WORDS: PAUL WAUGH AND SAM MACRORY
When it comes to relaxing, for David Cameron there really is nothing like a Dane. The Prime Minister spent hours of his Christmas building mini-cities out of Lego. He then put in some serious quality time on the sofa with Samantha as they both ploughed through a boxset (a present from his wife) of drama series The Killing III. Finally, he rounded off a hard day’s chillaxing by reading Simon Jenkins’ new History of England…and is currently on the Viking invasion. “I’m reading about Vikings while watching The Killing. The Killing and Vikings, Jutland has been looming large,” he jokes.
But as his thoughts turn from the family festive season to the serious business of European politics, there’s one Danish export that the PM won’t be watching: Borgen.
Asked if he is a fan of the BBC4 series that centres on the struggles of an idealistic premier in a coalition government, he replies: “No! God, no. It’s just whether Morgen Schmorgen is health minister or is education minister...it’s too much like work!”
Speaking in his office in Downing Street, Mr Cameron is, however, keen to stress both the merits of party partnership and the way his own Coalition is tackling long-term issues previous Governments have shied away from.
We may be in the deep mid-term, the chilliest time for any administration, but the PM has come into 2013 refreshed and full of praise for his energetic new ministerial team. From education to policing reform, from benefit changes to even the pesky Lords, it sounds like his New Year’s resolution was to ignore the day-to-day noise of Government and focus on the big picture.
With the Mid Term Review promising new policy initiatives in areas such as childcare and transport infrastructure, the Prime Minister boasts of a “very, very strong start to the year” for the Government. “I feel very fired up with a full agenda and a very clear mission of what the Government is all about,” he declares. “What I think is so clear is that the Coalition parties, and I would argue particularly my party, have got a very clear view about what needs to happen this year. Far from, sort of, running out of steam, you can see from the Coalition on childcare, on road building, on paying for long term care, you know, proper crunchy policies that make a real difference to people in this country, a packed agenda.”
He admits that it can be “a permanent battle in this job to focus: you have to deal with short term issues. At any one time you’ve got everything from what happens at the Downing Street gates to what’s happening on the other side of the world to what’s appeared on the news headlines. There’s always things that come up and the challenge of this job is to deal with the day to day but at the same time spend enough time on the long term strategic issues that the country faces”.
And while he admits there’s “always more that you can do”, the Prime Minister insists that his Government is “far and away better than the last Government, which was absolutely short term. Long term for it was about a week.”
But not everyone is feeling so positive: the start of the year also saw unpopular cuts to child benefits kick in. “I don’t want to take child benefit away from anybody, but if you’re trying to have a set of policies which is fair you need to do that,” the Prime Minister insists. And not because, as Boris Johnson suggested, child benefit payments were a useful contribution towards “five half-decent skiing holidays” to most families.
“People, I’m sure, put it to good use,” the PM says. “I don’t say people on £50,000, £60,000 are rich, but they are clearly better off than people on £20,000 or £30,000. Child benefit is a popular and successful benefit. It goes to the mum, it’s a good slug of money, £20 for the first child… But, you know, to govern is to choose. We have to make difficult choices about the deficit and I think this was the right choice.”
Mr Cameron confirms that the Government will “be announcing in the weeks to come” plans to provide “some assistance, and not just to those on tax credits” with childcare costs. However those people who won’t qualify have identified another way of easing the financial strain: a tax break if they are married. Such a policy was promised in the 2010 Tory manifesto, but against strong Lib Dem opposition it is yet to materialise.
The Prime Minister is keen to “reaffirm that we are committed to recognising marriage in the tax system and we’ll complete that during this Parliament” – so should we expect a bill sooner rather than later, as some in Downing Street have suggested? “You’ll have to wait and see,” comes the cagey reply.
As parents feel the effects of cuts to universal benefits, consensus grows around the need to trim back payments to the elderly. In 2010 Mr Cameron told voters they could “read my lips” as he pledged to protect universal elderly benefits, a position which many Tory MPs are finding increasingly frustrating. Ken Clarke recently described the subject as an “agenda item” but the PM is clear: “I’ve made a promise, I’m keeping my promise and that’s all there is to it and I think that is important.”
