance to get to No 10; now he blames himself for Tory decline and new Labour ascendancy
There is something oddly doomful about the prospect of meeting Norman Tebbit; an impression underpinned by his indomitable personal assistant, Beryl. I ask if he would be happy to see me at the New Statesman's offices, and Beryl says: "He is not happy about anything; being so busy. He is not a happy bunny." One does not have to cast around widely to identify the multiple sources of Lord Tebbit's misery. European ambition, GM foods, the Irish peace process, lefties at the BBC and the newfangled road-sweeping machines he lambasted in a recent Mail on Sunday column: all these and other factors conspire to feed Tebbit's supposed gloom.
But the really grim thing is to find oneself in concert with some tenets of Tebbitry. The contents of the Dome are garbage. Yes. New Labour lacks a "clear philosophical framework". Yes. Northern voters may balk at the spectacle of a prime minister brandishing a "cocoa mug" emblazoned with portraits of his children. Yes. Tebbit's own fondness for the showy gesture is restricted to a gilt £ sign in a navy lapel. "Michael Ashcroft [aka Lord Ashcroft of Belize] has the same one; only his is real gold," he says, and laughs in vulpine fashion.
Despite his Yorick countenance and unpromising character reviews ("a semi-house-trained polecat" - Michael Foot), the Chingford Strangler, now almost 70, seems to lack the combination of thin skin and plump ego that distinguishes other elder statesman.
Nor is he bereft of reasons to rejoice. In particular, the right-wing lurch of William Hague pleases Tebbit.
"Something somewhere sparked him off, and suddenly he became an interesting politician; having previously been uninteresting. As he gets more interesting, people forget that he's bald, he's got an unusual voice and he's small. I never wrote William off, though I felt he got some things wrong. There should be someone to say to him: 'Interesting idea, William, but that's what we did in 1968.' Blair kept a good deal of the folk memory of continuity, and William didn't so much."
If this endorsement is thin, then Tebbit's hopes of dislodging the government sound vestigial. "I think it's going to be hard for Hague to win an election. When most people feel their job is secure and they are comfortably off, it is very difficult indeed. If he says he will change the economy, voters will say it seems all right. If he doesn't, they will say: 'So why change the government?' It's a very tricky area for him."
And where, I ask, is the talent in Hague's lacklustre team? Tebbit reels off a few names of politicians so obscure that even their mothers might have trouble placing them, and adds: "I do think it was an error to drop [John] Redwood." Of Michael Portillo, there is no mention. "No. I have never been a Portillo fan. I could never quite make him out. Remember his great SAS speech? Who dares wins. It made my toes curl in my shoes because it was so singularly inappropriate. I never thought Michael was the tough, right-wing ideologue he presented himself as. That was not the natural Portillo. We have seen the more natural Portillo since."
Is he alluding to the touchy-feely reinvention? "Yes, except that he hasn't reinvented himself. He has gone back to being what he is. That change has made it very difficult for him. He seems very hesitant. I think it will take a few years for him to re-establish himself." And by then, Tebbit believes, it will be too late for Portillo. "I think Michael is an unlikely leader. It's partly age. By the time Hague goes, the Redwood/Portillo generation will look rather outdated."
Tebbit's mistrust, predicated on his perception of Portillo as a faux hardliner, may also be rooted in more personal ground. Portillo fought the Kensington and Chelsea by-election with the blessing of Tebbit, who decreed that his revelation of youthful homosexual experience should pose no impediment. When allegations surfaced of a longer gay affair prior to Portillo's entry into public life, Tebbit was enraged. Despite Portillo's counter-charge that his widely publicised criticisms were "completely inaccurate", Tebbit holds to the view that his disclosure lacked detail. "Michael made a terrible mistake. His initial answer was truthful, but it didn't embrace the whole truth. One is always wiser to put the whole darn lot on the table. It was damaging for him, because he didn't do that."
More generally, Tebbit is "very much against people being outed against their will. Lord knows, we've all known enough people who are homosexual - liked them, worked with them. One of my best organisers when I was party chairman was homosexual. He just didn't make a fuss about it." And off we go.
