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1997 - Mr Major’s Joint Briefing with Ian Lang

Below is the text of Mr Major’s joint briefing with the President of the Board of Trade, Ian Lang, held en route to London on Tuesday 14th January 1997.


PRIME MINISTER:

I thought we might just round what has been happening and maybe just possibly look forward, a little, before you ask me to do so. But let us do the round-up first. I will get Ian to speak on the business side.

MR LANG:

This has been a very successful trip from the business point of view and I hope that you will take a further opportunity to speak to some of the businessmen who have been negotiating long-standing negotiations and advancing them a bit further. You have been given a list of the deals that have been concluded and the signings that have taken place in the last week. That is not a special exceptional situation, that is a slice out of what is a continuing process of deal-making and contract winning which is happening in India and Pakistan, as it is all over the world. And this mission, although it has been very successful and has had a high profile because the Prime Minister has led it, and you have been on it, is one of a large number of such missions that Ministers lead around the world. There will have been about 60 in the past year, led by myself, by Tony Nelson, by Peter Fraser, to a range of markets. They help enormously because they open doors for businessmen that might not otherwise open; they raise the profile of British industry and companies in the markets concerned; and they help to clinch deals because of the timing of the visits. And that is why our exports are at an all time high, building on the competitiveness that we have achieved.

In India, as you know, our exports have risen by 80 percent in the last 4 years and we are the biggest investor from abroad. In Pakistan we are just overtaking the Americans as an investor and our trade with them has risen in the last few years and is broadly in balance. It is a tough market but one of immense potential. We are supporting 300 trade fares in the next year. We will be supporting a similar number of missions. And tomorrow I shall be launching the Central European Campaign, and in a few weeks time a Latin American campaign. So in the broad context this is part of a massive continuing effort that is repaying the action that the Prime Minister and the Government have taken at home in the last few years, and repaying at a level which has never been surpassed and which has led our standing in these countries and the other markets around the world, to a very high level indeed, as I am sure you will have heard yourselves during your visit.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, would you expect to step up the number of delegations like this that you take overseas?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, they are accelerating. And we would set them up, not because we have suddenly invented the thought of doing it, we haven't, but because the way the British economy is growing, there will be greater opportunities. There are a whole range of parts of the world where the scope, both traditionally and because of what is going to happen in those economies for greater British involvement, is very real. The whole of the Asian sub-continent, South Africa, parts of Latin America, quite apart from our traditional markets - some of those are our traditional markets - quite apart from our European market I should more accurately have said, so the answer is yes.

[small section missing]

PRIME MINISTER:

I think we had better see what he has said. I think it is important to see what the guy has said. Let us carry on, shall we go on? Let me just consult my aide memoire to remind me of the things I want to raise with you boys.

What is the reason for the trip, one or two of you asked me earlier. Well I would say contacts and contracts. The more we have contacts between our companies and their companies, our government and theirs, the greater the chance of getting contracts. That is the situation today and it is going to remain ,the situation in the future. That is why the answer to your question of a moment ago is yes, there will be more Of this, a good deal more if it. We have accelerated it a lot in the last few years and will go on doing it.

On the question of drugs, I will answer questions about drugs if you want me to, but I have not really a great deal more to say than what I said yesterday, but if you wish me to answer questions I will.

One thing I think has come out of this trip quite clearly is a pretty good realisation of the work that ODA do. People often think of ODA in terms of disaster relief and matters of that sort, but I think the practical work that they do, they and the British Council, that actually hits people who are in very severe circumstances sometimes, and in the case of British Council and education is as good as anywhere you will get in the world, and that is why we constantly talk about the quality of the British aid programme, as much as the size of the British aid programme.

I think we have had a pretty good trip. It has been very enjoyable, I also think it has been hugely worthwhile and I think it has sown the seeds for some extremely fruitful business relationships in the future. So I am pretty buoyant about the trip. And as one or two of you reminded me in interviews just before, we are getting close to an election, I don't know how close to it, I am not going to tell you how close to an election, but I am looking forward to that. I like elections, I am raring to go when we get back on the domestic scene. I daresay there will be a fair amount to be done. What you have seen on this trip is the extent to which the UK is well received overseas. Sometimes our perception of ourselves is not as generous as the perception of ourselves that the rest of the world have. And hope on this occasion that you have seen the perception of Britain by a very large and important part of the rest of the world.

When I say the perception of Britain, I don't just mean the politicians, I mean the business community as well. We are a big overseas investor. We have a very large investor presence, one of the biggest in the world, and that is now going to accelerate. When we get back tonight I daresay it will be quite an interesting period domestically in terms of politics. I look forward to the issues that we have got to discuss. There is still an amount of work to be done before the election. There is the Finance Bill which cuts taxes in a way our opponents would never have done; there is the Education Bill which carries forward reforms that our opponents would not have carried forward; there are the law and order measures that carry forward a very tough law and order programme, that is, despite all they have said, being opposed root and branch by the opposition; there is the work we are proposing on reforming social security, which would not have been done under any other government and would not be carried forward under any other government. So there are some very hard and fast areas of clear cut policy difference between the two sides.

