Three decades after his glory years as Margaret Thatcher’s longest-serving Chancellor, the irrepressible Lord Lawson is revelling in his political twilight
Lawson remains, if not unassailable, then certainly irrepressible
His Cabinet career may have ended following a bitter disagreement with Margaret Thatcher over the economy, but 25 years on Nigel Lawson clearly still reveres the former prime minister. So much so that when I compare the late Lady Thatcher to the woman tipped to one day succeed her, Theresa May, Lord Lawson can barely conceal his disdain.
“Oh she’s not remotely like Margaret Thatcher, not in any way, apart from the fact that she’s a woman, that’s the only thing, and also that she’s a Conservative – two things, but not in any other way whatsoever.”
The current Cabinet squabbles between May and Michael Gove seem parochial compared with the epic battles waged between the huge figures of the Thatcher government, chiefly over the economy and the European Union. Lawson resigned as Chancellor in 1989 after a clash with the prime minister and her close economic adviser Sir Alan Walters over the Exchange Rate Mechanism. When, following the resignation, Thatcher described Lawson as “unassailable”, it came to be used ironically, as the peer later observed in his Memoirs of a Tory Radical.
Today, at 82, and a quarter of a century since leaving frontline politics, Lawson should be in the sort of reflective semi-retirement many of his contemporaries enjoy in the upper house. But it seems every other week he is on the radio banging the drum for fracking, or intervening in the Government’s economic policies. And sitting across the table from me in a noisy tearoom in the Lords, Lawson is as intellectually sharp as I imagine he was in government, rigorous in his answers and critical of everything from David Cameron’s negotiating position on Europe to the global-warming “alarmists” who promulgate “propaganda”. His convictions are as strong and challenging as the coffee we are drinking.
The peer is serious but not as dry as the dust on the leather-bound copies of the House of Lords Hansard down the corridor: despite his age, he seems in robust physical health, with only a gentle stoop when he walks, and occasionally during our hour-long interview there is a flash of a warm smile. Lawson remains, if not unassailable, then certainly irrepressible.
When I ask him how he feels about the label of “climate-change sceptic” (although some environmental campaigners would choose the word “denier”), the peer, who was also Thatcher’s energy secretary, says: “I would rather you call me a climate-change dissenter because my objection is to the policies that are being pursued.
“There is no global warming to speak of going on at the moment. If you look at the Met Office statistics, that’s quite clear. But there could be, there clearly could. If it does happen, there would be a much slower process than the alarmists pretend. But the important question is, what do you do about it? This is where I am in complete disagreement with the parties of the Establishment.”
Yet how can he justify his position when 97 per cent of scientists say that global warming is happening now? Lawson corrects me: “It wasn’t 97 per cent of scientists – but what they did was take a whole load of papers which they selected and then they said 97 per cent of the papers said, as I have, that it could well happen. The only people who are in the 3 per cent were people saying, ‘No way it could ever happen.'”
But even David Cameron, who as prime minister has played down his green credentials, has linked the winter floods and last year’s devastating Typhoon Haiyan to global warming. “He’s talking through his hat,” says Lawson. “There’s been no increase in their number or intensity at all. All the experts are clear that you can’t link [these events] to warming, not surprisingly because there hasn’t been warming.”
Lawson’s strong personal views would be easily dismissed if he had no influence on the Government. Yet he has: George Osborne has become an enthusiast for shale gas, something Lawson has, through his Global Warming Policy Foundation, been advocating for a number of years; last year, the Chancellor announced tax breaks for fracking. Lawson has a “high regard” for Osborne, whom he says has “depth” and “thinks”, and the pair talk from time to time.
Fewer than half of voters support fracking, I point out, but Lawson is having none of it. “They don’t know anything about it, understandably, because it’s never happened in this country. There is a ridiculous campaign of misinformation by its opponents, which people can’t judge properly”. He says 99.5 per cent of what is used in drilling for shale is water and sand, and only 0.5 per cent is a “totally harmless” chemical, polyacrylamide, used in face creams.
Lawson wants a Cabinet committee, chaired by the Chancellor, to oversee Government policy on fracking. At the moment, there are four Whitehall departments and various agencies involved, which are “hopelessly unco-ordinated”.
As most of the UK’s shale gas deposits are in northern England, Lawson suggests that fracking could be the answer to the difficult question of how to rebalance the economy – while London is racing ahead thanks to its booming property market and global financial centre, many in government are worried that the regions are being left behind.