David Cameron talks to Fraser Nelson about his local election triumphs, admits that he is not going to ‘agree on everything’ with the new Mayor of London, and says Boris should join the queue to become PM after him
The victorious David Cameron is being driven towards Buckingham Palace, the adrenaline of election success still pumping through his veins. Crowds line The Mall, peering into the blackened glass of his limousine. But when he approaches the Palace, his car turns for the A4 and the reverie is shattered. He’s on his way to Crewe for the by-election, setting off by car because of train cancellations. The crowds were for someone else. His lunch is a cheese sandwich from an M1 service station. He is on the campaign trail, yet again.
‘There is a slight sense of Groundhog Day,’ says Mr Cameron, sipping his take-away coffee. I am joining him for the day, and watch as he slips back into his mobile office routine. His two staff sit beside me in the back seat, passing briefing notes and arranging his day. He has two mobile telephones, one for speaking and one for reading emails. One phone has the ring tone taken from 24 — the hit television show about a counter-terrorist agent who regularly escapes mortal peril. ‘It’s an in-joke,’ the Tory leader says.
One can guess at the joke’s content. In the last year, Mr Cameron has seen his party bungee jump into the abyss. ‘The Spectator had that cover of me with my hands bound and my neck in a noose,’ he reminds me. This was indeed the cover image of our Tory conference issue — beside the headline ‘Now get out of this, Dave’. He did — and how. In last week’s local elections, Labour’s vote collapsed to its lowest since the first world war, Boris captured London and Mr Cameron earned the right to be taken seriously as our next prime minister.
The Conservative leader is quick to play all this down. Local elections, he says, are no proxy for national contests. ‘Asking people to change their government is a big decision, and that is why there is not an ounce of complacency from me after the local results,’ he says. ‘There’s an enormous amount of reassurance we have to give people — that we have the right leader, a strong team, that we will take no risks with the economy and that we have a clearly worked-out plan for public services.’
He also has Mayor Johnson who, rightly or wrongly, will be regarded as a test pilot, demonstrating to the electorate how qualified the Tories now are to govern nationally. ‘All Conservative councils and mayors are part of what people should expect from the Conservative party,’ says Mr Cameron. ‘But Boris is his own man, he is his own Mayor and we are not going to agree on everything.’ Thus, a few inches of distance are inserted, a smidgeon of deniability, just in case.
Of all the tasks Boris can perform to help Mr Cameron win, perhaps the most valuable will be keeping the Greater London Authority’s budget under control — demonstrating Tory financial discipline. Although Mr Cameron has rejected the idea of up-front tax cuts (this is what he means by ‘take no risks’ with the economy) he is fast learning the deep popular appeal of a politician who promises to take less of a citizen’s money. As we pull up outside Rugby railway station, where we are to rejoin the resurrected train service, he says the lesson he learnt from last week’s local elections is that low-tax Tories are the most popular ones.
‘If you take the local elections, there was no doubt in my mind that it was easiest to campaign in those places where Conservative councils really did have a record of keeping the council tax down, or at least promising to limit the increase,’ he says. ‘I haven’t done the sums. But I’m pretty sure that the areas where we did best were those where we were able to say: look, we’re in government here, we are helping with the cost of living, we understand your problems and difficulties.’
The moral he has drawn is that low tax is a good strategy for re-election — but not when a party is in opposition and seeking power. ‘There is a world of difference between promising and delivering. These councils have actually delivered. Margaret Thatcher won elections not by talking about tax reductions, but by demonstrating that a Conservative government shared the proceeds of growth.’ So to the chagrin of many Tory activists, the old policy — and, ergo, almost all of Mr Brown’s taxes — will stay, at least for now.
Whatever one’s ideological preference, one has to take Mr Cameron’s view of political strategy seriously, given than he has just driven Labour to its worst election result since universal suffrage was introduced. As one former Cabinet member moaned to me, he has also supplanted the Liberal Democrats as the party of the protest vote. ‘I have to keep scratching myself to believe that’s true, but I am on my fourth Liberal leader,’ Mr Cameron says. ‘I count them up. Instead of counting sheep to go to sleep at night, I run through Lib Dem leaders.’
Might he soon be on his third Prime Minister? ‘I have no idea. But I do think the British public would find it slightly difficult to accept another unelected prime minister. A party starts to look — how can I put this? — hopeless if it keeps changing its leader. There was a moment when the Conservatives were doing it a little bit too often. I’ve tried to slow down the rate of change.’
One may argue that the needle of political probability is oscillating between a fragile Tory majority and a Blair-style landslide. The difference may be determined by whether Mr Cameron is voted in by default, or because of a clear, positive Tory agenda for change that the nation actively embraces. The Spectator has been supportive of Mr Cameron’s Wisconsin-style welfare reform and Swedish school reform ideas. But such abstruse policy formulations mean little to most voters. Can he spell out what difference these policies would make to the lives of voters after the first term of Conservative government?
