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28 May 2001

Why I am now banned from talking to Tories

Election 2001 - Nick Cohen found himself unable to agree with Ann Widdecombe on the differe

By Nick Cohen

Nothing lifts my dejected spirits. The sweet spring flowers are rank and the zephyrs of May can’t warm my marrow. I have been banned from talking to the Conservative Party, quite possibly for the rest of my life. Don’t waste your sympathy. I’m inconsolable.

My crime – if offence there was, I’ve metamorphosed into Joseph K – was committed during an interview with Ann Widdecombe. I have been filming an election documentary for Channel 4 on the failure of populism to inspire the populace to vote. We wanted to hear the shadow home secretary’s point of view because arguments on new Labour and old Conservative policies on crime and asylum will be part of the package.

We caught up with her in Wellingborough town square. The spectacle she presented confirmed that politics wasn’t working. Widdecombe, after all, is a celebrity. Like Jack Straw, she is also a populist who has listened to the findings of the focus groupies and is more than willing to give the electorate what the market research alleges it wants. The wooing of the vox populi had done her no good. Her audience was composed of banner-waving Tory activists, one copper and a huddle of journalists. There wasn’t a floating voter in sight.

We got an interesting admission on the Tony Martin murder prosecution. “I’ve always made it clear, right from the start,” she said, “that that case should be tested in a court.” The Tories have given the strong impression that a second Martin wouldn’t go to court if they took power. They promise in their manifesto to “overhaul the law” on self-defence. I’m not sure what that means, but every lawyer says that anything short of licensing cold-blooded killing couldn’t help Martin, who shot a teenage boy in the back while he was running away and pleading for mercy.

Widdecombe’s concession was a wise step back from giving gesture politics the force of law, but will disappoint her supporters. A Wellingborough Tory had “Remember Tony Martin” scrawled on a placard. She was forgetting him.

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The bulk of the interview, however, was about asylum. The Conservatives want to intern all new asylum-seekers in camps they euphemistically call “reception centres”. I didn’t try to imitate Jeremy Paxman – not even Paxman can imitate Jeremy Paxman all the time. I hope I was courteous as well as persistent, but you can make up your own minds.

Nick Cohen: How many prisons are you talking about building?

Ann Widdecombe: Not prisons, not prisons.

NC: When you lock people up it’s a prison, isn’t it?

AW: No, it is not a prison.

NC: What is it then?

AW: A prison is where you actually have locks on the cell doors, where people are under discipline, where their movements are restricted.

NC: So what would you call them then, an internment camp, a reception centre?

AW: I’ve just called it a reception centre three times.

NC: Isn’t it politically correct to call a place where people are locked up [a reception centre]? It sounds like a hotel.

AW: It’s what Holland calls their reception centres. It could well be a converted hotel with a secure perimeter. That is the whole point, you have a variety.

NC: But they won’t be able to get out.

AW: They won’t be able to get out, but they’ll be moving freely within.

NC: OK. And how many do you think you’ll need?

AW: It would depend on the size of those available, as to how many we need. But what I was endeavouring to say before that barrage of questions interrupted, was . . .

NC: . . . sorry, very sorry . . .

AW: . . . that if Oakington [a new Labour internment camp] can cope with one-fifth [of new asylum-seekers] at a cost of £6m, it is totally unrealistic to suppose that it is going to cost billions, which is what Labour say it will cost.

NC: Just to pin this down, you say you need four more hotels, prisons, reception centres, whatever you want to call them.

AW: No. It depends how many they house . . .

NC: But you don’t know at the moment. You haven’t got places in mind.

AW: Well of course we haven’t. We’re the opposition not the government . . . the idea that in opposition you produce an exhaustive list! Labour didn’t do that . . .

NC: But also the idea that there are secret empty prisons out there, and empty army camps that no one knows about. These aren’t official secrets.

AW: I’m sorry, this interview is now getting ridiculous . . .

NC: . . . not on my side . . .

AW: . . . there is plenty of convertible space around. They are not prisons, for the umpteenth time. Prisons are quite a major operation, because you have to secure all the inside as well. You are talking about any space you can use where you can secure the perimeter. That is our policy. Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

NC: Thank you very much.

