Interview: Sir Malcolm Rifkind

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By Rory Reynolds

TORY grandee Sir Malcolm Rifkind believes this week’s conference marked the last rites of the Labour Government and Gordon Brown – neither with a single rabbit left to pull out of the hat.

And that was even before The Sun dropped its bombshell of switching its support to David Cameron, while hedging its bets in its Scottish edition.

At the end of a turbulent week which had the Conservatives “measuring the curtains at No.10”, the long-serving Tory minister even sensed arch-survivor Peter Mandelson was preparing for the wilderness years after next spring’s General Election.

In a wide-ranging interview, the former Scottish Secretary said: “All the reports indicated, for understandable reasons, that the Labour party arrived at that conference very depressed, very low, talking about not if they would be defeated, but by how much they would be defeated.

“The very fact that they had to take comfort in a speech by Peter Mandelson sums it up.

“Mandelson is an extraordinary political figure – even Lazarus rose from the dead once, he’s done it twice.

“One can recognise a highly skillful political figure – but he’s shrewd and he knows perfectly well Labour is going to be defeated.“What he is trying to do is to maintain the moral of his party until it is all over and they can start trying to reconstruct themselves.

Remarkable

“There were so few people there that you could be forgiven for thinking it must have been a press conference.

“You only had to look at how empty the conference centre was to see the state that their party is in – we’ve been through similar circumstances – but this year our conference will be packed to the gunwales.

“You always wonder whether your political opponents are going to pull some rabbit out of the hat, if they had some remarkable announcement which will somehow transform the public mood – I didn’t think it would happen, and I don’t think Gordon Brown is capable of it anyway.

“I should imagine this week will be remembered more for the opposition of The Sun than anything said at the conference itself.

“It is not that the views of any one newspaper should be given that much weight – at the end of the day any decisions taken by the sun are taken by Mr Murdoch – one person.

“But it does have a symbolism and symbols are important in politics, and just as the Labour party got incredibly excited when The Sun decided to support Blair, so the severance of support is itself a symbol of the times we live in.”

Edinburgh-born Rifkind, 63, who served at the top levels of government for over a decade, said the the Conservative party were not getting carried away with their recent surge in the polls, but are quietly confident of victory next year.

Badly

He said: “You’ve got to be cautious on these occasions because all the evidence suggests we on the road towards quite a significant political victory and an end to years of political opposition – but you can’t take it for granted.

“First of all your relying on opinion surveys which may or may not be accurate, but secondly even if they are accurate the election is not tomorrow.

“It’s not for eight or nine months, it is looking hugely encouraging but I’m sure David Cameron will not be relaxing, nor anyone in the Conservative party, until the end of polling on the day itself.”

Rifkind, who was awarded a knighthood in 1997 for his services to Commonwealth and Foreign affairs, admitted that the recent success of the Conservative party in the polls was not reflected in Scotland, where the party have fared badly since Margaret Thatcher’s leadership.

However he said that the party has a greater awareness of Scottish issues, and believes that David Cameron, whose father is Scottish and whose family descend from the Highlands, has a firm understanding of the issues that are unique to Scotland.

He said: “David Cameron has already shown that with his statements and his whole approach to the Scottish dimension that he has every intention of being sensitive and responsive and seeking a much greater consensual approach to problem solving.

The Scottish Sun

“That’s partly because he believes in that – that’s the nature of the way he’s approached his leadership of the conservative party for the whole of the United Kingdom.

“But there’s an additional reason as well, David Cameron and the rest of us know perfectly well what Alex Salmond is up to.

“Salmond wants to provoke confrontation, Salmond hopes that with a re-emergence of a Conservative government in the United Kingdom, he will be able to use this as a way of dividing Scots from other citizens of the UK.

“And he’s not going to succeed, because not only do most Scots not want that, but no Conservative government will give him the opportunity to achieve that.”

The veteran political figure, who served as the Scottish secretary during the poll tax fiasco and the Lockerbie bombing, highlighted the fact that the Scottish National Party has failed to secure any support from the nation’s leading daily newspaper The Scottish Sun, which unlike its English counterpart, is yet to back a party.

The early to mid-nineties saw the Scottish Sun – in its infancy at the time – back the nationalists for several years, bearing high-profile front page campaigns for its ally, before ditching the beleaguered party for the Labour.

Rifkind said: “What is interesting – and the SNP must be very worried – is that at a time when the Labour party is hugely unpopular, The Scottish Sun is not backing SNP and has decided for the time being not to make up its mind.

“From the SNP’s point of view, I would have thought that is very depressing.

“If they’ve had the Scottish Sun’s support for some years in the past and don’t have it now – when Labour is hugely unpopular – that indicates that The Scottish Sun, together with most normal, sane people, think the whole independence obsession of Salmond is simply irrelevant to Scotland’s current needs.”

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