Below is the transcript of Mr Major’s press conference, held at Downing Street in London on Monday 16 January 1995.
Thank you all for coming this afternoon. I thought as we have now got into the New Year that it might be appropriate to take this opportunity to have a look across the political scene as it is at the moment.
I think we are about to enter a particularly interesting phase, and let me firstly say something about the longer term. In around two years, maybe a little more, perhaps a little less, we are going to have to persuade the public once again to entrust us with government. After 17 years I do not believe that anyone should be complacent about that task. No party has a divine right to govern and no-
Last week I took some steps to put this country on course for the longer term. On Friday, with some senior colleagues at Chequers, I conducted a comprehensive review of Britain’s role in the world. We analysed both the risks and the opportunities in the immediate future. We looked at what we had to do to promote Britain’s national interest and we looked at the policies that we believe were right for Britain.
A nation like ours, dependent for about one-
I plan to have further Chequers meetings to look at domestic and social policies –
I have invited Secretaries of State to assemble policy groups, each in their respective areas, and the remit for these groups is to think both boldly and imaginatively. I want their prescriptions informed by a very wide process of consultation, with people in all walks of life, inside and outside the Conservative Party. The Policy Unit will also consult widely, external expert opinions will be sought, I intend to have the widest possible debate to build the next phase of Conservatism, to plan new policies for government in the new millennium.
Over recent years I believe we have done what is right for this country. But I know that doing uncomfortable things, although often necessary in government, does not at the same time necessarily endear you to people. But if your policy is right, and you stick to that policy, the benefits do come through, and that is what I believe is now beginning to happen.
The economic debate and the European debate have dominated politics for some time, the economy is now coming right, and I can now see a road to unity on European policy as we prepare for the Intergovernmental Conference in 1996 and 1997.
But there is a political life apart from these two subjects. Jobs, education, health, personal choice and opportunity, the levels of tax, the quality of life in the public services, these are things that concern families in every part of the country. On the economy we have a broadly based recovery unlike any that we have seen since 1945. It is a recovery for the long term, it is not a flash in the pan, it is not fuelled by monopoly money. We are seeing confidence and growth restored to manufacturing industry, Britain is making things once more, as it traditionally did, and it is selling them to every corner of the world. People will feel the effects of this recovery only gradually, but as they do begin to feel those effects, they can have confidence that that recovery is going to last.
We will continue to pursue privatisation for the best of reasons, to help improve the standards of service to the public. Frankly, I am not content with the service we have had over many years from British Rail, I want to remove British Rail for good from the stand-
On education policy we are pursuing higher standards, more choice, more opportunity. Later this year we will come forward with our detailed proposals on nursery education, testing the National Curriculum performance tables, all of these are now beginning to lever up standards and people can begin to see that that is what is happening, the improvement is evident and we intend it to continue into the future.
I am utterly committed to the National Health Service. Each year doctors and nurses care for more patients, a million more than since our reforms began. This year we are abolishing a complete layer of bureaucracy in order to target resources on patient care. The great reforms of recent years are in place and they are now settling down. It would frankly be folly to seek to tear up those reforms, it would introduce chaos and instability into General Practioners’ surgeries and into hospitals up and down the country. The result of that could only be to shift the focus away from the patient and better treatment for the patient.
We will carry forward the sea-
Crucial to these reforms has been the operation of the Citizen’s Charter. The Charter has delivered better information and standards in both health and education and will do so right across government. It is, as it always has been, a ten year programme to improve public services. I do not believe that public services should provide a brusque response to the public or to be needlessly anonymous, they are there to serve the public, and to be accountable to the public, and that is the right sort of devolution.
The consistent theme in these reforms is moving the decision-
We are opening up government steadily but significantly. The last two years have seen changes to our security and intelligence services, to the information available about government committees and departments. There have been changes following the Jopling recommendations in the way Parliament works; changes for the system of awarding honours; and changes to the decision-
We have a crowded agenda in the years immediately ahead of us, but what we are also seeking to do is to fashion flow in a wider way than has been done for very many years, the direction of policy beyond the immediate future, and that work will start immediately.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS:
QUESTION (John Sergeant, BBC):
Prime Minister, this has many of the characteristics of a press conference at the beginning of an election campaign, is it your intention to use this conference to mount an attack on the Labour Party, and Mr Blair particularly?
