Lord Mandelson is outside David Cameron’s office when I go in for my interview. Not in person, alas, but boxed in a small television set giving his speech to the Labour party conference, to heckling from those gathered around it. A few days ago, the noble lord had suggested he would serve in a Tory government, and Mr Cameron has already thought of a role. ‘He can chair a truth and reconciliation commission on New Labour,’ he says, laughing. ‘I think that would be a very good opening job. Perhaps when he has done that and atoned for all his past sins, we could find him another.’
If Mr Cameron wins the election, he will have no shortage of very bad jobs to offer. His government will have a simple agenda: to enact the sharpest spending cuts attempted in modern British history. His mission at the Tory conference in Manchester next week is to be as honest as he can be about the pain in prospect, while — as he puts it — ‘saying much more than the government about dealing with the deficit, turning around our schools and how you reform welfare’. It will be a conference, he says, that will leave no one in any doubt about what he stands for.
Such doubts have, of course, been the main area of concern for the Conservatives. Gordon Brown’s phenomenal unpopularity will perhaps win them the election. But I ask Mr Cameron whether he thinks wavering voters know what they will get, should they vote Tory. ‘Not enough,’ he admits straight away. ‘I hope they will after this conference.’ His aim, he adds, is to convey a sense of mission, of purpose. ‘I don’t actually believe — particularly in the crisis that we face today — that you win people over by trying to design some specific retail offer to sell to each person on the doorstep.’ He will instead seek to persuade them that his party has ‘the grit and determination to turn the whole country around’.
This, of course, is shorthand for turning the public finances around. We speak the day before Gordon Brown proposed a new law that would force the next government (one presumes the Prime Minister doesn’t have his own one in mind) to halve the deficit within four years. For Cameron, this is not enough. ‘Then you’d be back to where Denis Healey was in 1976,’ he says. So he will cut faster — at a rate yet undetermined. ‘But I want to be realistic — both for what a government can achieve, but also realistic in terms of taking the country with me.’ And it is this latter point which is causing all the problems.
Mr Cameron is planning two sweeteners, to make the medicine of cuts more pal- atable. One is to protect the NHS budget and swing the axe elsewhere. The other is to implement Mr Brown’s proposed 50p tax on the highest earners — a tax that will, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, lose the Exchequer about £800 million a year as the richest move themselves (or their money) elsewhere. Why on earth, I ask him, does he think this tax will raise revenue when all independent research suggests otherwise?
‘You don’t have to persuade me that high marginal tax rates are a bad idea — I think they are a fantastically bad idea,’ he starts, before citing Nigel Lawson’s 1988 Budget, which lowered the top rate of tax and thereby increased the revenue collected from the richest. ‘The sort of tax system that I believe in is one that’s effective in raising revenue — rather than one that is trying to make a particular point.’ Precisely so. So why, if this is true, will he not reject the 50p tax? Is this not a test of Mr Cameron’s principles?
‘I am a Lawsonian,’ he says. ‘But I believe fiscal responsibility must come first. We have this enormous problem with the deficit, we must deal with that and prove that we are fair in dealing with it.’ The fairness point, I suspect, explains it. The 50p tax helps to sell the cuts to the general public by suggesting that the rich are feeling the pain too. Little Tory thought seems to have gone into asking whether it will raise money — its purpose is political. I tell him this could cost him billions. ‘If you’re right — that it raises no revenue, even in the short term — then clearly it would be painless and advantageous to get rid of it at an early stage.’
He did reject Mr Brown’s VAT cut. ‘When we took the decision, we did not look at focus groups. It was a decision taken right here, sitting on this sofa with George Osborne sitting there.’ This offers a glimpse into Cameronian decision-making. A great many Conservative policies are decided on such sofas — the shadow cabinet meets mainly to be informed about them. In government, Mr Cameron says he’ll broaden the gene pool by hiring outsiders — as Brown had sought to do with his government of all the talents — or ‘Goat’ — strategy.
‘It’s a pity that all the goats have become untethered and wandered off into the hillside,’ he says, referring to the resignation of almost all the outsiders brought in to advise Mr Brown. ‘I think making Mervyn Davis trade minister, for instance, was an excellent appointment, and I think Lord Sainsbury has done a very good job as science minister. The principle is a good one and I think we need to look at all the different ways of doing it. Look at what I have done with David Freud.’
Mr Freud, a banker, advised Labour on welfare, then defected to the Conservatives. But I put it to Mr Cameron that, ever since Theresa May took over the welfare brief, there has been barely a squeak from the Tories on this crucial subject. ‘That is partly because we are, as I said, working with David Freud to get these things right for government,’ he explains. Working so hard that no one, anywhere, has heard a thing.
Welfare reform and school voucher policies were both born during the near-death experience which was the Conservative conference in Blackpool two years ago. Yet policies remain unfinished, to say the least. We still do not know how much the proposed school voucher would be. £5,000 a pupil? Rather worryingly, Mr Cameron describes the schools policy as ‘one of the most developed implementation plans we have’. I suggest to him that time is already being lost: that potential school providers could be making plans now, if only they knew the details. And isn’t this why people have doubts: the principle sounds exciting, but the detail is absent?
He falls quiet, for a second. ‘It’s a good argument you’re pursuing,’ he says. ‘But what you need is thoughtful radicalism. Prepared radicalism. It needs to come from a solid and strong base. Compare Margaret Thatcher’s trade union reforms with Ted Heath’s. It wasn’t that Heath’s were unambitious, it was that actually he tried to do it all at once, it blew up in his face and he had to abandon it. Whereas Margaret Thatcher had what Ferdy Mount described as the “long runway” approach to change. You prepare the ground, and then the aeroplane can effectively take off.’
Mr Cameron was eight years old at the time of the 1972 Heath U-turn, but it’s understandable if the ghost of that government haunts him. Heath’s original agenda was very similar to that of Thatcher, but it was dismally executed and led to ignominy, defeat and five more years of Labour. ‘There is an easy radicalism, whereby you take the latest idea that comes out of the Institute of Economic Affairs or wherever and just say, “well, that’s it”,’ he says. ‘Proper radicalism is thinking through
how you are going to get from A to B to C to D. I think that’s what we’re doing.’
Then again, Mr Cameron is also haunted by the memory of 1997. ‘The whole Conservative party has had the benefit of learning the mistake Blair made — having a mandate and not using it. Not actually using your early months to demonstrate how you can transform a country.’ This, I say, is more like it. Not so much like a long runway, but a vertical takeoff Harrier Jump Jet. ‘Well there are some things you can do very quickly. There are some easy wins.’ Such as? School reform can be enacted quickly, he responds.
After the first four years of a Cameron government, how different would Britain look? Where would he like to have made the biggest difference? ‘Education, definitely. As the father of two young kids going through the state sector, I feel we should be breaking the system open and allowing new schools to set up. I think that can be transformative. And that is a very important yardstick against which the government should be judged.’ So would he agree with Michael Gove that, after four years, there could be a new free school in every neighbourhood? ‘I think that is practical.’ Would his children attend them? ‘I would very much like them to.’
But, for now, Mr Cameron says his priorities are ‘the deficit, Afghanistan, the broken society and mending the mess of our politics’. It is striking to hear the war ranking second. ‘I don’t think we are behaving as a nation at war, which we are,’ he says. But he is hesitant about sending more troops to Afghanistan, and he mentions the prospect only in the context of training the Afghan army. He used his holiday to read up on Afghanistan and India, mindful that, for all this talk of domestic policy, his premiership could be defined by foreign affairs.
I throw in some random questions. Did he think Andrew Marr was right to have asked Gordon Brown if he is taking pills? ‘I think it probably was inappropriate. I must say I didn’t feel very comfy watching it.’ Which British artist would he most like to be painted by? ‘Tracey Emin.’ An interesting choice, given her penchant for depicting genitalia. And what poetry does he know by heart? ‘I always think of the Wilfred Owen poems when I was a school boy, Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori. Don’t ask me to do the whole thing.’
I strongly suspect that he will be reciting a conference speech from memory next Thursday — it has become his party trick. It will, he says, demonstrate ‘a party that is ready to serve, but also has a very big, bold and radical agenda to take the country in a completely different direction’. So the bar is set. Next week we shall see if this thoughtful radical can vault it.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 3, 2009