Arundel and South Downs MP Nick Herbert speaks exclusively to County Times reporter Simon Robb about his views on Danny Alexander’s attack on army spending; the coalition; the European Union and the gay marriage bill.
Ihad arranged to meet Nick Herbert primarily to discuss the pressing issue of house building in West Sussex.
But as I reached for my notepad in the kitchen of his Arundel home, it was clear there was another more vexing matter that had outraged him and that we should deal with first.
His Coalition Lib Dem colleague and Treasury chief secretary DannyAlexander had ridiculed the Ministry of Defence’s opposition to spending cuts by claiming the department had ‘more horses than tanks.’
Mr Herbert was not amused.
“It really irritated me,” he said bluntly. In seeking to explain the need for having to find savings in the Ministry of Defence, Danny Alexander trotted off this line that there were inefficiencies because the army had more horses than tanks.
“That is meaningless, it doesn’t tell us anything about the number of tanks we need. How does he think Trooping the Colour would be conducted otherwise? On bicycles?”
Trooping the Colour is a ceremony performed by the British and Commonwealth armies, a tradition that has lasted since the 17th century.
“It’s a massive cultural and economic asset to our country that we have the changing of the guards and the state opening of Parliament, which are not just watched by millions in this country, butworldwide and we should not knock it.
“I believe that most people who come to this country share an ideal about Britain and that is why people want to come and live here because of the nature of our country.”
With the general election now less than two years away, more open disagreements between coalition partners should not surprise anyone, but Mr Herbert said his comments were not motivated by party manoeuvring.
“I always try to look at what the coalition has achieved rather than the differences of the parties within it, and of course there are differences, we are not a merged party.”
In fact, since the Conservatives and Lib Dems joined forces the deficit is down by a third, immigration has been reduced by a third and Michael Gove’s academies programme has helped improve standards in schools like Midhurst and introduced Chichester Free School.
“I think those educational reforms are terrific and the welfare reforms that Ian Duncan Smith is driving were to make sure it pays to be in work and that we don’t tolerate a culture of worklessness.
“Whether you’re a Conservative or not, I think these are things that people would be very supportive of. So I will always look at the achievements and I think the coalition was needed at the time.”
Understandably, thought, Mr Herbert expressed that by 2015 he hopes that the Conservatives will win an outright majority vote and be able to govern on its own.
“Then we can put in place a distinctively Conservative agenda, one of which items will be a referendum on the membership of the EU, which is something I think the public have wanted for some time.”
In favour of the Private Member’s Bill to secure such a referendum in the next Parliament, Mr Herbert hopes that it will ensure the public get an in-out vote by the end of 2017.
“The Conservative party is serious about holding a referendum, but it can’t be held now for two reasons.
“Firstly, because the negotiations of resettling our membership of the EU are under way and have to be completed before a new deal can beoffered to the British people, and secondly because even if it was the right time now the Lib Dems wouldn’t let us.
“This Private Member’s Bill is a way for the Conservative party to attempt to get a bill through that we can’t introduce as a government because only agreed coalition measures can go through the government route.
“Whether or not you are in favour of a membership of the EU, I think most people feel that it’s them that should have the say. So it won’t be me deciding this issue, or him, or any politician ultimately, it will be the people.”
When challenged about whether a deal to revise the terms of Britain’s membership with the EU can be realistically secured, Mr Herbert responded with confidence.
“I do think a deal can be secured and I believe the Prime Minister thinks that too.
“When his speech was coming at the beginning of the year, it was predicted by everyone that people would say this is just a British vision that no one else has.
“It was interesting that the leaders of some important countries did not react in that way, in particular Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, said this is something that we can talk about, and I think that they correctly see that there is both an opportunity and a necessity to have these discussions now.
“These are countries that want to integrate more closely in order to prop up the Euro. Well, we can’t accept that for ourselves because we’re outside of the Euro zone - that would require harmonising taxes and losing control of our economy to a wholly unacceptable extent.
“If the British people don’t think that there’s a long stop deal then they’ll vote to leave.”
Straight talking politicians like Boris Johnson or UKIP leader Nigel Farage are people the public seem to respond to.
“I think that people do like politicians who say what they think, but equally the media do punish politicians when they speak out.
“I’ve always tried to say what I think about issues and to stick up for local communities, and sometimes that means saying something that isn’t popular with one section of the public, or with other politicians and the media, but you’ve got to do what you think is right.”
One issue that is largely backed by the local community is Mr Herbert’s support of tackling green field developments in West Sussex.
“Development is the single biggest issue in my post bag and for all the other issues that occasionally excite public interest, I’d say development is an ongoing public concern.”
To address this Mr Herbert will be attending the ‘Stop Storrington Sprawl’ public meeting held at Rydon School this Friday, June 28, 7pm.
Mr Herbert also opposes the proposed second runway at Gatwick Airport.
“I don’t think it’s a sensible place to do it. We’ve got to get away from this idea that you can solve a problem by having lots of satellite airports.
“The airlines want a hub airport and I think it’s right to set up a commission that will look at where this can go.
“This country’s economic future depends on having this hub airport, but I would oppose it at Gatwick.”
Now that the gay marriage legislation was passed in the House of Commons last month, another stepping stone has been created towards the bill becoming a reality, something which Mr Herbert greatly supports.
“Public attitudes have changed. Not everybody is in favour of it, but this is not a policy that’s going to harm anyone or be compulsory to anyone. Your church doesn’t have to conduct a gay marriage.
“It’s not often that parliament passes a law that simply does not affect the vast majority of people and yet there is still opposition from some, and it was passed by a big majority of the House of Commons and of the House of Lords.
“So I think that some of the vast majority were just in themisconceived view that it was going to force churches into something, which it won’t.”