I hoped I had managed to show that the Tories were treating asylum-seekers as criminals who should be incarcerated by their thousands or tens of thousands – there are about 70,000 in Britain at the moment – without being able to add how many “reception centres” were needed, how long they would take to build and how much they would cost to construct, staff and run. I also thought she gave as good as she got. So did the crew.

Widdecombe poses as a plain-speaking politician. I ought to have been alerted by her circumlocutions: the refusal to use “internment”, the plain English word for detaining people who have committed no crime (and who are often the victims of crime); the prohibition of “imprison” to describe locking up refugees.

The phone rang later that evening. A Conservative Central Office aide called Adam Newton said that Widdecombe was unhappy with the interview and suggested I had been rude. I said her performance didn’t leave her with much to worry about and asking questions was what journalists did.

“Well,” he said, “she’s not going to speak to you again and I’ve spoken to Amanda Platell [the Tory Alastair Campbell] and no one from the shadow cabinet will give you interviews either, which will be your loss.”

Diderot wrote of “l’esprit de l’escalier“- thinking of the riposte you should have flashed in the salon when you’re on the stairs heading home. A phrase for the electronic age is needed urgently. I could have said: “But I’m not sure who is in the shadow cabinet – could you send me their pictures in case I find myself chatting to one of them by mistake?” A “Can I have that in writing?” would have been all right. I’m afraid the best I could manage was: “Oh. I suppose I’ll just have to learn to live with that as best I can.”

I called Newton back the next day, filled with an understandable worry that he might have changed his mind. He hadn’t. “Is this ban just for the election campaign or for the rest of my life?” I asked. He wasn’t sure. The case would be reviewed by Central Office at an unspecified date.

My tiff revealed a wider point about the triangulations within the political class. Just as new Labour acquired the worst characteristics of the old Conservatives – money worship and authoritarianism – so the old Conservatives are now aping new Labour’s worst control freaks.

Oliver Letwin proposes downsizing the welfare state and is ordered by his masters to lose himself in the heathland of his Dorset constituency. (I imagine him living off berries and moving only at night.) Press questions are evaded and Conservative press conferences are cancelled. The Tories have become more Mandelsonian than Mandelson.

The manipulation and the incitement of fears on race don’t appear to be working, and many leftish sorts are drawing a false comfort from the Conservatives’ failure to rouse the rabble. Pinkish pundits accept that another new Labour landslide on a minority of the vote will lead to another unaccountable government, able to do pretty much what it wants. But, they argue, we should nevertheless welcome a Commons stuffed to the rafters with Blairites. A second slaughter of the Tories is necessary to teach them that they cannot flirt with far-right policies and expect to form a government.

I’m all for beating Conservatives. I could just about put up with another legion of new Labour robots if the “common sense” of politics became that Ann Widdecombe and William Hague had proved that the race card couldn’t win the game. The nearest Winston Churchill came to direct contact with Hitler was a message he gave a Nazi official in 1933 – “Tell your boss from me that anti-Semitism may be a good starter, but it is a bad finisher”. It would indeed be a step forward if “racism” replaced “anti-Semitism” and the sentiment became a 21st-century cliche.

Fat chance. I heard a plaintive Hague telling an interviewer that his policies weren’t so different from the government’s. I am ashamed to say he was right.

When the Conservatives officially launched their call for internment camps – sorry, “reception centres” – Barbara Roche, the minister for immigration, boasted at Labour’s morning press conference that she was harder than the Tories on refugees.

The Conservatives had opposed new Labour, she said in a shocked voice, when it drove asylum-seekers into the hands of people-smugglers by preventing them travelling legally to Britain.

The next day, Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, proposed tearing up the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees by imposing quotas on the number of people who could apply for sanctuary in Britain. A second Labour landslide will not build what the air-headed Roy Jenkins describes as the “liberal century”. It will teach new Labour that it must be more illiberal and keep moving to the right if it is to deny the Conservatives space to breathe.

The Dumbed-Down Election, part of Channel 4’s “Politics Isn’t Working” season, will be shown at 8pm on 3 June

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