The Mid Term Review coincided with a polling and campaigns presentation to Tory MPs, one which suggested that Labour leader Ed Miliband and his Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls remain unpopular with the electorate. Not that the PM will rely on his opponents to hand the Tories victory in 2015. “No, our best chance of winning an overall majority is demonstrating [that] the Conservatives in Government have consistently delivered for people who work hard and want to get on and do the right thing,” he argues, before setting out the unedited version of the Tory manifesto slogan. “We’ll be saying at the next election: ‘It’s been tough, it’s a very difficult time for our country but, you know, we’ve got the deficit down, we’ve created private sector jobs, we helped you by freezing the council tax, cutting petrol duty, taking two million people out of tax, we started to sort out the mess of Labour’s education system… we’ve sorted out the mess of welfare.’”
Or to put it more succinctly: “We’re very sleeves rolled up, we were the people who have got Britain on the right track, don’t turn back, trust us to keep delivering, to keep providing, that’s what the message will be.”
But it must help that the public can’t yet visualise a Prime Minister Miliband? “In the end parties make their own fortunes. You can’t sit back and rely on your opposition to make your arguments for you,” the PM is quick to reply. “I think it’s a real weakness Labour have that they simply refuse to accept that their over-spending and over borrowing was part of the problem… but I’m not sitting back thinking they will never realise that.”
For now though, the Prime Minister is encouraged by what he hears from “snatched conversations in all sorts of places” around the country. “The British public are intensely reasonable, they know that it’s a difficult situation, they know tough choices have to be made, they’re not going to support everything you do, there will be some things you do that they don’t like, but there’s a general sense that if you are getting on with it, if you’re making the decisions, if you’re trying to get the country on the right track, you know, we’ll let you do that and we’ll judge you at the end of five years.”
Over in the House of Lords, however, cracks in the Coalition are showing. Rebelling Lib Dems have contributed to nearly 60 Government defeats, with Tom Strathclyde complaining of a breakdown in Coalition relations as he quit his post as Lords leader earlier this month.
“The Coalition parties have obviously got to support Coalition policy – and that should be the same in the Commons as in the Lords,” Cameron says before insisting that Upper House defeats are not unexpected. “Of course it’s difficult when you lose votes in the Lords. I was an adviser to a Conservative Government and we used to lose votes in the Lords. That’s what happens in the Lords. It’s a difficult environment.”
But it will soon become a little easier. The Coalition Agreement pledges to rebalance the make-up of the Upper House, and the Prime Minister reveals that he will soon appoint more Tory peers.
“I will be making some further recommendations. I think it’s important to keep refreshing the talent in the House of Lords and obviously it’s important that we do so in line with what we said in the Coalition Agreement,” he confirms. He knows the list of new peers is overdue, so should we expect one by the summer? “Sooner,” he replies.
The Prime Minister name-checks recent appointments such as Helen Newlove – the newly-appointed Victims Commissioner – and Tina Stowell as peers “we can be proud of”, and argues that outside experience in the Upper House is a “great asset”. However, as the total number of peers creeps towards 1000, Cameron accepts that Lords reform must be addressed.
“Clearly at some stage there does need to be reform in terms of the size. Obviously our proposals for reform did not find favour, we’ve had to step back from that, but at some stage we have to… sort of normalise its size at some stage.” But just in case any Tory opponent to Lords reform is twitching uncomfortably, the PM quickly adds: “That’s not an agenda item right now.”
One ongoing agenda item is what Cameron describes as a “never ending drive” to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party, particularly among ethnic minorities. He accepts the party “needed to reach out… in the past people were opening a door and seeing all white faces and didn’t find that very welcoming.” He singles out Sam Gyimah, Priti Patel and Sajid Javid as members of the 2010 intake of Tory MPs who are “not there because they’re ethnic minorities – they’re there because they are extremely talented people” and says there will be “no let up” in encouraging black and ethnic minority candidates to join the party.
“Does the Conservative Party need to do better amongst black and minority ethnic communities? Yes. Do we need to do better in urban areas and in our cities? Yes. Do we need to go even further in improving our position in the north, which was transformed at the last election? Yes. Are we still not nearly as strong as I’d like us to be in Scotland and Wales? Yes.”
It’s not just ethnic minorities and northerners to whom the Tories need to show they’re representative of. The women’s vote is also crucial in 2015 and the PM knows it. In the reshuffle he promoted a lot of women, many of them rising stars. Will that make it easier, whenever the next reshuffle is, to get people into the Cabinet?
“Absolutely. What has changed, why the reshuffle was so important – and why it was important to let go a number of colleagues who had done an extremely good job – was because the party had changed so much from having only 10 years ago 170 MPs to suddenly having 305 new MPs, a vast new intake at the last election. We needed to promote some of the new talent.
“You can’t just catapult people into the Cabinet, you need to give people the chance to shine in junior ministerial jobs so that’s what I’ve done.”
He then proceeds to outline his own list of star performers. “If you look at Sajid Javid in the debate [on benefit uprating], I think he did a fantastic job. We have got a planning minister [Nick Boles] who’s really leading the debate on getting more homes built in our country, we have an apprenticeship minister [Matt Hancock] who’s getting behind the idea of pre-apprenticeship training and making sure that apprenticeships are of quality.
“You’ve just seen this week we’ve got a team of justice ministers [Helen Grant, Jeremy Wright], junior ministers who do a brilliant job in terms of revolutionising the way we deliver probation and rehabilitation of prisoners. I’ve put Liz Truss at the Department of Education doing childcare, something she has a passion for. I feel not only have I promoted new talent, I’ve put round pegs into round holes. I think people can see it was a very talented intake in 2010. It’s definitely making its presence felt in Parliament, it’s making its presence felt in Government. These reshuffles are important because you can’t just fix it in one go. You need to get the talent moving through the ranks.”
As for his Opposition pledge to have a third of his Government made up of women, the PM jokes about Nick Clegg’s obstacle to that ambition. “Obviously I can’t apply my pledge to the Lib Dems and obviously they need to improve their diversity and I’ll be having a word with the Deputy Prime Minister about that. I remain committed to what I said.
“I want to deliver a more diverse party and I want to encourage more women and more ethnic minorities, more people from different parts of the country, from different backgrounds, into the party at all levels. And the good thing about the Parliamentary party in 2013 is that the talent is there, the spread of people is there, but it needs to be promoted.”
Liz Truss’s boss Michael Gove, is of course one of Mr Cameron’s favourite Cabinet Ministers. And when speaking about education, he sits up and speaks with passion.
“When you look across the education system, whether it is action to deal with failing primary schools, whether it is the academy movement, whether it’s free schools, I think the whole debate now is about quality, about rigour, about not dumbing down. I feel the great supertanker was heading in one direction and the wrong direction and it really is turning.”
His daughter Nancy turned nine this week (“the list of transitional demands is building up,” he jokes, referring to her birthday) and the big decision about her secondary school education gets closer. Are London state secondary schools now good enough for him to be happy to send her to one, as he has hoped?
“In London there’s a real improvement taking place. There’s a revolution taking place in all schools actually. There’s a big culture change in our schools and that’s taking place in London. So I remain committed to what I’ve said in the past. I’m very pleased with St Mary Abbott’s [Nancy’s primary],” he says. And some of the Gove rigour is clearly paying off: “I did Nancy’s spelling test on the way to school, I was very proud of the fact that she got ‘neighbourhood’ and ‘library’ right…”
The press, of course, have been stuck in detention ever since the phone hacking saga broke and it’s clear that the Leveson report is still very much in the PM’s in-tray. Mr Cameron is determined to give Oliver Letwin’s idea of a Royal Charter a fair wind.