Mr Cameron pauses, as if trying to imagine his re-election campaign in May 2014. ‘The education policy would lead to a whole generation of independent schools in the state sector offering choice and excellence. And we will have revolutionised our welfare rolls, in the way Australia and some American states have done, by turning the whole system on its head. So you would have many more British people in work and coming out of poverty because you will have solved one of the great causes of poverty, which is worklessness.’
This takes us to what is fast becoming the Conservative ‘Big Idea’, involving — as Mr Cameron says — ‘achieving progressive ends through conservative means’. It is an audacious bid to supplant Labour as the main poverty-fighting party and, in doing so, woo the Left as Blair once wooed ex-Thatcher voters. The proposition is simple: for 11 years Labour has fought poverty. Poverty won. Now it is time to try another way.
‘Labour has moved a lot of people from just below the poverty line to just above it and claimed success,’ says Mr Cameron. ‘The Left’s answer is to use lots of taxpayers’ money to change benefits and tax credits, so that you solve the symptom of poverty which is shortage of money. The cause of poverty is the drugs, alcohol, the crime, educational underachievement, family breakdown and worklessness.’ This distinction between causes and symptom lies at the heart of the new Tory analysis.
‘What you need is a conservative tool to reach the progressive goal. And that is to solve the cause of the poverty, which in many cases is worklessness, therefore vigorous welfare reform. Or drug abuse — so empha sis on residential rehab. Family breakdown — so the emphasis is on changes on tax and benefits so families come together and stay together.’
And this is another reason Mr Cameron is reluctant to focus unduly on tax cuts, as he regards this as only part of the overall Conservative mission. ‘The centre-right tradition in politics has always been about the elevation of the condition of the people, ending the “two nations” of rich and poor. For a while in the 1980s, the Conservatives did become the party of economics: free markets and enterprise. I was all in favour of it. But another part of Conservatism is about social reforms, improving the state of society or the nation. I hope I have restored some balance there.’
Another central part of Conservatism is defending Britain abroad and the nation’s sovereignty, and the coming fight may very well be — yet again — over Europe. The Lisbon Treaty will receive Royal Assent next month (barring a miracle or the right outcome in Stuart Wheeler’s heroic High Court challenge). Cameron’s position is that, if the Treaty were ratified, a Conservative government ‘would not let it rest there’. This is a deliberately enigmatic formula, designed (optimistically) to stop the party arguing over precisely what should follow.
One theory, which I have now heard from two shadow Cabinet members, is that the Conservatives would insert in their manifesto a pledge to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership of the European Union and then hold a referendum on the result. It would be a herculean task, which would take years. But when I put the proposal to Mr Cameron, I do not get the brush-off denial I expect.
‘These suggestions are options for how to deliver what I’ve spoken about,’ he says — referring to his promise not to let ‘things rest’. ‘I am not going to comment favourably or unfavourably on any option like that until we are ready to do so.’ But if he cannot negotiate the Conservatives out of the European People’s party grouping in the European parliament, some might say he has no hope of doing anything with the EU. ‘They will have to wait and see what our answer is should the Treaty be ratified, and we’ll be judged on that,’ he says.
Europe is just one area where policy decisions have been deferred. On tax brackets, defence spending, Scottish finance and more, there are plenty of questions kicked into the long grass. This, I say as we board the train, makes it harder to persuade a blue-collar Crewe voter just how his life would be better under the Tories. ‘This is the perennial problem in opposition. The right time to set out your tax and spending proposals is at an election — and I don’t believe in producing fully worked-up shadow budgets every single year,’ he says.
‘I am not saying, Clint Eastwood-like, that there are only two sorts of policy in this world — good ones that get stolen by your opponents and bad ones that get hung round your neck for ever. But it is a thought to keep in your head. Many people have said we’d never make any breakthroughs in politics until we had more policies. To which I would reply: this train has just gone through Conservative-controlled Nuneaton.’
The local elections victory has reinforced in Mr Cameron faith that his instincts are correct, and that his critics are wrong. ‘There are some people who set tests for you, and even when you pass them they say, “Oh well, he’s still doing badly”,’ he says. ‘There will be good bits and bad bits. Sometimes where Labour do very well, sometimes where we do very badly.’ But he says the local election results have had a transformative effect on the party’s morale, that there is momentum to be harnessed — and taken into Crewe and Nantwich on 22 May.
And might he not be the only Conservative with an eye on that big black door? I put to him that Boris may want to be prime minister when he is done at City Hall. ‘I am a big Boris fan,’ he says. ‘I have known him for a long time. I have always said to people: do not underestimate the brains and ambition of this guy. So when I’ve had a go, I’m sure there will be a queue of people looking to take over.’ Yes, Mr Cameron did indeed say ‘when’. And right now, very few in Westminster would correct him.