What a tempter you are. The purpose of this press conference was to set out what I have just said to you, firstly, and secondly to honour the promise that I made to you, not necessarily you, John, but the Lobby and others generally in the summer, when I promised that from time to time I would have further press conferences so that you would have the opportunity to question me. If you wish to question me about the Labour Party, of course I will respond to the policy muddles that they are getting into on education, on British Rail, on devolution, on energy policy, on health and on a range of other subjects, but as you will notice, I did not myself introduce the subject.
QUESTION (Peter Riddell, Times):
You mentioned at the end of your statement about the constitution being changed with care, have you got any proposals yourself, particularly in relation to the Nolan Committee, will you be putting forward suggestions for improving say appointments to quangos and other matters being covered by Nolan?
I will be very interested to see what Nolan has to say. I think Nolan touches an area of concern that has been there for some time, and I think the Nolan recommendations will have to be looked at very seriously. I have not been invited to give evidence to Nolan, other members of the government will and where appropriate they will put forward particular ideas. But certainly we will wish to look very carefully at what Nolan recommends and very probably we will be seeking to implement much of it.
QUESTION (Peter Snow, Newsnight);
When you said in your New Year interview that at the Intergovernmental Conference on Europe next year you would not accept constitutional changes that would be damaging, did you mean by that that you would veto them or that Britain would not accept but the others could go ahead without you?
The agreements at the Intergovernmental Conference have to be agreed unanimously, that is the way in which the European Union works. I am not in the business of just going there with heavy boots to be difficult, but if people propose constitutional change that I think is inappropriate for Europe, or inappropriate for the United Kingdom, then I will not accept it, I have made that perfectly clear.
QUESTION (Peter Snow):
You will veto it?
If you choose to use that word, yes most certainly I will veto it, I will not accept it. If I do not believe it is in the interests of the United Kingdom, or indeed in the interests of the wider European case, then I will most emphatically say so and I will most emphatically say ‘No’. But I also said in that interview that I do not myself believe that the 1996 conference is going to raise huge constitutional issues, I cannot be certain about that, I cannot be certain what the other 14 countries will introduce, any country can introduce any issue it wishes, but I do not at the moment expect great constitutional issues to be introduced, if they are I believe the time is inappropriate, if they are and I think they are significant and damaging then I will reject them.
QUESTION (Elinor Goodman):
Given that you say this press conference is in part to map out the future of Conservatism, and also you admit to give us the chance to ask questions about the Labour Party, is Downing Street the right place to have it or shouldn’t it be at Conservative Central Office?
You are the first journalist I have ever known not to wish to take the opportunity of asking questions wherever they may be asked, Elinor. But as far as the direct point you make is concerned, I am mapping out the policies for the rest of this government and for future Conservative governments.
QUESTION (Michael Brunson, ITN):
Can I ask about rail privatisation. I know that you always say that every privatisation is unpopular, but would you not accept that this privatisation seems to be unusually unpopular, even among some members of your own party? And secondly, since at least the Labour Party is now prepared to say that they are committed to a publicly owned and a publicly accountable railway after the next election, would you not accept that that is going to give those who may wish to buy, particularly Railtrack, very considerable anxiety about getting involved in this privatisation?
You have brought me the news of what the Labour Party’s policy is at 1550 on Monday afternoon, whether it will be the same tomorrow morning I suppose is a moot point, it does seem to have undergone rather a few changes over the last few weeks. Last week Mr Blair was not sure whether he would renationalise or not. Mr Prescott equivocated in radio interviews, before that Mr Prescott was certain he would renationalise, and so would others. So I am not entirely sure what their policy will be in the future, though I strongly suspect that this is the first part of the Danegeld to be paid for the support that Mr Blair will seek on Clause 4.
But as far as your direct question of concern, as to whether this is going to be uniquely unpopular, I would simply suggest that you go back and look at what was said in many of the previous privatisations. If, for example, I refer to British Steel, what was it that the Labour Front bench, Donald Dewar I think it was from memory said about British Steel –
I do not think there are many people here at this press conference or who may watch this answer who doubts that British Airways is now one of the most efficient airways anywhere in the world. So I believe it can be with British Rail, I am just not satisfied with what British Rail has produced by way of a service in the last 40 years or so, I believe it can do better, I know it is controversial but I believe it can provide a better service. And many of the scare stories that there have been about mass hackings of the line are dealt with in the legislation which ensures that services are protected. So I believe yes we can proceed with it, yes we will be able to proceed with the flotation, and yes over time precisely the same impact will be had by a privatised British Rail as we have seen with electricity, gas, steel, telecoms and British Airways, the private sector will run it better and passengers will get a better service.
QUESTION (Mike Brunson):
And they will buy it?
And they will buy it.
QUESTION (Adam Boulton, Sky TV):
On the question of the Union, how do you reconcile your attitude towards Northern Ireland, in which you say Britain has no selfish strategic interest and you have given the people the right of self-
Well I was interested to see that the Labour Leader ruled out a referendum on legislation to introduce devolution to Scotland and Wales, I find that extraordinary if that is a settled position, but perhaps it will not be a settled position, perhaps it will change again. The distinction with Northern Ireland I think is very clear, in Northern Ireland we are not talking about a tax-
The constitutional questions about what is proposed in Scotland are even more damaging. If Scotland is to have authority for education and health, and all health and education matters are to be settled by the Scottish Parliament, what rights would Scottish Members of Parliament have over those matters? None at all. What rights, therefore, should Scottish Members of Parliament have at Westminster over health and education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland? It is not credible. What in practise is being done in Scotland is that the Labour Party are well aware that they need a big majority of seats in Scotland in order to win a general election, they are very worried that the Scottish Nationalist Party would do very well in a general election, they are trying to out-
And then in order to square the circle they have said but we would have regional government all over England. There is no demand for regional government all over England, there is no demand for an extra tier of bureaucracy all over England. We are going to have, we are told by the Labour Party, a Premier for Scotland. Are we going to have a Premier for Wales? Are we going to have a Premier for Sunderland? Is his official residence going to be Roper Park? Who can tell? I could stretch to the corner of this room and back again the nonsenses that arise out of these devolution plans and the dangers that arise and I think those dangers are now becoming apparent, not just to the Conservative Party, but to Labour Members of Parliament in Scotland and in Wales and to people right across the country. They are just not thought through or thought out and they are immensely damaging.
CHARLES RICE (EVENING STANDARD):
Do you accept that if the Ulster Unionist MPs were to withdraw their support from the Government they could precipitate a general election a lot earlier than the two years you foreshadow and do you absolutely rule out paying Danegeld in any form to them?
I have made it perfectly clear all along that we propose to seek a settlement in Northern Ireland but that it can only be done by carrying with us the people of Northern Ireland. I have seen some of the concerns that have been aroused about what might be in the framework document which is the premise upon which I think you based your question. There is no question of joint authority with Dublin having authority over Northern Ireland; that was ruled out a long time ago and many of the concerns that have prompted stories over the last day or so are just out of date and wrong.
PETER HAYES (CENTRAL TELEVISION):
I work for an area in which you may recall you lost of one of your precious parliamentary seats fairly recently.
All my parliamentary seats are precious, all of them!
During the by-
I think there a range of things if I may because this idea of one single, big idea is often a misleading proposition. Policy goes in a particular direction and the policy is going in the direction of moving as much authority and opportunity away from the centre and down to the individual and his family.
The big idea is making sure that the people of this country have as much freedom, liberty and opportunity as they possibly can. That is the big idea that the Conservative Party has stood for for generations and stands for now. That is why we want the lowest possible level of taxation; that is why we have provided so much extra power and authority for self-
That is the drift and direction of policy; that is why we would much prefer to be cutting taxes rather than raising taxes, that is a matter of innate instinct for the Conservative Party, by instinct we cut taxes, we dislike raising them; we have had to do it, it has been damaging for us and I think as soon as we are able to reverse that prudently and safely on economic grounds we will do so.
The idea that you seek for is to make sure that the individual, whatever fashion of life he may have, has the greatest amount of devolution of choice and authority to him or her; that is and always has been the big Conservative idea.
TREVOR KAVANAGH (THE SUN):
Prime Minister, in view of the recent disclosures both official and unofficial about the Royal Family, do you have any concerns about the standing and respect in which those members of the Royal Family are held?
I believe the Royal Family is a central glue in the constitution of the United Kingdom; I don’t see that changing. I know of everybody in public life in one form or another –
I think the underlying affection for the Royal Family remains immensely strong; I think that will manifest itself. From time to time, there are squalls which for a short term cause some difficulty; I think that is what they are, short-
Just a word about the people who have lost the whip. Do you accept that a couple of them may not actually wish to rejoin the Conservative Party despite the olive branches that you have proffered and what view do you take of that?
