David Cameron is sitting underneath a sign that reads QUIET CARRIAGE, speaking loudly enough to be heard in the next carriage. He knows that even his closest allies are worried he may lose the election if he doesn’t show more passion, so he has been trying to compensate in recent days. He chops the air with his hands as he speaks, furrows his brow, and sounds a little more angry. He has no end of passion, he says. But he is the leader of the Conservative party — a tribe of people who, as he puts it, ‘don’t always wear their beliefs on their sleeve’.
Why do so many people, including members of his own government, think that Cameron must do more to show he really wants to win? ‘I don’t know,’ he replies. ‘There is something about me — I always manage to portray a calm smoothness or something.’ It sounds like a moment of self-reflection. A wry smile, though, and he is back on form: ‘But look, yesterday, where was I? I went to five seats, I did five speeches, I didn’t finish until way after the other party leaders were home having TV training or something. I was out on the stump and I’m doing the same today. Look at my schedule! I don’t know what more I can do.’
For weeks, he has been darting around the country (his record is 26 visits in a week). His only downtime is on trains, so we meet him en route to Pudsey, where he is going to speak to a small invited audience before jumping aboard the Conservatives’ chocolate-laden battle-bus and heading towards a similarly small audience in Halifax. The aim is to appear in the local press and radio, on the grounds that they — not the national media — will be more helpful in the few dozen target seats the Conservatives are focusing on.
But it is safe to say that things are not going quite to plan. The original idea was that Cameron’s achievements (record employment, falling crime, zero inflation) would have given the party a clear lead in the opinion polls by now. Instead, the Conservatives and Labour are neck-and-neck. Ed Miliband has suffered a rebellion in his party’s Scottish heartland and stands to lose 25 seats there. Yet he could still become prime minister because of Labour’s resilience in England.
To Conservative supporters, this seems to defy the law of political gravity: how could a derided opposition leader be level with an accomplished Prime Minister? Senior figures in the Conservative party are muttering that, while the government’s achievements are remarkable, the salesmanship has been less so.
The Prime Minister is aware of the criticism and finds it ‘frustrating’. ‘I feel I have worked my socks off for the last ten years to get to this point,’ he says. ‘I feel we are on the brink of something amazing in our country. If I don’t succeed on 7 May I will be furious more for my country — but furious for myself.’ He says this quietly, not crossly, as if he has been confronting his own political mortality. ‘We have done so much to get so far — I do not want to pull back now.’ And then, a promise to do better: ‘If I need to do more to communicate that I will.’
What he is trying to communicate in the final fortnight of the campaign is that Britain’s recovery has been extraordinary, but that it didn’t happen by accident. And that if people want the recovery to continue, they’ll have to vote Conservative. He is writing the speech he’ll give that day, with ‘jobs’ scribbled as the first bullet point. He has created them at a faster rate than any prime minister in history, which he puts down to tax cuts and welfare reform. So he is travelling to Yorkshire to sell ‘an extremely positive plan to transform the education of young people in our country, to keep going with this welfare revolution’.
He accepts that the revolutionary character of his government is not widely appreciated. ‘I think it is very undersold in many ways,’ he says. He doesn’t say by whom. He later refers to the government’s ‘quiet revolution: pro-work, pro-saving, pro-enterprise’. But did it need to be so quiet? Has he — a former spin doctor — turned out to be better at substance than spin? He seems taken back by the question, but replies: ‘I’d rather it were that way round than the other way.’
His message, for this week, is the danger posed to Britain by any kind of post-election deal between Ed Miliband and the Scottish National Party. He alleges that Nicola Sturgeon wants the next five years to be a ‘car crash’ because she is dedicated to the United Kingdom’s destruction rather than its sound government. The SNP, he says, wants ‘to create resentments in order to further their agenda’ — and the English would suffer. This has become the clincher, the argument that the Conservatives hope will focus the minds of wavering English voters in the final few days of the campaign.
Cameron’s warning about an SNP-run government isn’t about constitutional niceties but power and money. ‘Why did Labour cancel the A27 and the Taunton link road? Because they don’t have a political interest in the south of England or the south-west. How much worse would it be if every decision they had to take, every vote they had to get through, was being held to ransom by the Scottish Nationalists, who only care what happens north of the border?’ The government’s high-speed rail project, he says, would be halted unless it were to start in Scotland.
