Last week Margaret Thatcher's defence secretary, Sir John Nott, revealed to The Huffington Post he voted Ukip in May's European elections. In a follow-up interview, the former Tory MP explains why he backed Nigel Farage and what is wrong with David Cameron's "liberal" Eton dominated Conservative Party.
"I thought the more we can put a bomb under the Conservative government the better," Sir John Nott says, explaining his decision to vote for Ukip earlier this year. It worked. The explosion voters set off by handing Ukip 25 MEPs sent David Cameron scrambling to the eurosceptic right and arguably made Britain's exit from the EU more likely.
Sir John, the 82-year-old former Conservative defence secretary is speaking to The Huffington Post in his West London home, having returned from sniffing around Rochester and Strood, the scene of this month's high-stakes by-election. Conservative operatives had initially been confident of defeating Mark Reckless on 20 November and wiping the smile off Nigel Farage's face. But the polls now suggest the Tory defector will return to the Commons, this time as a Ukip MP. Sir John concludes: "I think Reckless will win."
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So where did the prime minister go wrong? The "liberal bias of the present leadership" is largely to blame, he says. "The rise of Ukip among the Tories has to some extent been a reaction against liberal-conservatism. If the Ukip generation doesn't come back to the Tories, then the Tories are going to lose a lot of marginal seats."
Sir John may have been first elected to the Commons in 1966 on a National Liberal ticket. But he has little time for Cameron's modernising project. "It isn’t just that we are in coalition. It is that the current leadership is, I don’t like to call them left-wing, let's use Cameron's own expression that he is a 'liberal-Tory'."
He also blasts the party's campaign operation in Rochester. The Tory candidate, Kelly Tolhurst, he says, is an "attractive girl" who will "do jolly well if she is allowed to get on with it". But the veteran Tory, who left front-line politics thirty years ago, fears that is exactly the opposite of what Conservative Campaign HQ plans. "What on earth Cameron-and-co think they are doing sending 300 MPs or more to Rochester? It's crazy," he says.
"Is she going to be asked to meet all these grandees coming down in their suits from London? It's ridiculous. She wants to canvass this place, how is she going to canvass all these grandees coming down from London. Instead of staying away, we are going to flood the place with politicians. It's going to be very, very good for Mr Reckless."
He adds: "When I was an MP, the last thing in the world I wanted was for the leader of the party or a cabinet minister to come to my constituency. It was the kiss of death to my majority. All they wanted to do was talk about politics. My constituents weren't interested in politics. They were only interested in politics so far as they wanted to complain about the government.
"I was quite a senior politician. I don’t think I ever read the manifesto. Have you ever met anyone who ever read a manifesto. I like the right policies in government but people aren’t going to read a manifesto for heavens sake, of course they're not."
Dire warnings have been issued that a Reckless win will unleash chaos on the Tory benches, possibly even triggering a vote of no-confidence in Cameron. "Your job as a journalist is to cause the maximum amount of trouble," Sir John answers when the possibility is raised. "You'll all write articles saying this is the end of the world for Cameron. But it's nonsense. It isn't. Cameron is OK. He is going to lead the Tory party into the next election."
Sir John served as defence secretary under Margaret Thatcher from 1981 to 1983, at the time of the Falklands War. He was first elected as MP for St Ives in 1966 and became, and remains, a Thatcher loyalist. Criticism of his plans to cut the Royal Navy's presence in the South Atlantic shortly before the Argentinian invasion led him to offer his resignation, it was rejected by the then prime minister. But he quit the Commons at the '83 election.
The defection of one of Thatcher's cabinet ministers to Ukip would be a coup for Farage. But Sir John says the suggestion he has abandoned the Conservative Party is wishful thinking on Ukip's part.
"I'm not going to vote for Ukip in 2015," he says laughing. "I want the Conservatives to win the general election. I didn't give a damn about the European elections." The point of that vote, he says, was to push the Conservative Party to become more eurosceptic. What he wants now, is a 'No' vote in a referendum.
"I don't think Cameron can negotiate a sensible exit, I think it will prove impossible," Sir John says, rubbishing the prime minister's plan to secure for Britain a looser relationship with Brussels, then put it to an in/out referendum in 2017. "I want a free trade Europe, a Europe based on maximum cooperation and friendship with other countries, which is what I voted for in 1972. I want to get rid of all these political shackles. I think we should be governed by parliament and not by a committee of 28 people and civil servants in Brussels."
Farage welcomed news of the veteran Tory's EU elections vote with "a special thank you to Sir John Nott". But the ex-cabinet minister, who owns a farm in Cornwall, is not a fan of Ukip's signature anti-immigration issue. "Farming is totally dependent on European immigration," he says. "It's crucial now for farmers that they are able to recruit people from eastern Europe ... the English won't work on the farms it's to cold and rough and horrible."
"I understand why Farage has taken up this great immigration thing. I understand it if you want to win seats in the North and win them from the Labour Party. It's not a bad cause with a lot of old fashioned Tories. But I don't agree with it. I think European immigration into this country, the Poles for example, has been very very healthy for the economy."
He adds: "On my farm we often have Bulgarians, who are really good workers. The Poles were the best workers. There are a lot of Romanians working in this country now who are doing an tremendous job for the economy, and the Bulgarians. In a way I would rather have Poles."
"The reaction against the Romanians is a bit unfair, because what the reaction is against is the Romanian Gypsies and the Bulgarian Gypsies. It's the Gypsies which have given Romanian immigrants, and less so Bulgarian immigrants, a bad [name]."
The interview is taking place in the living room Sir John's West London townhouse. He readily acknowledges, that as a knight who splits his time between the capital and the South West, other perspectives on immigration may exist. "I live in Chelsea. I don’t live in some place in the North of England where the schools and hospitals are swamped by immigrants," he says. The use of the controversial word "swamped", is deliberate. "I'm not subject to the problems which undoubtably exist in schools and hospitals and affect the infrastructure of many towns".
By contrast he says, citing conversations with friends who still live and work in Westminster, "the people in the parliamentary bubble can't understand why the ordinary citizen is attracted to Ukip".
Sir John may not agree with Farage's immigration policy. But he is very clear where he stands on the UK's membership of the EU. "I think the only way of achieving a free-trade Europe is to vote 'No' and then negotiate," he says.
"I am convinced, since I do know the economics, that it's in nobody's interests to sever the trading relationship with the UK. It's in the mutual interests of EU countries and ourselves to have a free trade deal. If people voted 'No' in a referendum then you could have a serious negotiation. Where all the cards were on the table."
Advocates of the European Union warn of huge job losses and economic damage should the UK run for the exit. Sir John is unimpressed. "The idea that we would be isolated if we leave the EU is complete nonsense. I have been around for 82-years and I was trade secretary, I do understand these things still. The idea we would be isolated if we came out of the EU is, in my view, quite untrue."
He adds: "What this country lacks, and has for a long time, is a sense of spirit and adventure. It would force the country to look out outwards again. If we came out it would help to recreate a sense of adventure in the wider world. What we need to recreate for the country is a spirit of adventure which we had in the 18th Century and 19th Century, we've lost it."
Harold MacMillan and the "left wing" 1950s and 1960s Tory establishment is what made Sir John enter politics. "The country was declining," he says. And he is worried that the establishment has once again taken over. "I understand that MacMillan is one of Cameron's great heros," he sighs. "I believe he has a photograph of MacMillan on his desk. MacMillan was my anti-hero. I went into politics to get shot of all that MacMillan stuff."
Sir John is quick to stress he is not opposed to the current prime minister entirely. "Cameron is to be congratulated for running a good government. It's been good government. I'm not against the government. I'm not against the Tory party. I'm in favour of the Tory party."
But the former Army officer is quick to draw parallels between the Tory party under MacMillan and the present day. "His cabinet was entirely composed of Etonians. Which used to irritate me," he recalls. "And now they are all back."
Thatcher's cabinet he says, was also "completely distorted" by the "antagonism of what I, perhaps unfairly, called the Etonian-bloc". The Etonian men sat around the cabinet table "couldn't handle this strident woman, partly because they had good manners".
"My predecessor as defence secretary, who is now dead, was a lovely man, Francis Pym. But he couldn’t understand. He used to sit there being attacked by Margaret Thatcher, and because he was a good old-fashioned Etonian gentleman, he couldn't answer back to a woman and he hated it. A lot of them did. They weren’t prepared to stand up to her."
What prospects then for the Conservative Party in 2015. Cameron is unlikely to be the victim of a leadership coup before the general election, even if Reckless wins Rochester. But despite Ed Miliband's vanishing poll lead, the election itself remains tough.
"It's impossible to say what's going to happen," he admits. "If I had to put a bet on, I would say the Tories will squeeze back with more seats. But they will never come anywhere near a majority."
Sir John is adamant that another coalition would be a disaster and Cameron should instead opt for a minority government. Another deal with the Lib Dems would be a mistake. And he scoffs at the idea of a Ukip pact or a Tory-Ukip coalition, which is favoured by some Conservative MPs. "It would be madness for the Tories to do deal with Ukip. It would be very stupid for Ukip to do a deal with the Tories. They have different objectives."
Should Miliband win in 2015 however, Cameron will be done for. And Sir John says there are some sitting Tory MPs that he believes could take the party back from the "liberal" Cameroons that he so objects to. "I think of one or two people who could lead the Conservative Party," he says, before adding with a wry nod. "But I'm not going to answer the question because you are recording me. If I was to name somebody then that becomes a headline."
Sir John Nott's latest book 'Mr Wonderful Seeks Immortality' (The Diary of a Restless Man)' is available from SilverWood Books. ISBN 9781781321973, 282 pages, Also available as an ebookSuggest a correction