No coalition appointment has caused more consternation than that of Norman Baker as Home Office minister. The promotion of the man best known for claiming that the British security services covered up the murder of Dr. David Kelly was said to have left his boss, Theresa May (along with many others), "spitting tacks".
I interviewed Baker about this and much else for tomorrow's NS. Here are some of the highlights.
On David Kelly's death: "unfinished business"
Baker, who stepped down from the Lib Dem frontbench in 2006 in order to devote a year to writing a 424-page book (The Strange Death of David Kelly) claiming that David Kelly was murdered, told me that he stil regarded his death as "unfinished business". He told me: "People who attack it by and large haven’t read it. And I’d like them to come back and deal with the facts, if they want to deal with the facts." When I asked him whether he would use his post at the Home Office to lobby for a new public inquiry, he said:
What would have to happen is: the Attorney General would have to reopen the inquest, which was absurdly curtailed. So that’s a matter for him.
He added: "The fact that there was no coroner’s inquest appeared to be of no interest to the collective media; I just find that absolutely astonishing . . . People can look at the evidence and draw their own conclusions. All I would say is in 2003, we had a situation where the prime minister of the day lied to parliament about the case for war . . . and then people say to me, ‘You should believe everything the government said in 2003.’ I’m sorry, I don’t buy that."
On whether the Iraq war was illegal, he said: "I’ve got to be careful what I say as a minister, haven’t I? There are many who believe it to be illegal and they’ve made quite a strong case."
On NSA/GCHQ surveillance: there should be an inquiry
Baker broke with the government line on the allegations of surveillance by the British and US intelligence services by calling for a full inquiry. Asked whether one should be held, he said: "Yes. In my view, it’s perfectly reasonable for the Guardian to raise questions about the balance between the state and the individual to take account of the fact that technology has moved on a huge amount and the law was drafted when we didn’t have the means of communication we do now – Skype and everything else – and the capacity of the security services, or the Americans, to engage in trawling for stuff."
On tuition fees: "eduction should be free"
The Liberal Democrat conference voted earlier this year to support tuition fees of up to £9,000, with Vince Cable telling delegates: "We and the other major parties are not going to go back to free tuition." But Baker told me that he still believed university education "should be free", adding that the fees vote in 2010 was "the only time in government that I’ve come close to resigning".
He added: "I’m very conscious that people of my generation benefited from free education. I come from a poor background, unlike most people in government, and I couldn’t have got where I was without a really good state education. I’m deeply grateful for that and I couldn’t have done it had I had to pay a lot of money for it, so I feel particularly uncomfortable with the idea of charging for tuition fees as a principle."
On Ed Miliband: "I've got a lot of time for him"
While refusing to say whether he would rather partner with Labour or the Tories in the event of another hung parliament, Baker told me that he has "a lot of time" for Ed Miliband. "He seems to me to want to try to articulate a position which is different to what came before – I’ve always got time for that. And I think he’s prepared to take the odd gamble, which is right in politics." He added, somewhat immodestly: "As someone who pushes boundaries and envelopes all the time, I like someone who does the same thing. I think that’s good about him."