Tebbit's views on gay lifestyles are so uncompromising that one wonders quite what in his past life - a bleak upbringing by his "on yer bike" father, Len, a former pawnbroker; a stint in the RAF; a career as a civilian pilot - might have installed such a rigid mindset. He believes, for instance, that no gay minister should be Home Secretary. ("The Home Office is responsible for laws affecting society - the adoption of children and the strengthening of the family. It is better not in the care of someone who doesn't feel for those issues.")
Equally preposterously, he grumbles about the number of gay people in government. "If you accept that the male homosexual population is 2 per cent, it does seem to be a bit over quota." Does he think that trend may be mirrored among Tories who dare not speak of their sexuality? "Probably so. There are one or two people I know who are very good and who, I suspect, may be homosexual." Could he possibly mean Hague? "Nah . . . I think he and Ffion are very happy. Another daft thing about politics is that you can't be celibate without people saying you're homosexual. For example, there's Ted Heath. He was celibate. But Ted wasn't a raving queer."
Gruesome, of course. Yet there is a gentler side to Tebbit. For 16 years, he has cared for his wife, Margaret, who was paralysed in the Brighton bombing that also injured him. He does not seek to play up his attachment. On the contrary, his dispassion makes his account more moving. When I ask if it is true that he wakes twice a night to turn her in bed, he says only: "Oh, I still do a bit of that, but it is no great problem. If it had been the other way round, I have no doubt whatsoever that she would have devoted her life to me. In hospital, we saw people with similar injuries who turned their faces to the wall to die. You have to make a fairly stark decision. As my wife says: 'What choice did I have? Die or cope.'"
Last January, both Tebbits caught flu. In his case, the illness turned to pneumonia and exacerbated an old heart problem, for which he has recently had hospital treatment. "It's a highly irregular heartbeat which gets to the extreme where the thing isn't working properly at all. My wife and family and everyone tell me to cut back, but I work best when I'm overloaded."
I wonder whether he - once Margaret Thatcher's henchman at Employment and Trade and Industry and her party chairman - is sorry that he gave up front-line politics so early. It is clear that Tebbit, possibly prompted in part by his recent glimpse of his own mortality, broods privately on his regret that he did not stand as leader in 1990.
"When I look at what happened to the party, I tell myself that perhaps I failed in a duty. I suppose I am one of those who have it on my conscience that I allowed Mr Blair to become prime minister." And that he allowed John Major to become Tory leader? "Oh, I helped him. If I'd opposed him, he wouldn't have been on the radar screen. I'd have been opposing Michael Heseltine.
"I had to make the decision quickly. I didn't want to go back on my word to my wife that I'd retired from front-line politics. How would it all work? Was No 10 suitable for someone in a wheelchair? All these things go through one's mind. Then if Michael had won . . . he would have had to ask me to join his government, and I didn't want that. I asked myself: why am I risking all this? And I made my decision."
Was it the wrong one? Although his answer is oblique, he clearly thinks so. "Occasionally, I meet people who say I would have been a great prime minister. I always say: 'That is very nice of you. Neither of us will ever be able to prove us wrong.' I might have been an absolute disaster in the job. It's possible. So I am left there. You can't rewrite it. You can't rerun it."
Whether or not Tebbit could have succeeded Thatcher, it is obvious that his failure to try has haunted him. Any relief that Heseltine, a "one-ball juggler", foundered was swiftly replaced by his horror over the "indecisive, obstinate, irrational" Major. "John didn't have money or illustrious ancestors. He was not a great parliamentary performer, nor a great scholar, and he allowed people who had the fortune of birth, money or education somehow to patronise him."
In another politician, one might detect a dinosaur's digruntled roar. Tebbit's barbs, conversely, seem targeted less at those he despises than at himself. Tory decline and new Labour ascendancy are, at some level, all his fault. Small wonder that he longs to see his guilt assuaged. His great hope is that Hague will, in time, harden both his opposition to the euro and his "in, but not ruled by" maxim on Europe. "At some stage, that has to be turned into amending the Treaty of Rome. William has put himself into a good tactical position on both issues. I think that, in ten years, people will look back and think he was smart."
Put more simply, the shriving of Tebbit's burden of self-blame rests on the little-tested right-wing credentials of "a small, bald man with an unusual voice". Should Hague succeed, no one will be more delighted - and, perhaps, surprised - than Norman. Should he fail, mere words will hardly encompass his gloom. Suffice to say that Lord Tebbit will not be a happy bunny.