He is keen to convey to voters that the only way to stop all this is to vote Tory. But he concedes, ‘That bit of the message hasn’t got through yet.’ Hence his emphasis on it now. ‘People are very worried about what they see, they are concerned about the economic impact. But they haven’t, I think, completely joined the dots, that you can stop this if we have 23 more Conservative seats.’
There are those even in his own party who wonder if Cameron realises how serious the Scottish situation is. Yet he is frank about the ‘earthquake’ happening north of the border. ‘You feel it on the streets and in the media in Scotland, you feel there is something quite fundamental taking place.’ The shifting tectonic plates, he says, may even mean the Conservatives will win more seats than Labour — a claim that isn’t as risible as it would have been nine months ago. Until recently, those around Cameron believed that the implosion of Scottish Labour might cost Miliband the election. Instead, the SNP’s declaration that they’d support Labour anyway has simply changed the face of the enemy.
His single greatest boast is jobs: two million of them created, more than the rest of Europe put together. The growth is without historical precedent and has confounded economists. But the Conservative focus at the start of the coalition was on deficit reduction (where progress has been far slower). The shift to talking about jobs came later, he says: ‘When we got a million more jobs under this government, I remember in the shower one morning, preparing for Prime Minister’s Questions and thinking: God, it’s been very tough, this economic programme, but it’s coming right and we’ve done the right things.’
He freely admits to a trade-off: more jobs but sluggish wage growth. Crucially, he thinks it was a trade worth making. ‘Some people would say: well, wouldn’t it be better if you had seen faster growth in wages, rather than jobs? Frankly, I think this has been quite an equitable recovery compared to the 1980s, where the recovery was in living standards, with three million people unemployed.’ In short, he thinks it’s better to have more workers paid a bit less than high unemployment but better pay.
Throughout, Cameron talks with a sense of duty about the fiscal clean-up job. ‘Not what I wanted to come into politics to do,’ he says, with a sigh. But this touches on what he sees as the most essential philosophical and temperamental differences between his party and its opponents — and, perhaps, his ‘passion’ problem. ‘Conservatives are practical, sensible, clear-headed people. We want to know not just what the passion is, we want to know what the plan is. This is who we are.’ Then he adds, ‘This is who I am.’
‘The trouble is we all sound like the people who lift up the car bonnet and fix the engine underneath. We have got to tell people where the car is going, and how great it is going to be when we get there. But as Conservatives, we always go back to the car. To me, that is part of what being a Conservative is — we are not utopians and dreamers, we are deeply practical people… Now I accept “plan vs dream” sometimes makes you the boring one. But the vast majority know that plan plus carrying out a plan equals dream. Dream plus rhetoric equals chaos.’
The dreamer-in-chief, Ed Miliband, had been expected to dissolve on contact with the electorate as he played out a tragicomic, gaffe-strewn campaign. He has so far failed to oblige. This has surprised his fiercest critics, but Cameron says: ‘I have never underestimated him… I always thought he could damage our country very, very severely, and I think that this campaign makes it more clear by the minute.’
He also believes that the Tory campaign, incidentally, is the ‘most organised, disciplined, clear campaign I have ever been involved in’ (including Sir John Major’s eleventh-hour triumph of 1992). Cameron, who has an aversion to long meetings, seems particularly pleased that the meetings are ‘very short and very focused, because we all absolutely know what we are doing’.
One part of campaigning that Cameron isn’t keen on, though, is the trend for selfies. ‘It is an extraordinary phenomenon,’ he says, ‘and it sometimes makes part of the process of politics quite difficult. Everyone wants a selfie rather than to have a conversation, and sometimes that’s a bit frustrating, particularly with your party activists. I want to know what they are finding on the doorsteps, but actually you are too busy having your picture taken.’ He predicts its demise: ‘The selfie will come, the selfie will go.’
Within an hour, he is giving a speech to workers in a half-built office block in Pudsey that will soon house 400 employees. Two men pose for a selfie, beaming into a mobile phone and trying to catch the Prime Minister speaking in the background. As he makes his pitch, with all the requisite passion, a woman lets out a quiet cheer. He responds with delight. ‘That’s one!’ he says. ‘Now I only need 14 million more.’ He’s wrong: Major won that many in 1992. In 2015, Cameron needs about 10 million. Will he get them in time?