It’s 9.30 a.m. on a Friday and David Cameron is about to head for his Oxfordshire constituency and work from home. This is precisely the habit that his Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, is trying to beat out of the civil service, but the Prime Minister has a reasonable claim to some downtime. In the past five days he has met 150 businessmen and toured four Chinese cities. This morning, he has paid a visit to Tech City, London’s answer to Silicon Valley, and travelled to South Africa House to pass on his condolences following Nelson Mandela’s death. His last appointment, which will last for as long as it takes to drive to Beaconsfield service station, is an interview with The Spectator.
I’m ushered into the back of his car to wait for him, and sit next to his battered prime ministerial red box. It’s one hell of a temptation for a journalist, given that it’s supposed to be chock-full of secrets. As I eye it, wondering if the security is as ancient as the box itself, his chauffeur clears his throat and narrows his eyes at me in the rear-view mirror. Then the PM’s door opens, he jumps in and we pull off. ‘So this interview is for your Christmas special,’ he says. ‘That’s the one that sits around the house for weeks. Well, I’d better get this right.’
It is, he says, eight years and one day since he became leader of the Conservative party. But he didn’t celebrate. ‘I went out for dinner with Samantha and a couple of friends, but I don’t think anyone was aware of the date. I was — 5 December is a big day in my life.’ His campaign message, then, was ‘change to win’. Of course he didn’t exactly win and ended up with Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. After three years of coalition, the frustrations are starting to show.
‘Increasingly, today, I feel very strongly and see very clearly the case for more accountable, more decisive and active government.’ He means government without the Lib Dems. He starts to reel off his areas of frustration: welfare reform (‘to sharpen work incentives and get more people out of poverty’), Europe and business (‘cutting business taxes’). The coalition is still strong and radical, he says, ‘but because of what I see as the problems facing Britain — and what I want to do next as Prime Minister — I feel very passionately that I want single party government’. It’s strange, I say, he doesn’t come across as a man held captive by the perfidious Liberal Democrats. ‘I don’t believe that you succeed in government by sitting around whingeing about what you can’t do,’ he says. ‘But I’m happy to tell you — and Spectator readers — privately that there’s a good list of things I have put in my little black book that I haven’t been able to do which will form the next Tory manifesto.’
When Cameron stood for Tory leader he had a wind turbine fitted to the roof of his north Kensington house. This Christmas, he’s vying with Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg to offer voters cheaper power. The Prime Minister has been quoted as saying, ‘We’ve got to get rid of all this green crap.’ He doesn’t deny using the phrase, saying only that he doesn’t ‘recall using it’. But he has been ‘concerned about the eco’, by which he means the way that green levies were loaded on to bills rather than funded through general taxation.
‘It’s taken me longer to reform eco than I would like — sometimes, in a coalition, that happens.’ Those perfidious Lib Dems again. He still rejects the idea of tension between green energy and affordable energy. ‘I would describe shale gas as a green energy source that can cut energy costs,’ he says. But he still wants to subsidise those ‘renewable technologies which otherwise wouldn’t get off the ground’. So the husky-hugging agenda is still there; it’s just tempered with a few more policies aimed at keeping the lights on.
Cameron still seems to sign up to the environmentalists’ idea that aircraft should carry as many people as possible: he seldom travels abroad without a Boeing full of chief executives. His ‘trade-first’ foreign policy was at its most visible in his recent trip to China, where he was accompanied by over 100 company chiefs and entrepreneurs. To some, this demonstrates an admirable commitment to enterprise. To others, it’s a depressing sign that Britain judges countries by how much they have to spend. Is there a danger, I ask, of conflating national interest with corporate interests? When the Arab Spring broke out, for example, Cameron was touring the Gulf with arms companies. I put it to him that this was not a good look.
‘Well I’m not interested in looks, I’m interested in results — and I think Britain has a very strong and entirely legitimate defence industry and it’s right that we make the most of that,’ he says. I ask about the China trip: is it true that the price of taking his business friends to Beijing was his promising not to meet the Dalai Lama again? ‘I’ve met him in opposition, I’ve met him in government, I don’t have any plans to meet him,’ he says. But is he ruling it out? ‘I don’t have any plans.’ Not quite the same thing: the implication, I say, is that he has ruled it out but can’t say so in public. ‘Well, I think I’ve answered the question,’ he replies, with an air of finality. We move on.
The other way to help business — cutting taxes — is going rather well. The top rate of tax has been cut from 50p to 45p and the richest are now paying more income tax than ever. Cameron feels vindicated. ‘I knew we would get attacked for it, but I thought the evidence was so strong that actually cutting the top rate of tax would probably result in more revenue,’ he says. ‘I thought, you can’t just not do something because you’re going to be attacked, that’s just feeble politics.’ His original plan was to cut the tax to 40p, but the Lib Dems vetoed it. Is that the next stop? He purses his lips. ‘I will leave tax as a matter for the Chancellor,’ he says. ‘I am a low-tax Conservative.’
Still, in effect, the ‘welfare trap’ means that the top rate of tax for the poorest is 87 per cent — that is to say, some of the lowest paid in Britain keep only 13p of each extra pound they earn, because welfare is quickly withdrawn from those who try to increase their income through more work. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit reform aims to remedy this, and introduce, in effect, a top rate of 65 per cent. Still outrageously high, but even this change is subject to repeated delays. ‘It is an important reform and I make no apology for introducing it slowly,’ says Cameron. But when it is up and running, might a Chancellor stand up on Budget day and update the nation on the real tax rate for the poor and perhaps reduce it below 50 per cent? ‘I would love to see that happen,’ he says. ‘My aim is low marginal tax rates for everybody, especially the poor.’ But the welfare trap remains.
We pass a road sign that says ‘Beaconsfield Services’, which is my four-minute warning. I ask a question I feel sure he’ll dodge: about the trial of Charles Saatchi’s former housemaids and the revelation that his ex-wife, Nigella Lawson, used cocaine. Her fans have rushed to her defence: ‘Team Nigella’ is used as a hashtag on Twitter and even sprayed on city walls. Is the Prime Minister on Team Nigella? ‘I am,’ he says. ‘I’m a massive fan, I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting her a couple of times and she always strikes me as a very funny and warm person. Nancy [Cameron’s nine-year-old daughter] and I sometimes watch a bit of Nigella on telly. Not in court, I hasten to add.’
Does he have any book recommendations? He singles out Beautiful Ruins, a novel by Jess Walter (‘a brilliant book about Richard Burton’). But he says he is ‘obsessed’ with Why Nations Fail, by two American academics who argue that a nation’s fate is determined not by the quality of its politicians but on the strength of its institutions — courts, schools, banks, government. ‘Someone said to me: you only like this book because it’s two academics who have written a very complicated book that confirms all your prejudices. I said, well, what’s wrong with that?’
His favourite Christmas song? ‘Although it’s been out all year I really love the Mumford & Sons album, Babel. It’s driving Samantha mad. You know what it’s like when you overplay something and it’s even beginning to annoy you, and it’s annoyed everyone else in the family.’
Cameron has peppered his answers with references to recent Spectator articles both in the magazine and on our Coffee House blog. Does he really, as Prime Minister, have time to read what we write?
‘Yes I do, funnily enough,’ he says — then he opens that red box. It’s almost empty, save for the latest issue of The Spectator. ‘I haven’t read this week’s yet,’ he explains. Then he submits a Dear Mary question: ‘What do you do when a journalist has asked you too many questions in a car?’ The answer is to drop him off beside the petrol pumps, head for home and settle down to read the world’s greatest magazine.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.