It has been a fortnight since Oliver Heald's appointment as Shadow pensions minister and the seat in his predecessor's office is probably still warm. The pension hot seat is not particularly comfortable for anyone at the moment, especially for someone who is not from a financial background. But unlike John Bercow – who resigned because he felt he could not vote against the Government proposals on the unmarried couple's adoption issue – this former whips office employee knows exactly where to draw the party line.
Heald describes himself as a middle-of-the-road man and will not be drawn on where his loyalties lie should the looming prospect of a Portillo/Clarke alliance become a reality for the Conservative Party.
He started his political career in 1987 running for the unlikely Tory seat in Bermondsey and Southwark, quickly swapping this inauspicious start in Elephant & Castle for a slightly more cosy constituency in Hertfordshire. He went on to become junior pensions minister under Peter Lilley during the Maxwell pension scandal in 1992 so he knows how to survive in turbulent times.
During Thatcher's reign, even though everyone was working on the basis of a pension with an average 10 per cent yield, Heald says the party was already deeply concerned at the decline in final-salary schemes. He says even at that stage, there was a tendency for people to shift money from defined-benefit schemes into money-purchase schemes but it was unclear what the outcome of this would be.
Heald says: “We have a rapidly ageing population and it is all terribly worrying. I do not think my constituents realise just how bad the pension crisis is for the country as a whole. There is such a division between great swathes of the country, between people who are financially successful and those who are struggling.”
The Blair Government is holding crisis talks on the state of the pension industry and wondering where it all went wrong after promising a full overhaul of the system in 1997.
Heald says he broadly supports the Pickering report but is keen to maintain the confidence of the industry through consultation. He is particularly critical of Labour policies on means-testing which are having a damaging effect on saving. He thinks Labour has worsened the pension crisis with the double whammy of changes to advance corporation tax followed by stockmarket crashes.
On stakeholder, Heald says the Conservatives have always challenged the idea that the product was ever pitched at people who were on salaries of between £10,000 and £20,000. He says: “At the end, we decided, at the request of the industry, that we would have to go with it and honour this commitment to the schemes if we regained office.”
Heald is unconvinced that increasing contributions to the state pension via a higher National Insurance payment to an already “complex beast of a system” would be a good idea. He is in favour of more freedom within the system and strongly believes it should be possible for people to postpone payment of annuities at any point.
He also dismisses compulsion as an option. “I personally have always thought that forcing someone to take on a scheme would inevitably involve forcing someone to take on a scheme that was not adequate for them in some way.”
During the considerable amount of time that he spent working with Shadow health minister Liam Fox, Heald looked towards European models for inspiration. He says he would consider a similar approach looking abroad in his new role but cites Australia and the US markets as possible examples.
On the leadership of his party, although sounding more than a little uncertain, Heald says he thinks IDS will stay. “He has a strong mandate. After all, he gained the leadership in a very convincing way.”
From his background as a lawyer specialising in divorce settlements, Heald is probably used to dividing up the ground between warring factions but says: “I think it is inevitable that you will have arguments within a party at certain stages. What we now need to do is perform better as a party as a whole.”
He thinks now is the time when party members should be going out and selling the 25 policy ideas it presented at its conference, not arguing among themselves. “I am essentially a moderate – not a complete radical but it is essential that we should reassess our policies and move with the times. For far too long, the Conservative Party has tended to be too inward looking.”
In the early 1970s, Heald enjoyed speaking at Hyde Park Corner with the Young Conservatives. He describes the experience as a complete hubbub of noise and ideas and he misses the excitement to some extent. He harks back fondly to the era when it was easy for the united Conservatives to launch a full-scale attack on Labour rather than on themselves.
It is hard to imagine Heald as part of the soapbox gang in the park but someone is going to have to inject more animation into the party somehow. So, while the pile of ashes that was Bercow's career is left still smouldering, there is clearly an opening here for him to blaze a trail for himself.
Lives: Royston, Hertfordshire, with wife Christine and three children.
Born: Reading, 1954.
Education: Reading school, Pembroke College Cambridge University.
Career to date: Barrister in Cambridge. Parliamentary private secretary to Home Office minister and minister for agriculture. 1995 – minister in the Department of Social Security. 1996 – junior minister dealing with pension issues. 1997 – Opposition whips' office. 2000 – Shadow home affairs spokes-man. September 2001 – Shadow health minister. November 2002 – Shadow pensions minister.
Career ambition: To be in the Cabinet.
Life ambition: “All my ambitions outside of work are for my family.”
Likes: Film and cinema, spending time with his family.
Dislikes: Nanny state regulation.
Peers say: “Anyone from the pensions office during the Major era has blood on their hands.”
Car: “A conservative Rover.”