POLITICS

David Heath: 'Lib Dems Not Overly Pessimistic About The Next Election, We Will Target Tory Seats'

16/01/2014 14:45 GMT | Updated 25/01/2014 21:01 GMT
REX Features

"I’m told there was no hint of criticism of anything I’d done," David Heath says. "Simply Nick took a view we needed as many people as possible to have experience of government and I’d had three-and-a-half years."

Speaking to The Huffington Post UK, the former Lib Dem minister ruminates on his unexpected departure from government in the last reshuffle. Moved aside, he suggests, so backbench Lib Dems could be given a chance to play with the Whitehall train set before time runs out. "Of the three of us who left government in October, I don’t think there were many criticisms of our performance."

Heath, the veteran MP for Somerton and Frome, announced shortly after his ejection from ministerial office that he would also leave the Commons at the next election. "I’d given a promise to my wife at the last election I wouldn’t fight another," he says. By 2015 Heath will have worked as a politician for thirty years, 18 in the Commons and 12 in local government. "I think that’s long enough. I will be 61. Just enough time for me to do one more thing."

Unlike many ex-ministers, Heath, who was first elected in 1997, does not pretend he is happy to embrace backbench life once more. "I am not going to hide the fact I was deeply disappointed to no longer be in government," he says. "I was hugely enjoying my job, I would have liked to have continued to do so."

In the interview with HuffPost UK, Heath also predicts that an EU referendum is "inevitable", says the Lib Dems will go after Tory seats in 2015, explains why the rules need to change following the Edward Snowden leak and warns Defra may not be funded well enough to deal with a "catastrophe".

Heath's first job following the formation of the coalition in 2010 was as deputy leader of the Commons. A job he says he was well suited for ("I’ve been in parliament a long time and I know what I’m doing"). And as deputy leader he was at the "heart of everything" but he did not have to take too many executive decisions.

After two-and-a-half-years that changed, Heath was made agriculture and food minister at Defra. He expected a new job ("very few people carry on for that long") but he imagined it would be at justice or the Home Office. "I didn’t see that coming simply because the farming post hadn’t been available to a Liberal Democrats up until then," he says. "It was a great surprise. But a very pleasant surprise. I couldn’t think of something I would prefer doing."

PEOPLE SENDING ME DEATH THREATS WASN'T MUCH FUN

Heath served as agriculture minister from September 2012 until October 2013. He is unable to identify an individual high point of his time at the department ("every day, every week, you have a whole succession of things"), but the low point is much easier to recall.

"There are certain things I could have done without," he says." I didn’t particularly enjoy having to have close police protection during the badger cull because of people sending me and my family death threats. It wasn’t much fun."

As well as personal worries, Heath was also at Defra when the department had to deal with a series of crises, including cholera and TB outbreaks, the horsemeat scandal and flooding. And he expresses concern that underfunding of the department could lead to a disaster.

He warns the government it can not afford to make mistakes with animal health, plant health or flooding and that he fears the department is "getting to the edge of resilience" of being "able to deal with natural catastrophes"

"We are living in very constrained times. We’ve got to get overall spending down. But I think we have to keep reminding the Treasury this is not an optional spend.

"It’s an issue of recognising the fact that in a department where the margins are very tight, do you get to point where you can’t cope with a crisis? That’s what worries me. That’s what keeps me awake at night. Are we getting to a point where we can’t cope with a crisis?"

Heath worked under Conservative secretary of state Owen Paterson, who has been criticised by Labour and environmentalists for not taking climate change seriously enough. Despite their differences of opinion and "creative tension" on environmental issues, Heath insists he got on with Paterson "surprisingly well".

The former minister says within government the personal chemistry between Lib Dems and Tories is "very often much better than people think". However he adds that this friendliness "doesn’t always reach out to the extremes of the backbenches".

nick clegg

Reflecting on the achievements of his party in power, Heath says what "surprises" him is how much of the Lib Dem manifesto the party has been able to pass into law "far in excess or our proportion of strength" in government. How did the party achieve this? "I think some of the things we have been pushing for, when our Conservative colleagues looked at them more closely they realised they were not such a bad idea."

The danger for Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems however is that even if policies such as the raising of the income tax threshold and the triple lock on pensions prove popular - the party will not get the credit.

"It may well be that we don’t," Heath concedes. "There is enough experience in coalition politics around the world to know junior partners very often don’t get the credit that they should get. It’s our job to keep reminding people of what we have been pushing for."

"The next election is going to be a tough election. Having said that, I think party is a much better state than a lot of people imagine. I think we are not overly pessimistic about the result of the next election."

And he says key to the Lib Dem offer will be the ability of the party to show its achievements in government. "What I hope we will have shown by the end of this parliament is that coalition, which is a concept British people are not used to, we are capable of making it work.

"I think we have already shown that my party can provide some good people to occupy ministerial posts who are quite capable and quite up to the task.

"One of the traditional things that was thrown at us was ‘oh you’ve got no experience’ well you can’t say that now. We’ve had some of the hardest positions in government and we weathered the storm and got on with it and have done so successfully. The terms of trade have changed a little bit."

SPY CHIEFS NEED TO BE ACCOUNTABLE

Since returning to the backbenches one issue Heath has targeted is the oversight of Britain's spy agencies following the Edward Snowden leaks. While he stresses that agencies such as GCHQ do "vital work" he questions whether the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) as currently constituted, is up to the job.

