David Cameron Interview
Samantha is unhappy because the Prime Minister has committed the cardinal sin of any self-respecting metrosexual coupling: he’s finished watching Danish drama series, The Killing II, before her.
“She’s very cross with me. I was on a very long trip to Afghanistan and I got a couple of episodes ahead - and I’ve not been forgiven,” he confides. A diehard fan of the series, he makes clear that the highlight of his festive season’s viewing also featured Sofie Grabol, the Killing’s star. “Did you watch Ab Fab at Christmas?” he asks. “When she spoke English?”
Speaking in his Downing Street office the day after his return from Chequers, the PM is clearly refreshed from spending time with his family. Given the tough year ahead for the Coalition and the country, he gives the impression of a man who knows he will need all the energy he can get.
The New Year has started with a media blitz designed to prove to the public that the Government is in touch with their concerns on everything from City bonuses to welfare and jobs.
Downing Street aides, who had to do most of the ‘prep’ in their holidays in order to get 2012 off to a flying start, already look more fatigued than their boss. For his part, he’s been buoyed by the message from voters in his constituency.
“Of course I’m surrounded by protection teams and all the rest of it, but yesterday I was having lunch in a pub in Witney. People come up to me and just say ‘you know, it’s going to be a difficult year, it’ll be tough but I think the Government is doing the right thing’. People say ‘you’ve got to stick at it and you’ve got to get us out of this mess.’”
“People will obviously disagree with some of the individual decisions that you make, of course they will, whether it’s this cut or that tax change or whatever. But I think there is a general sense that the Government has a plan, the plan is the right sort of plan because it deals with debt and you’ve got to get on with it.”
Yet the ‘keep on keeping on’ theme is married to an awareness that the public also want some real action on City excess to prove that everyone really is ‘in this together’. This week’s promise of legislation on binding shareholder votes is a reminder that Cameron doesn’t want Ed Miliband to look like the one making the running. Back in 2009, the Tory leader used a Davos speech to talk about ‘moral capitalism’. Does that need fleshing out again?
“I think it needs refreshing. You know Conservatives always need to explain that the market is the servant not the master, we believe in market economics not for their own sake but because we think it’s the best way of growing an economy and making sure that you bake the biggest possible cake. So you need moral markets because you need people to make moral choices, you want businesses to make moral choices. The market is only as good as the participants within it.”
How does he respond to those economists who say that actually there’s not much difference in quantum between Coalition deficit plans and Labour’s plan to halve the deficit and that it’s more about signals sent?
“I think there’s some truth in that. There is obviously a difference in that we thought Labour’s plan was insufficient. I’m not sure whether Labour is still committed to Labour’s plan, that’s their problem, but yes if the Darling plan was still being followed, would there be quite significant reductions in public spending this year? Yes. Would they be almost as significant as the ones we’re making? Answer, yes they would. You know, Labour ought to remember that.”
The PM disputes Miliband’s claim that the Coalition is squeezing the squeezed middle. It’s squeezing those on higher incomes more, he says.
“If you look at – and you can get the graphs off the Treasury – which parts of the country are most affected by the deficit reduction programme, actually those in the middle are not the most affected. Now I know that’s not the message of ‘the squeezed middle’ and I know that many middle income families do feel squeezed because inflation has been so high. But actually in terms of making the deficit reduction measures fall fairly, I think it was necessary to make sure that top rate tax payers were making a contribution.”
I point out that some people who are just above the top rate tax threshold are being hit hard by the withdrawal of child benefit from 2013. For a family with three children it means the loss of around £2,500 a year. Is his door still open to look again at that? Isn't it the case that a family loses it if one worker goes just above the threshold?
“Some people say that’s the unfairness of it, that you lose the child benefit if you have a higher rate taxpayer in the family. Two people below the level keep the benefit. So, there’s a threshold, a cliff-edge issue.
“We always said we would look at the steepness of the curve, we always said we would look at the way it’s implemented and that remains the case, but again I don’t want to impinge on the Chancellor’s Budget.”
“But let’s be clear. In the argument about making sure that the budget deficit measures fall in a fair way. Obviously we have the very richest paying through the existence of the 50p tax rate, the abolition of the allowances and other changes we’ve made at the top end. And obviously we are making some rigorous proper reforms to welfare which will save money. Now, I’m not saying for a minute that someone earning £40,000 is rich, but the simple facts show that if you are earning £40,000 you are earning twice as much as someone on the average wage of just over £20,000. So if we want to make sure that everyone makes a contribution to dealing with the deficit, that’s why we had to look at measures like taking child benefit away from higher rate tax payers.”
What’s the moral difference between the Government only protecting universal benefits like winter fuel allowance, TV licences, free travel for the elderly who are relatively rich and then losing as a working parent another universal benefit? Is there a moral difference or is it simply a question of how much cash you are going to save?
"If you look at the argument about pensioner benefits, I think when people get to the end of their life it’s right that they have dignity in retirement, that’s why we have a basic state pension and it’s uprated with our triple lock. It’s going to be going up by £5 in April and that’s why we have the other pensioner benefits, which we said clearly at the time of the election we are going to keep them. We’re keeping them."
While grumbling grows around Ed Miliband’s start to the year, Cameron at least knows his exploits in Brussels last month have won him strong support on his own backbenches. Was he surprised by the ‘bounce’ in the polls following his veto threat?
“I genuinely don’t spend my life looking at polls because they do tend to go up and down. I’ve noticed obviously I’ve had a big mail bag, lots of emails and people come and pat me on the back when I’m walk down Witney High Street. I think people are very worried about what’s happening in Europe. I’m not sure it’s particularly related to an individual treaty or individual proposal, it’s just a sort of sense that they want the British government to take a strong and tough view to protect the national interest. I couldn’t have been clearer about my intent. I’m sort of slightly surprised that people are surprised.”
The Prime Minister still worries that EU states may now try to turn Europe into ‘a country’. “This is the problem. I’ve always believed that if you have a single currency, in the end you need much more of a single economic policy. You need a way of making that single economic policy democratically legitimate and so therefore you lead towards Europe being more of a country and less of a community. That’s the reason for not joining the single currency,” he says.
So, does the democratic deficit implicit in fiscal union suggest more Europe-wide elections? “I don’t support them because I don’t want a country called Europe. I want a European community. But what you are seeing develop is a Europe of variable geometry.”
Despite tensions with the Lib Dems over Europe, Cameron is convinced the Coalition is strong and stable.
“It will last to 2015. It runs in a straightforward way. So I’m making this Coalition work. My view about the British electorate is they are a very clever bunch and this was a time of national difficulty, a time of economic difficulty and they didn’t want to put one party in power and so they asked the parties to get together and come up with a plan and that’s exactly what we’ve done.
“Now obviously, I hope to convince them that when 2015 comes, that now is the time for a Conservative majority government and I’ve got every confidence that we will be able to do that. But the British public are a very thoughtful and canny lot and they will take convincing.”
Some Tory MPs fear that their party’s failure to make a breakthrough at the last election meant it was a kind of high-water mark for Cameron. Why didn’t you get the gains you needed in key marginals in the North West and more of the Midlands?
As a fan of World War Two movies, the PM reaches back for an analogy. “It was a bit like Operation Market Garden [the code name for the Arnhem operation in ‘A Bridge Too Far’]… We had to do well on every front. We had to succeed in the East Kent corridor, London, the South East, the South West against the Lib Dems, North West against Labour, Yorkshire and Humberside. We did really well in lots of them, but we didn’t quite make it on every front and I think we can do better.
“I think one of the reasons we didn’t do it is that it was a time of economic difficulty and uncertainty and the British public was nervous about change and I think after 5 years they will have seen yes difficult decisions but ones that on the whole they would recognise are necessary and it’s an opportunity at the end of that to go to them and say ‘You’ve seen what we can do in Government, what the team is capable of, what the policies are, what the values are’ and it will be a different question.”
As well as the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee, 2012 will see important local elections in May and also the end of the current marathon Parliamentary session. Wouldn’t that be a nice break-point for a reshuffle?
“You’re certainly the first person to ask me that…” I point out that young backbenchers are looking for a signal of career progression. The PM smiles a Sphynx-like smile.
“You’ve asked the first question and you are going to get the first and only answer which is..[signals a zipping movement across his mouth]” Still, he didn’t bother with the 2011 mantra about the current team being strong enough. A reshuffle is certainly expected.
As well as a Queen’s Speech, the other big political event this year will be the London mayoral. If Boris wins, I ask, who should be more worried: Ed Miliband or George Osborne? Without missing a beat, Cameron replies: “George and I will be working flat out to get Boris elected. We were talking about it only this morning. Nothing frightens me more than the idea of Ken Livingstone as mayor of London.”
Does Boris have that capacity to be one day Prime Minister?
“I think Boris is a very talented politician, a very great mayor of London. I think he’s got a huge amount to offer London and a huge amount to offer the country. I’ve said polite things about him in the past. Our relationship is much misunderstood. I’m a big Boris fan. Always have been and always will be.”
Cameron does admit to one area where he made a mistake since coming to office: not sorting his Downing St Policy Unit earlier..
“I’ve boosted the policy unit who are doing a great job actually. That’s something I didn’t get right first time round. We were so keen to get the Coalition going and everything working here, I didn’t put in place a strong enough policy unit. Now I’ve sorted that out and it means I get a lot of good advice and can challenge - not always challenge, but help implement - the way things are implemented.” He doesn’t quite say it, but the hope is to prevent future policy U-turns.
Des he still feel frustrated by the civil service and the ‘enemies of enterprise’?
“What I meant by that..it’s been much criticised...I was not particularly singling out Government departments but it’s just if you want to have a growth agenda and we desperately need that in Britain to free up enterprise to make it easier to take people on, to start up a business, to employ people, to invest, to expand, to grow, to buy property, you need a really permissive environment to do that.
"And there are a lot of forces in Britain that stop you from doing that. Legislation, regulation, sometimes local government, sometimes something in the private sector, sometimes landlords who only review rent upwards, there are all sorts of things that get in the way of enterprise.
"And I’ve been very impressed by the general professionalism, impartiality and general decency of the civil service. I think that if you have a plan, if you have clear policies, they are extremely effective at putting them in place. Like all Prime Ministers, you always want things done yesterday, you are always dissatisfied that the thing you announced yesterday doesn’t happen the day after tomorrow, it takes a bit longer. That’s part of my job, to be someone who having helped pull the policies together then makes sure they are properly implemented."
For all the talk of him having a ‘women problem’, the PM is still determined that his party should get more female MPs and candidates.
“We’ve obviously got a Boundary Review, which is a very big issue so I don’t want to pile another new set of issues on top of that, but I think where there are opportunities, new seats, entirely new seats where we hope to take on Labour, or perhaps some seats where people are retiring, we’ve got to ask ourselves, the party needs to ask itself the question, ‘what are we going to do to help keep pushing forward the agenda of getting more good women to stand for Parliament and to get into Parliament. That’s a conversation we are starting now.”
The personification of Tory womanhood, Margaret Thatcher, is staring at us all from posters for ‘The Iron Lady’ right now. But Cameron isn’t happy at the film’s depiction of the former premier’s dementia.
“I’ve seen it. Someone sent it to me. I thought it fantastic piece of acting by Meryl Streep but I’m afraid I was left wondering whether it’s really right to make a film in this way at this time. I’m afraid that was my reaction to it. I obviously am a great admirer of Margaret Thatcher. The acting was just sublime, the expressions, the movements, everything, [Streep’s] a superb actress, but I just felt watching it…I’ll choose my words carefully…I just sort of felt watching it that this was just not really appropriate right now.”
I point out that when Mrs T met ministers she would often have three notes: one from the department’s officials, one from the No.10 Policy Unit, and one – produced with a flourish from her handbag - from her hairdresser in Lambeth. It was all part of grounding policy in public opinion. So, does Cameron have that kind of outside advice?
“I have lots of friends who are not that political but who are often where you get good advice from. Samantha is a classic example. She’s not that political but her instincts are very good and strong so I don’t have that hairdresser in Lambeth [laughs] but I get plenty of advice!” Advice from a Smythson’s handbag sounds very Cameroon indeed.
At least the PM has given Sam Cam a decent Christmas present: Robert Harris’s new thriller, Fear Index. Its wonderfully topical subject matter is a hedge fund that trades literally on fear.
He may fear his wife, he may fear in some ways Mrs T and her legacy. But with his New Year assault on City excess and with the bond markets kept onside, David Cameron wants us all to know that he doesn’t fear the markets.