David Cameron’s first full interview since the local elections
Evidence of the hardship suffered by the Conservative party over the last decade can be found on the right foot of the Churchill statue which guards the entrance to the House of Commons chamber. His toecap is gleaming, thanks to the tradition of Conservative politicians giving it a rub for luck as they pass. Last month this practice was banned: anxious Tories have been rubbing it so ferociously for so long that a hole has appeared in the bronze. Meanwhile a statue of Lloyd George stands opposite with his feet almost mockingly undamaged by left-of-centre MPs.
But after all this time, the great man’s luck may finally be working for David Cameron. After six months of being marooned in the opinion polls, the Conservatives have secured their strongest showing in English local elections since 1992, and Mr Cameron has become the first Tory leader whose personal approval rating exceeds that of Tony Blair. Yet, sitting restlessly on the sofa of his parliamentary office, he is reluctant to declare the party’s electoral curse broken.
‘We crossed a crucial barrier, 40 per cent of the vote, which is psychologically important,’ he says. ‘Normally you wake up to news saying, “Labour was punished but the spoils were divided between Conservatives and Lib Dems.” Well, they weren’t this time. We took the gains, and the Liberals went nowhere.’ And how much was due to the Cameron factor in general? ‘That’s for others to judge. The emphasis I’ve placed on our heritage — green issues and the environment — I think helped give our people a framework where it was easier to do their jobs.’
Yet even with an eight-point lead in the opinion polls, and Labour engaged in a fratricidal struggle, the Conservatives are still nowhere near the victory they need to win a majority in a Westminster voting system heavily biased towards Labour. Mr Cameron does not like to be reminded of the fact. ‘Don’t depress me. But you’re right. Even if we beat Labour by 41 per cent to 31 per cent, it would still not be enough. But that’s why I say, “Put the foot on the accelerator and not on the brake.”’
This is the crucial lesson Cameron has drawn from last week’s local elections. While his ‘vote blue, go green’ message may have alarmed traditional party supporters, as did his trip to a Norwegian glacier, he sees the party’s progress only as proof that even more such reform is needed. ‘I am going around telling excited groups of Conservatives that we won’t win on 40 per cent, we need 43 per cent or 44 per cent, which would be the biggest swing since the war apart from 1997. We need to win over 120 seats. Wipe out a third of the Lib Dems. Win back seats in Scotland. It’s a big task, and that’s why I’m not slowing down.’
He is aware that what he has done has upset many core Tory voters. ‘There was a wonderful letter in the Daily Telegraph saying, “If Mr Cameron cares so much about global warming, why doesn’t he stop breathing?” You have to harden your heart on these things — you can’t change without upsetting people,’ he says.
He divides his critics into two camps. ‘One says, “Why aren’t you attacking the government harder and shouting more?” The other says, “What about the core Tory themes of crime and immigration?”’ He has one answer for both. ‘We must think to ourselves, what is the big task we face as a party? To drive a failing government even further down the polls, or is it actually to broaden the appeal of the Conservative party and explain to people the positive and exciting things we would do and get our own poll rating up? To me it’s the second, obviously.’
So for those who say he is changing the party too much, too quickly, he has some blunt news. ‘The question I’m asking myself is: should I be going faster — and taking the change deeper and wider? It takes a long time to change an organisation.’ And while he intended it to take time, with various policy review groups reporting next summer, there are some interim proposals due this autumn. Already the shadow Cabinet are looking at various policy position papers — including an economic paper which makes no serious challenge to Labour’s position on tax. On this issue, Cameron is unmovable.
‘One thing we’ve done — for which I think we’ve had very little credit, but maybe people will understand it over time — is our approach of sharing the proceeds of economic growth. It means the share of national income taken by the state will be lower at the end of an economic cycle than at the beginning. And therefore it’s the only sustainable way of reducing taxes over a period of time.’
It is a tough message to sell, partly because it sounds suspiciously like a Gordon Brown-style statistical con. In reality, it’s a new label for an old policy. Both the Thatcher and Major governments raised taxes, but at a slower rate than economic growth. But neither called this ‘sharing the proceeds of growth’. Labour can lay no claim to the phrase: its tax rises have outpaced growth and now consume 43 per cent of Britain’s national wealth — a tax burden which has overtaken Germany’s and is on course soon to become the highest ever imposed on mainland Britain.