It takes two to tango! The music has struck up, we will see who will take partners and when!
Prime Minister, how soon do you anticipate you will be able to reassure those Unionists who suggested at the weekend that there might well be a general election this year and do you anticipate the search for a political settlement running into the next general election?
I can’t answer the second question; I don’t wish to put a time frame on the search for a settlement. I will go on searching for a settlement until we have a settlement because I believe that it is immensely important that we do so and I believe the prospects of a settlement exist.
We will pursue the joint framework document. I think the fears that have given rise to stories, as I indicated a moment ago, are mistaken fears and I think it will become apparent that they are mistaken fears but if I may push aside the political element that you raise, I have said from the outset of this many times on the record –
Let me take the framework document since it has now been raised twice. When we have agreed the framework document with the Irish government, that isn’t something that is going to be imposed. The framework document will then be published for everyone to see; it is then for the constitutional parties to examine it, to consult it and to comment on it. It goes into the talks with all the constitutional parties; then, if they approve it, it goes to a referendum of all the people of Northern Ireland so the fear that there is some sort of deal in which joint authority is in some curious fashion going to be enforced over the people of Northern Ireland against their will is not going to happen and cannot happen. We have not got joint authority in the document, the document itself is for consultation; it will have to be approved by the political parties in Northern Ireland and when they have finished with it, it will have to be approved by all the people of Northern Ireland so they have a triple look on their own future and I believe that is the way to carry with this process all the people of Northern Ireland.
There are ancient differences, feuds, fears that have been in Northern Ireland literally for generations; the only way to still them is for people to look carefully and cautiously at what is happening and decide for themselves that this is the right way to deliver peace.
You asked whether we would have it by the general election. I can’t promise that. It is not necessarily a speedy process. I think it was –
JOHN CRAIG (DAILY EXPRESS):
When you spoke to us in the sunshine back in the summer, you told us of your plans to reshuffle your Cabinet. Is the Cabinet you have got now the one that you would hope to lead into the next general election or can we expect some more changes between now and then?
The next general election may be two-
[Inaudible] devolution for quite some time now, indeed since the last general election. Does it surprise you therefore to find in the opinion polls the majority swinging the other way, in the “Sunday Times” poll for example 49% for, 32% against?
I think the debate on devolution is only just beginning. Why do I believe so many people favour it? I think instinctively in every part of the United Kingdom people are proud of being Scottish, Welsh, English or Northern Irish and instinctively asked about a Scottish Parliament “Would you like a Scottish Parliament?” I think the answer instinctively is likely to be yes. Asked: “Would you like to pay more income tax than anybody else in the vicinity?” the answer may be no. Asked whether you would wish to see companies disinvest, moving away from Scotland, creating more people unemployed, I think the answer would be no. Asked whether you want to be a little Scotland in the middle of a great European Community without having the negotiating strength of the whole United Kingdom, I think the answer would be no. Asked if you would like to be the United Kingdom equivalent of Quebec in Canada, I think the answer will be no.
It is not only me, not only the Conservative Party who thinks that these plans are folly. Other people, as they begin to examine them, will see that underneath the general aspiration there are very dangerous and damaging policies indeed. I will spell them out in detail again if you wish but I think you all are aware of the things that concern me: the different taxation policy; the question of the rights of Members of Parliament at Westminster in Scotland; the fact that if there was a Scottish Parliament there would be no justification for the numerically over-
All those are issues of some importance but if a Scottish Parliament was established and then began to challenge the English Parliament on issues, as I believe would almost undoubtedly be the case over time, what are the difficulties that are going to arise at that stage? What happens if there is a backlash elsewhere in the United Kingdom against the Scottish Parliament? I am not speaking out against the wishes of Scotland, I believe I am speaking for the interests of Scotland in pointing out that what is proposed is not a proposition that will help the living standards of Scotland or the future of Scotland and I will continue to make that point until we have won the debate, won the argument and seen these damaging proposals ditched and gone for ever.
ROBIN OAKLEY (BBC TV):
Prime Minister, two of your biggest problems in running your party centre round the disunity on Europe and on the sleaze factor. Why have you moved from saying that the rebels have got to work their way back over months to saying they would be taken back within weeks? What strength will your whips have to exert any discipline in future if they are taken back quickly?
On the sleaze factor, why are you not encouraging the Nolan Committee to look into the financing of political parties around which many people’s worries on the sleaze factor tend to concentrate?
I don’t think that is the remit of the Nolan Committee, it wasn’t set up to look at that and I don’t anticipate that it is going to look at that.
On the first point, the question of the colleagues who don’t have the whip, it is up to events to determine when they come back. I indicated over the weekend that I thought on many issues they were very strong Conservatives indeed, they will wish to see a Conservative victory at the next general election. I don’t believe the issues of dispute that have caused this split are issues that it is impossible to resolve. I think some of the resolution is now in place and I think the rest of the resolution is now a clear path so I believe that they will come back. I can’t determine when they come back, it will need an agreement between both of us –
Prime Minister, could you foresee winning the next general election without lowering taxes substantially?
I can’t anticipate the next two budgets. I am in favour of lower taxes but only providing it is economically justifiable; we will have to wait and see whether that is the case. I don’t think it would be prudent for me to tell you now what will be in the next budget or indeed the budget after that.
QUESTION (DON McINTYRE):
Prime Minister, do you think that the current well-
I think they are trying to produce a system where peer pressure works and I believe that is the right way to deal with it. I think peer pressure on executive pay and ensuring that shareholders and institutional shareholders perhaps in particular use their power as the owners of companies to ensure that top pay awards are satisfactory is right.
The danger is, however ill-
I share the concern that many people felt about some of these pay increases and I don’t think anybody who knows me doubts that and I think most of you in this room know that very well but the question is in opposition you can play gesture politics, in government you can’t. In government, you would be asking us: “What are you going to do?” and when we had said: “We are going to do this!” you would have pointed out all the defects in that insofar as it affected other people and you would have been right to do so. Gesture politics is very effective if you are in opposition but it is not effective if your are a government and I think therefore that the tight way to deal with this is the way the CBI are doing, the establishment of the Greenbury Committee. The National Association Of Pension Funds and others have expressed similar views and that sort of peer pressure is the best way to get an effective answer in my judgement.
Prime Minister, you said in your statement that you were going to seek advice from Conservative non-
They always have done in my recollection. Let me be clear. I certainly didn’t mean the Labour Party and the Liberal Party; I don’t think any advice from them would be likely to be productive. I had in mind people who are non-
[Inaudible] a new strategic authority for Greater London?
No, I have no plans to do so at the moment, no.
QUESTION (RADIO COVERING THE NORTH-
Could you offer a message of hope for the people in the North-
I think unemployment is falling pretty rapidly in many parts of the country, not least of course the North-
What we have seen over the past two years is a continuing reduction in the level of unemployment; it has come down, frankly, faster than we imagined that it would and it is very welcome that it has done so and I hope what we are going to see in the months ahead is a continuing fall in unemployment and to make the reverse point, a continuing rise of the number of people in employment as well. The economy is set fair for that; although there is not a direct relationship between growth and job creation for a number of complex reasons, I hope that is the trend that we are going to see.
QUESTION (MICHAEL WHITE):
You are holding this press conference 43.5% behind in the polls, you say the economic recovery is coming through but isn’t it possible that if people feel as confident as you say they will they will take a chance on another government and if they don’t the reason why you are 43.5% behind is that “Daily Telegraph” readers feel all the insecurity which skilled workers –
Is Boris here. Oh there he is!
You quote Gallup; Mori had a rather different figure which just indicates how volatile the opinion polls are at the moment, I have never been a great advocate of opinion polls on the question of voting at a particular time and that has been true in days when they have been favour to the Conservative Party as well as days when they have been less favourable to the Conservative Party.
I believe that one can begin to see a great sea change in what has been put in hand over the past three or four years. We put a whole range of things in hand; we have produced a great deal of reform. Reform is often painful, it upsets people, people tend to object very strongly if their particular profession is being reformed; they certainly object very strongly if they face increased taxation they didn’t expect so there are a range of issues why people have had reason to feel disenchanted but because of the decisions that we have taken, because we accepted the unpopularity that went with those decisions, we can now see in the second half of this Parliament –
One of the things I believe affecting many of the people who feel very concerned is insecurity about their own employment prospects –