Speak to any Tory MP for long enough and the conversation soon drifts to the only subject anyone in Westminster wants to talk about: Europe.
And, sure enough, sitting in oak-panelled ministerial offices just off Parliament’s central lobby, the Government’s softly spoken Solicitor General, Robert Buckland, soon turns to Brussels and the Prime Minister’s protracted renegotiation.
But the Llanelli-born Tory – a keen pro-European – has a clear warning to the “outers” threatening SNP-style “neverendums” in the event of a “remain” vote this year: “Whatever the outcome, the party has to remember that life isn’t all about that one issue.”
He warns that the public will be “dismayed” if the party’s obsession with Europe spills out into open warfare in the run-up to the referendum. But isn’t he – perhaps the most openly pro-European Conservative minister since Ken Clarke – in a minority on this issue? Won’t the party, now overwhelmingly Eurosceptic, want to punish David Cameron by electing an outer as the next leader?
Relaxing on his sofa, next to two crystal decanters – one for single malt whisky, the other for brandy – Buckland insists the party “instinctively knows, you can’t be self-indulgent and please yourself”. He says the Tories “accept the world as it is, rather than how you imagine or would like it to be”. This, he says, is “the essence of being a Conservative”.
He adds: “That’s what the Prime Minister understands, and the vast majority of the party as well, regardless of their views on Europe. I know the party inside out, I trust them to make a sound decision. This party chose Margaret Thatcher, it chose John Major – the right decision – and, under the new system, it chose David Cameron. Not a bad record.”
He says the Conservative Party has “always been strongest when it is near to, or on, the common ground of British politics”.
This means “reaching out to people who might not have ever voted for us”. The next Tory leader will not be a narrow Eurosceptic right-winger, he claims, but someone who can “break through the 40 per cent barrier nationally” by appealing to northern, working-class voters.
“We haven’t done enough of that – we haven’t broken through the 40 per cent barrier. Having that ability to reach out to parts of the country which have so far proved resistant to our charms has got to be the next challenge ... the Birminghams and the Manchesters.”
It is almost a call to arms to the One Nation wing in his party – a warning that the Iain Duncan Smiths and Chris Graylings do not alone represent the party.
But who is there willing to keep alive Cameron’s centrist flame, as he sees it? Would he throw his hat into the ring to succeed the PM?
“Oh God, oh dear, it’s a long time off,” he stutters. “I want the Conservative Party to succeed and I want the One Nation tradition to flourish and I’ll do anything to make sure that that happens.” That sounds like a yes, I suggest. “Well, I don’t know, it’s a long time off – three years or more ... it’s a Grand National and we’re not past the Melling Road yet.”
Buckland is full of praise for the Prime Minister’s “One Nation” push – concentrating on tackling discrimination and barriers to social mobility. “We have thrived and prospered on the fact that we have talked about and debated the issues which are of direct relevance to families, and workers and pensioners and people up and down this country.”
Turning back to Europe and the prospect of Eurosceptic anger after the referendum, Buckland becomes animated.
“We are not some kind of debating club – we are a serious political party and we’ve been given the responsibility of governing the United Kingdom. That’s what we have to concentrate on.”
He insists he is “optimistic” about the renegotiation and is happy with the referendum. “The Prime Minister has really put his back into this. I think he has made significant headway in persuading other countries that (a) it’s important to Britain that we get concessions and a renegotiation, and (b) we are doing this because we want Europe to work better.”
But he is also optimistic about the prospect of the Tory party remaining intact – having learnt the lessons of the 1990s. “I know enough to know how damaging that was ... there’s a sense of never again within the Conservative Party, which I think will carry us through ...
“It’s the public’s decision [on Europe] – so let’s respect that, let’s respect them and their ability to come to a decision on this.”
Internet Lessons at primary school
Schoolchildren as young as nine will be taught about their legal rights and responsibilities under a new, government-backed programme designed to stop youngsters running up huge bills on mobile phones and sharing inappropriate photos.
Ministers are concerned that children are “entering into legal relationships and obligations that they don’t fully understand”, because of the easy accessibility of the internet.
Solicitor General Robert Buckland told The Independent on Sundaythat the spread of mobile phone apps, illegal downloading and “sexting” meant children needed to be taught the basics of law. He added that children also needed to understand more about their devices – “as opposed to it all being a mystery”.
He wants to see the “Lawyers in Schools programme” expanded from the present 30 schools to cover every state secondary in the country – more than 3,000.
“Young people need to know more about not just their rights but also their obligations,” Buckland said, adding that he was made aware of the problem on a visit to a comprehensive school in west London last year: “Lawyers from BBC Worldwide were talking to about 100 pupils about apps and downloads and copyright ... and bringing the subject alive.”
Teaching children about sexting and online sexual harassment would have to be “sensitively handled”, he said. “A lot of young people stray into this type of territory without thinking. Learning about life is learning about the consequences of your actions.”
With this knowledge, he said, children would help develop a more “cohesive” society”. “It’s about the society we have developed on this island, a balanced society which emphasises rights and responsibilities ... and equality under the rule of law.”
This article was originally published by Tom McTague, Political Editor, The Independent on Saturday 30th January 2016: