In this exclusive interview, the Republican presidential front-runner tells Matthew d’Ancona why he is speaking at the Conservative conference, and says that Cameron has the youth, exuberance and determination to be a Tory JFK

David Cameron was only one year and 17 days old on 26 October 1967, when John McCain was shot down in his A4 aircraft over Hanoi and taken prisoner by the Vietnamese. Almost four decades later, the two politicians have been brought together by a shared ambition to govern their respective countries — frontrunners to be prime minister and president — and a shared conservative purpose. Capitol Hill is making common cause with Notting Hill.

I am in the office of Senator McCain of Arizona on the eve of his visit to the Conservative conference in Bournemouth. Having given George W. Bush a serious fright in the 2000 presidential primaries, he is expected to run again in two years’ time, and heads the pack of those vying for the Republican nomination.

For now, however, not even his candidacy is declared. So early in the race, one would expect a politician as prominent as Sen. McCain to hedge and trim when asked about the volatile British political scene. Should he be inaugurated as the 44th President in January 2009, he will almost certainly have to deal — at the very least until the election — with Prime Minister Brown. But the swashbuckling side of the McCain character has led him to reach a quick and unequivocal judgment on Mr Cameron.

Asked what he likes about the young Tory leader, he lists ‘his youth, enthusiasm, willingness to embrace new ideas based on conservative policies’ — and pays particular tribute to the Conservative party’s fresh emphasis on the environment. He sees Mr Cameron (to whom he has spoken at length but will meet in the flesh for the first time this weekend) as ‘a breath of fresh air on the political scene’.

It is not hard to see why the Cameroons have wooed Sen. McCain, and why he feels a kinship with them. His politics has long been based on the principle that elections are won by transcending a party’s core vote — or ‘base’, as it is called in the US. His comparatively liberal positions on gay marriage, stem cell research and immigration have not endeared him to the Republican Right; he will face stiff opposition in the primaries if he runs. Beyond that, however, anything is possible.

Such is his cross-party appeal that in 2004 John Kerry even offered him the vice-presidential spot on his ticket — the office to be combined, uniquely, with the powers of the Secretary of Defense. McCain is a convert to environmentalism, and co-sponsored legislation with Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, to curb greenhouse gas emissions (he also voted against President Bush’s plan to allow oil drilling in the coastal plain of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge). He has campaigned with Teddy Kennedy for a Patients’ Bill of Rights. Much of his popularity is based on what voters perceive as a non-partisan sincerity. Does he see a symmetry with his own politics and what Mr Cameron is trying to do?

‘I believe so. I think that the Conservative party has been in the wilderness for a period of time, and they are now getting more in tune with the great centre of the British electorate. I think our Republican party needs to do more to get into the great centre of the American electorate.’

Diminutive but bullish in build, the Senator warms to his theme as an aide brings in mineral water. ‘It’s very obvious to me that what Mr Cameron is trying to do is what I’ve been trying to do: preserve your base principles and philosophies, but also see how you can shape those policies to attract what is viewed as the independent voter, or the great middle of the British electorate. For example, in the United States our Republican party basically [has] written off the state of California in the last several elections. Governor Schwarzenegger has just proved that California can be put in play. That’s what I see Mr Cameron and his cadre of very bright young people doing.’

Sen. McCain singles out for praise the young Tory he knows best, George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, who introduced him to Michael Gove, another close confidant of the leader, over coffee at the House of Commons in November.

‘I’m not young anymore, as Maurice Chevalier used to sing in Gigi,’ says the 70-year-old Senator, who in spite of his shock of white hair could pass for a much younger man. ‘But when I look at this band of young Conservatives I am thrilled, because I’ve spent a lot of my time now trying to encourage a group of younger conservatives in this party: Lindsey Graham, John Sununu [the Senator for New Hampshire] and several others that I see as the next generation. So it makes me thrilled and honoured to come over and address a party that is obviously on a comeback.’

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On the morning that we meet, he has been speaking to Ed Llewellyn, Mr Cameron’s chief of staff. ‘I’ve met most of them,’ he says. ‘They’re young. They’re exuberant. They’re optimistic. They believe there’s no obstacle that can’t be overcome.’

One of the greatest obstacles facing Mr Cameron, and indeed any party leader, is the calamitous draining of trust from the political system. This, too, is something that has preoccupied the Senator for many years — and for deeply personal reasons. Shortly after his election to the Upper House in 1986 Mr McCain was embroiled in a banking scandal as one of the so-called ‘Keating Five’. It is probable that, as the only Republican among the five senators investigated, he was only included in the first place for partisan reasons — and he was, in any case, exonerated after two years. But the experience was intolerable for a man who prizes honour above all else — the scion of a military dynasty that can trace its martial history back to 1764 and the Battle of Back Creek against the Indians. Indeed, Mr McCain has often said that the ‘public humiliation’ of the inquiry was a greater hardship than his five and half years as a PoW.

His response was to immerse himself in cleaning up campaign finance, a cause to which he has been passionately devoted for two decades. Again, he believes that the new generation of Tories shares this preoccupation.

‘I have seen in them an attempt to restore confidence in voters that ethics, clean government, influence of money are priorities, and the influence of money and campaign contributions can be absolutely minimised so that there is less representation by the special interests, and more by the general populace. That is clearly an important issue in the United States, and it’s obvious that there’s been some scandals in the Labour government. I think it resonates both among American voters and British voters — a commitment to ethical behaviour in government. And that includes the way you do business, who has access to the government and, most of all, votes.’

There is understandable concern among pro-Blair Americans that the Senator’s visit should not be seen as discourteous to the Prime Minister, who has been nothing if not a loyal ally of the United States. But Sen. McCain, who has often spoken warmly of Mr Blair, presents his visit rather differently. He sees Mr Cameron not as an antagonist to the outgoing Prime Minister but as a leader with ‘every potential’ to be a worthy successor to him — and even a worthy heir to Margaret Thatcher, whom McCain also hopes to see during his trip to the UK.

His grandfather ‘Slew’ McCain was an admiral, as was his father, Jack, the first time such a distinction had been achieved by an American family in successive generations. All three were midshipmen at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, where those with natural leadership are said to have ‘grease’. So, I ask the Senator, does the young Midshipman Cameron have the ‘grease’ to be prime minister? He nods emphatically.

‘Oh, sure,’ he says. ‘Probably the most respected — can I say beloved — leader of my time was Jack Kennedy, who brought youth, incredible youth, the Camelot era, to the American public.’ Cameron as the Tory JFK: it is every Labour spin doctor’s nightmare.

Should the Tory leader become PM, of course, spin and image will not be enough. If this burgeoning political friendship should ever turn into a fully fledged alliance between two heads of government, it will be the war on terror that dominates their discussions. On the day of our interview, there is more than the usual bustle in the Senator’s office (five doors down in the Russell Building from the suite once occupied by Lyndon Johnson). McCain and his fellow Republican senators, John Warner of Virginia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have been pressing the White House over the detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects, urging the President to respect the Geneva Conventions more explicitly in their proposals.

When I arrive, it is Sen. Graham who greets me first, breaking off from minute-by-minute tactical discussions with his mentor and friend. An aide whispers to me that ‘a deal is very close’ — as indeed proves to be the case later in the day, with White House and rebels naturally claiming that the ‘clarification’ is to their advantage.

On such issues, Sen. McCain — who holds the Purple Heart, the Silver Star and many other honours — speaks with huge moral authority, having been subjected to the most appalling torture himself while in captivity. In 1968 his Vietnamese captors offered him early release: his father was by then Commander-in-Chief of all US military forces in the Pacific, and ‘Mac Kane’ was nicknamed the ‘Crown Prince’ by his guards.

He knew, however, how bad it would be for American morale if he accepted the offer.

The Code of Conduct for American Prisoners of War imposed a ‘first in, first out’ rule upon prisoners. As McCain writes in his memoir, Faith of My Fathers, ‘its principles remained the most important allegiance of our lives’. He turned down the offer, with predictably horrific consequences. To this day, he cannot comb his hair unaided, so badly damaged were his arms by the continual beating, torture ropes and lack of proper medical attention.

Sen. McCain’s position on the war is that of an unwavering hawk who nonetheless believes that the methods of the present administration are unsustainable, and will make the battle for hearts and minds — at home and abroad — impossible to win. In the great US foreign policy debate, he is a Wilsonian idealist, who regards the plight of Darfur as no less pressing an issue than the threat of al-Qa’eda.

‘The detainee issue is of course a very important one in Europe and there’s no doubt about it,’ he says. ‘When I travel to Europe and to England and talk to young people, their view of the US is directly affected by Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and climate change and I think that it is very important that we get this treatment of detainees right; that we do everything we can to regain the moral high ground. Part of that is not treating people as they treat us. If we did that, then this is moral equivalency between the two. The other aspect of this is that in the United States we need to acknowledge that serious mistakes were made in the conduct of this conflict, and emphasise again and again how difficult this is. One of the biggest mistakes that I think we made in the United States was to somehow make our citizenry believe that this was going to be a very easy kind of a deal.’ He cites Donald Rumsfeld’s famous remark ‘stuff happens’, as well as the President’s ‘mission accomplished’. Such soundbites were, he says, an insult, given what was actually happening in Iraq and the images of bloodshed the whole world could see. ‘So, the one thing I think the American people can take — and I believe that Mr Cameron believes the British people can take — is a dose of reality. A clear depiction of the actual realities of the situation on the ground.’

America, he says, must internationalise once more the war that began with global support immediately after 9/11 — although it is Nato, rather than the UN, that he sees as the logical structure within which to do so. Is there, I ask, a danger that the war on terror could become as divisive for Cameron’s generation as Vietnam was for his?

‘He understands that the war on terror is the transcendent issue of our time and that it’s going to be a long hard struggle,’ says McCain. ‘It’s not only on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq where British soldiers are sacrificing as we speak, but it’s also in the ideological struggle. That’s where the ultimate battle is, because you don’t win the war on the ground unless you win the war of moral superiority of your way of life, our standards, our ideals. Otherwise, you continue to breed soldiers and foot soldiers in the war on terror.’

Should the Blair government have been more robust in exercising its influence over the White House? Here, the Senator treads with care — but draws a remarkable conclusion. ‘I think the special relationship between our two countries will endure throughout the 21st century. I say that with total confidence because it’s lasted for 200 years. Having said that — I don’t like to be critical of anyone and I do admire Mr Blair’s support on this war and standing up to members of his own party — I also believe that David Cameron would preserve exactly that same relationship. Whether he would have a different style is really not something that I would be a very good judge of. But — from what I’ve seen of his exuberance — I wouldn’t be surprised if he were candid. Can I say it that way?’ Yes, that’s pretty clear.

Mr McCain’s Bournemouth appearance may add up to no more than a friendly encounter between two conservative politicians. Neither man is assured of ultimate electoral success. Some say that the 70-year-old Senator is too old, just as others say that the 39-year-old Cameron is too callow. In his recent book, Politics Lost, Joe Klein remarks upon ‘the stark political reality that [in 2000] McCain just wasn’t very popular among members of his own party’. It remains to be seen how far this has changed. Mr Cameron, meanwhile, must hope that the fragile coalition of modernisers and traditionalists which won him the leadership last year holds together until the election.

Even so, their cross-generational alliance is an intriguing preview of what transatlantic relations could conceivably be like three years hence. If the polls are right, it is quite possible that there will be a new bond across the Atlantic in 2009; that Cameron–McCain will take its place alongside Thatcher– Reagan and Blair–Clinton; that David will indeed be welcomed at Camp David.

The official line, of course, is that the Senator has not yet decided whether he will be a candidate. But as I get up to leave, he asks me about Bill Clinton’s appearance at the Labour conference in Manchester. Better to have the next president as your guest, I suggest, than the ex-president. McCain’s gruff chuckle as he dashes off is quite eloquent. Be in no doubt: this particular American hero will soon be going into battle once more.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated