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More MS news articles for March 2004

Edith backs me to the hilt, says rising Rifkind

Sun 29 Feb 2004
Brian Brady
Scotland on Sunday

She is a "sturdy warrior" who has stood dutifully beside her husband throughout both his distinguished Westminster career and his descent into the political wilderness.

But when illness struck and Sir Malcolm Rifkindís wife Edith was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, many doubted whether the ex-Edinburgh MP would ever feel able to re-enter the rough and tumble of frontline politics.

But in a wide-ranging interview with Scotland on Sunday, Sir Malcolm and Edith have told how her "robust health" means she will be at her husbandís side as she watches him "come alive again" after winning the Tory nomination in the safe seat of Kensington and Chelsea.

It had been suggested in the past that Rifkind had ruled out chasing a seat in England because of the need to be close to Edith as she battled with MS.

But the former foreign secretary, who is almost certain to be re-elected within 18 months at the next general election, was forthright as he both paid tribute to his wife and refused to rule out the possibility of running for the Tory leadership after Michael Howard.

Senior Tories last night claimed their former colleague was a "cast-iron certainty" to return to the Tory front-bench.

Rifkind has been out of parliament for almost seven years, since he lost the Edinburgh Pentlands seat, which he failed to win back in 2001. Early in his time in the political wilderness, Edith was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and although Rifkind insisted she was still mobile, he observed: "Inevitably one has to be conscious of oneís responsibilities in that area."

His wife also hinted that the couple would have to slow down their lifestyles, saying: "It is frustrating for both of us at a time when we could be doing so many things. I get enormously tired. But I can use an automatic car and still do most of my own shopping."

The attitude was interpreted by some as an indication that Rifkind was preparing to scale down his political ambitions, after serving 23 years as an MP, 18 of them in an unbroken stint as a minister under Margaret Thatcher and then John Major.

But, in the comfort of his flat in the shadow of Westminster Abbey, hours after winning his ticket back to Parliament, Rifkind insisted the couple had never accepted consigning his career to the history books. "Edith is a very sturdy warrior," he explained. "She is fully supportive of me in doing this.

"She does have a significant disability in her left leg and left hand, but she drives and she can get about. Sheís obviously in robust health."

Nevertheless, Edith Rifkind yesterday confessed that returning to the public eye would present its own problems. She said: "Iím tremendously excited itís all starting again - I just hope my illness doesnít get in the way. Malcolmís been incredibly good, helping me out. Itís going to be tough when heís back in the heart of politics. But itís worth it, watching him come alive again."

Rifkind, who admitted that his wifeís condition was "inevitably a worry", insisted Edith was "determined that she is going to have as normal a life as possible". He said: "She has forced me to sit through the full cycle of Wagnerís Ring. She took me off to the Galapagos islands where we had to do things like climbing into a dinghy."

The Pacific islands have become a place of pilgrimage for chastened Tories. Kenneth Clarke returned ready to launch his last Tory leadership bid after holidaying there with Tory grandees Lord Hurd and Lord Heseltine.

Most notably, the archipelago was a stopping-off point in Michael Portilloís voyage of self-discovery after he was rejected as an MP in 1997.

Rifkind is set to replace his old colleague as MP for chic Kensington and Chelsea, popularly known as K&C. But, unlike Portillo, he feels he has nothing to apologise for when he looks back over his performance in government.

"I was in a different situation [to Portillo] in 1997," he said. "I was basically one of the casualties of the great unpopularity of the government. When we were losing safe seats in England it is hardly surprising we lost a marginal in Scotland. People say donít ring us, weíll ring you. It is quite brutal.

"Michael recognised that he had a particular problem because, unfairly in my view, there was a lot of antipathy towards him. A lot of people relished his defeat. Heís a very sensitive person. He spent a good deal of time trying to examine why that might be so."

Rifkind also maintains that Portilloís decision to reveal his past homosexual experiences was "unwise", and could have cost him the leadership of the party in 2001. "We are good friends but we are very different kinds of people," he added.

But, like Portillo in the past, Rifkind conspicuously refused to rule out running for high office within the party, and even the leadership.

"All of us like to do what we think we can to make the best contribution to public life," he said. "Iíve been very fortunate in that Iíve held senior cabinet office. If it never happened again Iíd be entirely relaxed.

"But I donít hide from anyone the fact that in addition to that if there was an opportunity to serve Iíd be happy to do that and Iíd positively welcome it."

The lure of Westminster has been so great over the past seven years that Rifkind has kept his flat in the area, although it has also been handy during his frequent trips to London to work as a consultant.

"When you work as a consultant you are very much a jack of all trades and master of none. If youíve been used to being in the position where you have responsibility and take decisions and so forth, if you are able to do that again, that is very tempting."

Evidence of Rifkindís undiminished appetite should provide consolation for Howard, who is leading a team one of his closest aides admits is not "over-burdened with experience, or talent".

But the return of another former cabinet minister from his own generation may also provoke some wariness on the part of the leader, particularly as Rifkind has a history of supporting his most formidable opponent.

"I supported Ken Clarke in both [leadership] campaigns he stood in," Rifkind confessed. "He had more experience than either Michael or I had. He seemed to be the person best placed to lead the party to recovery."

And the former defence secretary has been particularly scathing in his criticism of Howardís predecessor Iain Duncan Smith and his failure to scrutinise the governmentís policy on waging war in Iraq.

But, for the moment at least, both Howard and Rifkind appear to be content with each otherís recent performances.

"Michael and I were colleagues together and got on very well together. He was kind enough to ring [after the selection contest] and pass on his congratulations.

"Iím very much happier with Michael, and for one fundamental reason: the public have to feel that the leader of the opposition is a credible alternative prime minister. Fair or unfair, they didnít feel that under Iain."

Whether the public in the hopelessly glamorous K&C, with a constituency party run by Madonnaís mother-in-law, are expecting a future prime minister remains unclear.

Given that he is following the womanising Alan Clark and a former macho defence secretary who subsequently admitted to a gay past, Rifkind knows expectations are high.

"Iím incredibly dull and respectable and relatively conventional," he said. "Iíd like to think that helped swing the selection."

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