Last year Heath introduced a ten minute rule Bill that would have made changes to the way Britain's spies are overseen. However he admits that without government support, which it lacks, it is not likely to get very far. "It’s not going to make progress, It's far to late in the parliamentary year," he says.

The ISC was widely mocked last year when it conducted its first ever public grilling of intelligence officials. The spy chiefs were not even lightly toasted by the encounter. While careful not to criticise the current members of the committee, Heath says they need to be properly elected by parliament to give them a "sharper edge".

"You simply can not let either the security services themselves or the executive set the rules. There has got to be something that parliament does otherwise we are letting people down. It doesn’t meant to say we want to muscle or immaculate the services it means we need them to be a proper judicial footing."

He adds: "There is still a deep nervousness about letting parliament rip on something that hitherto had been completely hidden process. My argument is, actually, we cant afford for it not to be."

LIB DEMS WILL TARGET TORY SEATS

Of course one of those MPs that has had ministerial experience is Heath himself. But he, along with Sir Ming Campbell, Don Foster, Malcolm Bruce and Andrew Stunell, is leaving parliament in 2015. "It’s hardly surprising that those colleagues are saying now is the time to call it a day," Heath says. "We have a slight generational shift going on."

One of the strengths of the Lib Dems is the ability of its MPs to exploit incumbency to cling on to seats no matter what hits them. They are, in the words of party president Tim Farron, the "cockroaches" of the Commons. The sight of so many of its veteran MPs stepping down must be a danger for the party then? "A lot will depend on the new candidates that are chosen and the vigour they bring to campaigning to win the seats," Heath concedes.

But he adds that what he and his fellow older generation of Lib Dem MPs have shown is the ability to hold constituencies for the party in areas that "objectively" they could easily have lost. "I won my constituency three times with three figure majority."

And despite poll gloom, Heath insists there is "no reason" for the party to simply retreat behind the walls of its current seats and try and minimise its loses. "Where we have held seats the evidence is our support is still strong," he says. "And I think there are a few Conservative seats we would certainly be looking at with interest. I think if you look at local government by-elections we are picking up a regular trickle of Conservative seats."

Heath places his faith in the fabled Lib Dem local campaign machine and the effect of Ukip on the Tory vote. He says while Nigel Farage's party will take votes from across the spectrum, it is clear the votes will come "disproportionately" from the Conservatives. "An insurgent party is capable of changing the terms of trade," he says.

nigel farage

Earlier this week Alistair Campbell predicted the outcome of the next election would be a Lib-Lab coalition. Does Heath agree? "I think almost any result is still possible, I think no party having an overall majority is still the most likely outcome," he says. Does that mean another Tory-Lib Dem coalition or a Lib-Lab deal then? "It's completely impossible to preempt that. A lot will depend on arithmetic. A lot will depend on dealings between the parties in terms of policy positions."

Heath also hints that a formal coalition may not necessarily be the best way forward. "I hope that our objective will be to maximise the take up of Lib Dem policies after the election in whatever seems the most appropriate way. I don’t think sitting around the cabinet table is going to be the primary objective. The primary objective will be to get what is right for the British people."

EUROPEAN UNION REFERENDUM IS 'INEVITABLE'

Speaking of Ukip, Heath has long backed a referendum on Europe. He was sacked from the Lib Dem front bench in 2008 after defying Clegg and backing Tory calls for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. "I probably am at one extreme of my party," he admits. "It's all relative, but I am very critical of a lot of European institutions because I don’t think they are particularly liberal or particularly democratic."

Heath says the EU, as currently organised, is "not sustainable" and needs to change. "The more people feel that decisions are being taken which have a direct effect on them at a point that is too far removed, the less faith they will have in an institution."

Voters, Heath says, "have never actually been asked properly" whether the want to remain part of the club in a referendum. "I think it is inevitable there will be one, I certainly would support there being one."

Heath is not a typical Lib Dem cheerleader for the EU. At the heart of his unease is a conflict between the acceptance of a globalised world and a commitment to local government.

"Because I am a liberal I am internationalist. I do believe in international cooperation. I think there are things better done across national borders," he explains. "Equally I do believe in proper subsidiarity, pushing decisions down to the lowest available level of government."

He adds: "I think that’s the balance we’ve got wrong at the moment. The EU pays an awful lot of lip service to subsidiarity but ignores it terms of decision making."

So why does someone who is so clearly in favour of a public vote on EU membership, oppose David Cameron's commitment to hold one by 2017? It is a "silly" bit of "window dressing", Heath says. The veteran MP insists the coalition's European Union Act 2011, which would trigger a referendum were there to be any future treaty changes, is sufficient. "The next available opportunity, where we do have a significant shift of competences, that will be the time to ask the question," he says. And he expects that to happen sooner rather than later, perhaps even before Cameron's 2017 deadline.

"I think there are some significant renegotiations that need to happen to change some of the ways Europe goes about its business. I support the view the UK government should be leading that debate. I want to see what emerges, that is the point, we should say then 'yes' or 'no', do we want to stay or leave."

He adds: "I will argue consistently there should be a referendum and the trigger for that will almost inevitably happen in the next parliament. We need a proper transparent debate on that, one without the mythology."

Of course Heath will not be a member of the next parliament. What will he be doing when that vote comes? "I honestly don’t know. Whether it will be in commercial world or in other areas of public service, I simply don’t know yet. Let’s see what opportunities arrive."