Now I am going to continue to talk about government policy, I am going to continue to talk about government policies and the way in which we begin to change them, to make sure that families have more opportunities to take their own decisions, with less of those decisions actually being taken by government, national and local. That is an instinctively Conservative view and it is one we are going to follow. We are going to continue to concentrate on the main policy issues up to now and the election. And as an adjunct to that, we will expose what we see as the danger of the Labour policies, and the Liberal policies, insofar as their policies are clear.

If I may take some of those policies. What is very striking is that they are very keen to talk about almost anything except the detail of how they would do what they have promised to do. Detail seems to be a forbidden subject for them. Let me give you two examples of that. The details on their constitutional changes in Scotland cannot be seen, even with a very long telescope on a very clear day.

What are they going to do in Scotland about what has become known as the West Lothian question? Why is it right for Scottish MPs to decide - in a Scottish Parliament, were there to be one - on education in Scotland, and then come down to decide on education in England? Where is the merit in that? What is the justification for that? What, equally, is the justification, if there were to be a Scottish Parliament, for the continued very large representation - over-large representation - of Scotland in the Westminster Parliament? Now those are just two, Ian could add a long list of other questions, to which, despite repeated questions, the answer comes there are none.

When asked those questions, leading members of the Opposition say the answer is the same as they have always given. Well I am offering a prize for someone who can tell me what the answer they have always given is. Because the answer they have always given is evasion, not information.

And then of course there is the windfall tax - this wonderful golden money tree that hangs at the bottom of a putative Labour Chancellor's garden. Well who are the companies to be taxed? Do you not think it would be a good idea if they were told? what is the rate of tax they are going to face? Is every company undertaking that sort of business going to be taxed, or do the smaller companies that are now providing competition in the utilities, are they going to find they face taxes as well?

If they are not, how do Labour propose to deal with the unfair distortion of competition in that market, if some companies are taxed and others are not taxed? And then perhaps, since they tell us they are certain it is legal, this tax, when some lawyers seem to think it is not - I don't know whether it is legal or not, but some lawyers think it is not, the Labour Party say it - well perhaps since they are so keen on open government they can publish the information and advice they have had to explain why it is legal and why the lawyers who think it is illegal are wrong. In the interests of open government, in the interests of transparency, in the interests of competition and in the interests of telling companies what taxes they will pay if they are going to run a straightforward campaign, perhaps we should hear about these things. So I think those are some of the issues that are going to arise during the weeks that lie ahead.

As far as Europe is concerned, I talked to you about that the other day. I understand you wrote quite a lot about it. There is not a great deal more I wish to say on this occasion. I will be engaged in the negotiations. I will be seeing Juppe very soon; Prodi, the Italian Prime Minister, I think I see both Juppe and Prodi in the next two or three weeks. Malcolm Rifkind will be fully engaged with our European partners and will be seeing Aznar, the Spanish Prime Minister, very soon.

So those are some of the things that are appearing on the political agenda and I hope it will provide you with the odd snippet between now and polling day, whenever it might be.

QUESTION:

Tony Blair recently, on the Frost Programme, derided you for weak leadership. What is your reaction to that kind of personal attack?

PRIME MINISTER:

If he doesn't want to talk about politics, he has got to deal with the politics of insult, and that is what the Labour Party have been doing. When he accuses me of that, he then goes on to state exactly the same position as far as this single currency is concerned for his party. So perhaps he should look in the mirror before he advances charges like that. But the essence of it really is that if he doesn't want to talk about policy - you can always be sure when they don't want to talk about policy, they wheel out Tony Blair, or John Prescott or Brian Wilson in order to abuse - well I don't think that will wash with the British electorate.

QUESTION:

Do you see leadership as an important issue in the campaign? As the previous questioner said, your opponents are saying that your leadership has not been sufficiently decisive and powerful, and they are trying to make leadership a big. part of the campaign. Are you prepared to do so?

PRIME MINISTER:

It is the politics of insult, isn't it? Leadership is about what actually is achieved. I will actually refer you to the front page of the Guardian just a few days ago, which was absolutely exemplary, I think it was first-class. It listed what interest rates were in 1992, what unemployment was in 1992, what growth was in 1992, and it indicated how much all those things had improved. Leadership is the outcome of policy, leadership is what determines the policies that are followed and whether it is successful depends upon whether those policies prove to be successful. I am indebted to the Guardian for showing that it has been successful. I am sorry the Labour leadership no longer read the Guardian.

QUESTION:

That same front page in the Major-supporting Guardian also indicated that you weren't getting any thanks from the public in the opinion polls for all those improved statistics. How are you really going to turn that round? You offered a few words in an interview just now of general summary, but it really is a problem for you between now and the election, isn't it?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think people are beginning to see what is happening in the economy. For a long time people have been in a mode where they have felt Britain wasn't doing as well as she might have done. I think it is now apparent that we are doing much better than we have done for very many years, and much better than any other country of remotely comparable Size in Europe. Now we all operate in the same economic conditions around the world. People should ask themselves, will ask themselves I think, why is Britain doing better. And the reason that Britain is doing better is because we have followed different policies, and we have followed different policies because the leadership of the Conservative Party has decided those are the right policies. Events have shown those policies are right.

