Lord Hill of Oareford

Lord Hill will not be Britain’s next European Commissioner. The Leader of the House of Lords seized the chance, during this interview, to deny the rumours that he is a candidate for this post.

Jonathan Hill (as he then was) instead recalled the large number of eggs thrown at John Major during the victorious 1992 general election campaign. While Neil Kinnock, as Labour leader, fought a slickly choreographed campaign, it was Major who, in the course of a number of chaotic outings on his soap box, achieved the priceless advantage of authenticity.

Hill suggested Cameron needs to find some similar way to achieve authenticity, against an opponent – Ed Miliband – who is in many ways the Kinnock de nos jours.

But Hill warned against making personal attacks on Miliband, and said voters should instead be allowed to make up their own minds about the Labour leader.

After the great victory of 1992, which was the last time the Tories won an overall majority, disputes within the party about Europe soon made life almost unbearable for Major. Hill, who was at the Prime Minister’s side in Downing Street, compared the experience to being inside “a medieval torture chamber”.

ConHome: “If the Prime Minister asked you to be our next European commissioner, would you consent?”

Hill: “Non, non, non.”

ConHome: “You speak French! This means you are highly suitable.”

Hill: “First, I don’t believe I’m going to be asked. Secondly, I like it here. I quite like it at home, in the British Isles. I don’t think it’s something that’s going to arise. Like all these things, you see your name being punted around by other people. It acquires then a life of its own, which is nothing to do with me. I assume, although I don’t know, that the reason I ever got put publicly in the frame for it is the assumption that people want to find an MP, and then they think, oh gosh, there’s a problem with a by-election, but what does that leave you with? Oooh, there’s that other place called the House of Lords, apparently, oh wasn’t there someone called Cathy Ashton who used to be Leader of the House of Lords [who got sent from that position to be a European Commissioner], that I guess was the thought sequence. I’m not too fussed about the stories. I’m not too active in cultivating a profile or anything at all really.”

ConHome: “Very generally, 1992 and all that – what lessons are there from what turned out to be a very successful general election campaign? It’s the last time the Tories won an overall majority and most people then didn’t expect the Tories would manage it.”

Hill [after a long pause]: “No they didn’t. I think there are some parallels, but that’s slightly different from lessons. My not very sophisticated view about general elections is that they boil down to ‘Is it time for a change, or not?’ And Labour fought ‘92 as a ‘time for a change’ election. But I think the public thought, there had been a bit of a change from Thatcher to Major, and that when Major came in things economically were not going terribly well but over the intervening 18 months they started coming back on track. But also they took a look at Mr Kinnock and decided they didn’t fancy him thank you very much. If you scroll forward to 2015 and you look at, does it feel like it’s a ‘time for a change’ election, well I don’t think it does, because I think you would have to say if you were fair-minded that Cameron inherited a basket case, things are a hell of a lot better now, there’s a way to go, but they’re better than anyone would have thought possible in 2010. I think the public clearly have got questions about Mr Miliband – Does he look like a Prime Minister? Can he represent Britain abroad? – in the same way as they had about Mr Kinnock.”

ConHome: “How does the Tory Party handle this? Because I was very struck in your book about the 1992 general election [Too Close To Call by Sarah Hogg and Jonathan Hill] John Major saying to you during the campaign, when presented with a draft speech: ‘No, I couldn’t possibly say that. I do not want to attack Mr Kinnock.’ Now I’m not saying that he invariably refrained from attacking Mr Kinnock. But in the 2010 election, the Tories made the error of attacking Gordon Brown too much. And in fact, on the whole, voters want to make up their own minds, and they can see pretty clearly what kind of a person Kinnock or Brown or Miliband is. Some of them intend to vote Labour despite the deficiencies of whoever happens to be the Labour leader.”

Hill: “Yes, well, I don’t remember Major saying that. He’s perfectly capable of saying ‘I don’t want to attack someone personally’ and then the next day attacking them. He had a particular trick which was deeply disconcerting of standing up there with a typed up speech which sometimes I’d written. He’d stand there in front of people and say, ‘Now sitting in the front row is my political secretary. He’s written me a wonderful speech to give to you. Well this is what I want to do.’” Hill made the gesture of a man ripping a sheaf of papers in half, accompanied by the noise this would make. “And that of course always brought the house down.”

ConHome: “Magnificent. He rises in my estimation.”

Hill: “So I think like all of these things there is a question of tone. I think by and large British people don’t like you playing the man. But you do have to find ways of making sure people know what the choice is. So making sure that people remember what was the state of things in 2010. But I agree that doesn’t mean you’re personally offensive about things.”

ConHome: “In the book you describe how Major decided against your advice to use the soap box. And this made him authentic: it was his way of doing things.”

Hill: “It was.”