But, startlingly, Cameron accepts that this figure could rise even higher under his government before he gets around to reducing it. ‘We could inherit an economy that is shrinking rather than growing,’ he says. ‘So if the economy is shrinking, you may find that the share [of the economy consumed by the government] will be going up.’ This is a remarkable admission and one, perhaps, that he could make only in the wake of electoral success; for all his claims to be a tax-cutter by temperament, the Conservative leader is saying explicitly that a government led by him might have to take a greater chunk of our money. Though delivered in the elegant Cameron cadences with which we are growing familiar, it is a sentence that will thunder around the Tory world.
Most politicians put on an air of considered calm when explaining their world view. Not so Cameron. He is emphatic in everything he says: each sentence is accompanied by a hand or facial gesture, and he exudes energy and impatience. Aides say he has to tone down his animated body language for the television cameras, but in his office he looks every inch the man who feels he is packing a ten-year agenda into a 12-month timeframe. As I question him some more on his commitment to small government, he says simply, ‘Just ask John Redwood.’
It is a risky character reference: Mr Redwood is no sycophant and is arguably the most uncompromising tax-cutter at large in Westminster. Yet he says his conversations with Cameron, and last week’s election result, have left him firmly confident that the party is on the right track. ‘We’ve really broken out of the old pattern,’ he says. ‘David is right not to make promises on tax too early. But I am confident that we will fight the next election as a low-tax party, up against two high-tax parties.’
So armed with the political capital he earned on 4 May, might Cameron soon risk talking about other issues, now that he has made his point on the environment? He claims to have been discussing such issues all the time, but to have been ignored or misunderstood by the media, which are interested only in his more striking comments on the environment. ‘Look at the charter for inner-city schools that I published, or my speech on climate change and police reform. We are bolder and clearer on police reform than any government, Labour or Conservative, has been for ages. Arguably there are to
o many policies already.’
And while he killed off the passport policy, whereby the last Tory leadership would subsidise private education and healthcare, it may be exhumed under a different name and in a new format. Cameron is clear that he hates the name. ‘I have never knocked on someone’s door and they have burst out and said, “What I really need is a voucher system.” They say, “I want a good school.” The Conservatives have sounded like the economics party, interested in delivery mechanisms rather than saying what we believe in on education.’
His criticism is of emphasis, not of principle. He voiced support for the overall ideas of the passport policy. ‘Giving parents greater power over their own lives and lowering the Berlin Wall between public and private are both good principles,’ he says. ‘But let’s look at the best way to deliver them.’
Such vocabulary shows a different side to Cameron emerging. Six months ago he appeared to attack on principle the use of state money to send people to private schools and hospitals as ‘helping a few to opt out’. Now he is attacking the public-private distinction as a Cold War anachronism. While he does not discuss his health policy, party aides confirm that he is preparing plans for a sharp increase in the amount of NHS work contracted to private firms — which stands at a peripheral 2 per cent at present.
Asked whether he would prefer to be seen as the heir to Blair or Thatcher, he says there is no competition. ‘I would give my eye teeth to become as successful a Conservative prime minister as she was. She contributed a huge amount to this country. Politically, I grew up in the 1980s where there was this huge choice: join the CND or Nato; cut tax or soak the rich; privatise businesses or nationalise everything that moves. And she was on the right side of every argument and a huge inspiration.’
Yet Cameron has yet to hold talks with Baroness Thatcher since becoming leader, and her allies express reservations about him. Robin Harris, who used to run the No. 10 policy unit and employed the young Cameron in 1988, warns of the ‘huge risk’ in taking core Tory voters for granted. He also discloses that he employed Cameron only after the intervention of the royal household. ‘He applied to the research department, but there were no spaces,’ he says. ‘Then we received a call from a royal equerry wanting to know why he had not been hired.’ Cameron pleads guilty to pulling some strings. ‘I had a godmother whose husband worked there, who knew Robin or something. Anyway, I hope he doesn’t regret employing me.’
There is one question Cameron wants to ask of The Spectator: the true identity of Tamzin Lightwater, our mole in his headquarters. Her weekly diary is a rich source of real insider gossip — such as their horror when they found they may have dispatched Cameron to a Norwegian glacier that is expanding rather than contracting. I ask Cameron if he has suspicions and he points to Gabbie Bertin, his press officer, sitting on the armchair opposite. She giggles, and denies everything.
Cameron leaves for shadow Cabinet, still talking. I walk with him, and a line of aides spring from offices and follow us down the corridor. He has kept those who were with him in his leadership campaign, which they won against the odds. He believes he can do the same against Gordon Brown. ‘Labour’s majority was made in one election,’ he says. ‘It’s been reduced since then and it can be unmade in one election as well. And that is what I’m now going to try and do.’
Fraser Nelson is political editor of The Spectator.