Now if we had followed the policies advocated by successive Labour leaders, we would not have unemployment falling, we would not have growth rising, we would not have low inflation, we would not have the borrowing requirement falling, we would not have record exports, we would not have the best economic scenario for generations. I am happy to go in the election on the basis of the best economic scenario since any of you were in short trousers.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, it is going to be a 20 hour day.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, no, Michael, it is going to be longer.

QUESTION:

Longer than 20 hours, 20 hour plus days, how many more of those are you prepared to put in between now and the election?

PRIME MINISTER:

As many as are necessary until polling day?

QUESTION:

The Sunday Telegraph reported that they are going to send you to bed early [inaudible] get up late?

PRIME MINISTER:

Nobody has told me that.

QUESTION:

It was the Sunday Telegraph.

PRIME MINISTER:

It is not yet in the Guardian and if I were you I wouldn't print it.

QUESTION:

[Inaudible].

PRIME MINISTER:

I do not anticipate getting to bed especially early, no. Much too much to do.

QUESTION:

When the Cabinet meets on Thursday, will you be seeing the revised report from the Chancellor of the Exchequer?

PRIME MINISTER:

I doubt it will be this Thursday.

QUESTION:

So does that mean it will be discussed at the Special Political Cabinet at Chequers?

PRIME MINISTER:

Possibly, I will have to wait and see. I will see how far the Chancellor has got when I get back and then it will come to Cabinet fairly soon. When it will be, I will decide over the next couple of days.

QUESTION:

On the subject of the single currency, do you believe there is any prospect of a change of government policy before the election?

PRIME MINISTER:

I am tempted to follow Tony Blair and say my answer is the same I have given you a hundred times before.

QUESTION:

I am tempted to give the same answer you gave a couple of moments ago to that reply.

PRIME MINISTER:

But you know the answer I have given you, you can look it up.

QUESTION:

But what is your current position on the single currency?

PRIME MINISTER:

You know what our position is on the single currency, we went all through this the other day, I am not being side-tracked again, lots of other messages today.

QUESTION:

And the prospects of it changing before the election?

PRIME MINISTER:

You know the answer to that question, I am not getting side-tracked on that again today.

QUESTION:

I wouldn't be asking you if I knew the answer.

QUESTION:

That is all you are getting today.

QUESTION:

On Europe the other day, you suggested that you had found a way of unlocking the principal problem of let us call it modernisation of the Europe Union?

PRIME MINISTER:

It was the IGC I was talking about.

QUESTION:

Yes, but at the same time you said you thought it would be something that for some EU member states would be difficult to swallow. Isn't that a contradiction in terms?

PRIME MINISTER:

Lots of things are difficult to swallow, but the negotiations at Amsterdam will have to be agreed by unanimity. And the only way in which the European Community can develop is the way I have set out. Now some people are very federalist because they see it as being in the interests of their country. Well that is fine for them, but it isn't fine for the European Union as a whole. And have to look at the British interests and the European Union as a whole and centralism, or federalism - call it what you will, federalism means different things in Europe so it is a confusing term - isn't very appropriate for us, so we are not going to go down that route.

QUESTION:

Does that mean that if you are still Prime Minister in June that you will be throwing your weight around and saying that we are not giving ground, take or leave it?

PRIME MINISTER:

I wouldn't call it throwing my weight around. If you mean will I negotiate toughly for what I think is the British interest, the answer is I will, yes, of course.

QUESTION:

You are going back tonight to take part in the Finance Bill. There is obviously quite a long period of guerilla warfare if you like from the Labour Party with the breakdown of the pairing arrangements. Are you worried that that might have an effect on your own troops, on their moral in the run-up to the election?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I am not. The Conservative Party is getting ready for an election. It is a very important election. There is a lot at stake, as there always is in elections. This instance, in many ways, has more at stake than there usually is, because the state of the economy will open up more options for the next parliament than traditionally has been the case over the last 25 - 50 years. So I think the Conservative Party in Parliament and beyond it will recognise that.

QUESTION:

You have spoken about the need for Labour to flesh out more detail on its policies. Do you have any intention in the campaign to give a firm date by which you might reach your goal of reducing the base rate of tax to 20p or reduce capital taxes?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I don't have a firm date. We are setting out an objective, much as we originally set out the objective from 33 pence to 25 pence in the basic rate of tax without a timescale, we are setting out the objective. We will do it prudently, I am not going to put a timescale on it, but that is our objective to reduce taxes in that way and as and when it is financially possible to do it, we will do it. But I am not going to tie myself to an artificial timescale, neither do I think it would be politically wise to do so.

QUESTION:

What sort of manifesto are you looking for, are you looking for a radical manifesto or a fairly cautious safety-first manifesto?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think you will find some interesting things in the manifesto when it comes, perhaps I can just say that.