ConHome: “He liked the rough and tumble of street politics.”

Hill: “Yes. And during the campaign the wiseacres all said the Labour campaign was brilliant and the Tory campaign was utterly hopeless, because theirs was slick, Mr Kinnock was whizzing around in a Jaguar, he wasn’t allowed to say anything to anyone, they looked jolly good, we looked utterly shambolic, we ran late, the programme was over-stacked and all the rest of it. And the other parallel, weirdly, was the emphasis Major placed on the Union [of Scotland and England] during the 1992 campaign. That’s come round again in a way.”

ConHome: “I saw that Ed Llewellyn [now David Cameron’s Chief of Staff] had to hold the loudhailer during the campaign.”

Hill: “He didn’t have to. He volunteered. He loved the melée. He was always in the thick of it, Ed. Or Egg, as he became known, not very originally.”

ConHome: “So he got hit by lots of eggs.”

Hill: “Lots of eggs.”

ConHome: “Did you get hit by eggs?”

Hill [laughs]: “Of course not. I was cowering behind the detectives. It was mainly Ed and the Prime Minister. And Norman Fowler. Whenever we were egged, I tried to claim they weren’t throwing eggs at the Prime Minister, it was Norman Fowler who was the real target.”

ConHome: “The Tories need something that would convey a similar feeling of authenticity. “

Hill: “All these things, you have to do something that’s true to you. If you end up doing something that’s not I think we’re very good at discerning what’s bogus.”

ConHome: “Why is it so difficult to lead the Tory Party?”

Hill: “I think a number of things have come together. When I was first knocking around in the mid-Eighties there were quite a lot of people around who’d been through the war, and who’d been in the whips’ office and all of that stuff, and in terms of party discipline, obeying instructions, there was more of that and I think that’s changed over time.”

Hill proceeded to describe how terrible things got after Britain was forced out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1993: “That sense of being in a medieval torture chamber with the walls coming in and the floor and the ceiling. You start off with a majority of 21, which means you can lose 11 people, and then there was an above-average death rate, so you’re getting by-elections, things were going wrong, a downward cycle, you lose everything. A medieval torture chamber in terms of that feeling in Number Ten, what is your freedom of manoeuvre, that growing sense of pressure as to which way could you turn and how could you recapture the initiative and chart a way through.”

ConHome: “It’s in some ways a rather worrying thought that now that things are going rather better, there might be a small majority of 21 next time.”

Hill: “Yes, well, we’ll see. I’m not a great one for worrying too much about the things I can’t affect. But I also think when you look back over the last four years everyone’s very good about making predictions about the imminent collapse of the coalition. Well it sort of hasn’t happened.”

ConHome: “Why hasn’t it happened?”

Hill: “It doesn’t to me feel a lot different from when we had single-party government. All political parties, governments, are coalitions, and it’s just a different kind of coalition. Read Bernard Donoughue’s diaries from the 1970s. I had forgotten, or didn’t know, just how personally vituperative that time was. In a way what happened to the Tory party in the 1990s was the collapse of the coalition.”

ConHome: “People say the House of Lords is much too large.”

Hill: “How many more members do you think there are now in the four main groupings now than six or seven years ago?”

ConHome: “Well there are 780 peers now altogether.”

Hill: “It’s 18.”

ConHome: “Really?”

Hill: “Yes. So what has changed is there are more people who take part and contribute.”

ConHome: “There are some debates which are so over-subscribed, and you impose a time limit, that people only get two or three minutes each.”

Hill: “Very small numbers. You tend to have that if members want to talk about constitutional reform or foreign policy.”

ConHome: “Do you think any more peers are going to be created before the next election?”

Hill: “That is a matter for the Prime Minister. These things happen at some time or other.”

ConHome: “Although the Tories have got tremendous expertise in some fields, in fields like social policy and health and even actually the law, you don’t have great strength.”

Hill: “There are different subjects which would naturally attract different kinds of people. I think though that is the case for why you need to from time to time under the current dispensation to refresh the House.”

Hill described in his usual tone of affable self-deprecation, which tends to go down very well among peers, the excellence of the work done in the Lords to revise legislation.

ConHome [in the knowledge that Hill took a First in History at Trinity College, Cambridge]: “Who are your historical heroes?”

Hill: “I don’t know. I have an appalling weakness for the wrong side, so obviously I’m a Yorkist rather than a Lancastrian, which is very bad as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster [an office he combines with being Leader of the House of Lords]. The English Civil War question is very hard.”

ConHome: “Come on. You brought it up.”

Hill: “I did. Although Charles I was clearly hopeless in every respect, I find it very hard to read about the English Civil War and the way it ended, so that must tell you that I would have been a royalist. The fall of Byzantium still bothers me. And the Battle of Hastings – I can’t read about the Battle of Hastings.”

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