“The Government needs to find a way to create a body that adjudicates whether the press regulator is doing its job properly. And that’s the tricky bit. Because if you straight legislate for it, my concern is you cross the Rubicon of writing press legislation into law. But you need to do it in a way which is authoritative and yet doesn’t have direct appointments by politicians and it seems to me the Royal Charter route does that.”
“I’m absolutely committed to implementing Leveson, implementing it by the self-regulatory body and implementing it without the direct legislative statutory underpinning. But this way it seems to me is a very clever way of providing an adjudicating body which would be absolutely consistent with what Leveson was recommending.”
Leveson, which the PM stresses would take years to fully implement, is just one of many issues that may well extend beyond this Parliament into the next. The PM is determined to stay around to see through his reforms, but what about his wife? Was she delighted by his suggestion recently that the Cameron family could still be living in Downing Street to 2020? Or did she throw a handbag at him?
He smiles. “She’s fully supportive of my work. She is doing an amazing job, she’s supporting lots of charities, she’s still working two days a week. She’s fantastically supportive of me, she’s brilliant with the children, I’m full of admiration for her.”
Have they had a Date Night lately? “Last night, we went out for supper, quite early actually, I was tucked up in bed nice and early last night. But we try and get out of the cage on a regular basis. It’s lovely living here, it’s a wonderful flat that she’s created, the children are very happy. And she’s very happy and family life is good. Christmas was lovely because we got away, we spent a decent amount of time in our home in the constituency, which does feel like home. Of course, there’s the police officers wandering round the garden, but you really do have yourself to yourself. But no, she’s on good form.”
Another highlight (or lowlight) of the Christmas break, he reveals, was taking young Elwen to see Chelsea thrash his own team, Aston Villa, 8-0. Seated with the home fans at Stamford Bridge, he lifted his son onto his shoulders as tens of thousands of football fans chanted “Cameron, Cameron, give us a song”.
And like many husbands, he knows that one way of keeping his other half happy is to get round to doing the DIY he’s promised. When was the last time the Prime Minister of the Ronseal Government did some do-it-yourself?
“Very good question. Last Christmas I assembled some IKEA furniture in Dean [the village where his constituency home is] which was very successful. [This year] I partially reconstructed a shed. It was mostly destruction than reconstruction…”
He then recalls Elwen’s obsession with Lego. “That’s the other DIY I did, I constructed a Lego police station,” he says, clearly pleased with his achievement. Ah, the Danes again. It seems if you’re a Cameron, you just can’t get away from them.
But as he uses 2013 to launch a huge debate on Britain’s place in the EU, this most pragmatic of Prime Ministers will prefer English calm to Viking-style disruption. Keen to keep his Coalition on the road, he will perhaps have in mind an older Anglo-Danish connection. As Hamlet didn’t quite put it, To be in Europe, or Not to be in Europe...that is the question.
Cameron on...EU migrants' benefits
“It’s worth looking at the current rules and regulations, what do other countries do, what could we do. You know, we should just be generally impatient and enthusiastic for getting the relationship right. The same applies with this issue of deport first and appeal later – other countries do operate systems like this. I’m very keen that we should be really kicking the tyres to see what more we can do.”
Cameron on...police station cuts
“Policing is not about bricks and mortar, it’s about boots on the ground. What matters is are you there, are you responding, are you cutting crime and can you process prisoners? And they need to make sure they can do that.”
Cameron on...UKIP and TV debates
“Obviously we have to decide on this nearer the time, but the TV debates should be about, you know, the parties that are going to form the Government, in my view.”
“Leveson has opened a really worthwhile and interesting door which we can all walk through. The press can walk through with a much improved regulatory system that the country can be proud of, politicians have got a route to deliver a regulatory system that we can be proud of and say to the victims we’ve done the work that’s necessary.”
Cameron on...the Chilcot Report
“I suspect it’s going to be a very big and serious piece of work and it will take some time to digest. It mustn’t slip too far.”
Cameron on...reshuffling this year
“You asked me last year and I gave you a very elliptical answer…There’s nothing planned.”