A sneak preview from The Spectator’s bumper Christmas issue, out this Thursday…
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 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.
The increasingly annoying Liberal Democrats
‘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. “I think we could go further on welfare reform, to sharpen work incentives and get more people out of poverty, I think that on the European question I can see very clearly now what needs to be done in terms of our relationship with Europe, in terms of the European convention on human rights and the way the human rights act works. I can see when it comes to building a pro-enterprise economy how we go further and faster on backing entrepreneurship, cutting business taxes, getting our economy moving.”
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 was it right to put in place incentives for wind, wave, solar. Should you have those incentives for longer than necessary? No you shouldn’t.’ So the husky-hugging agenda is still there; it’s just tempered with a few more policies aimed at keeping the lights on.
Trade missions: corporate vs national interest?
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 (myself included), it’s a depressing sign that Britain judges countries by how much they have to spend.
‘I know you’re a sceptic about trade missions,’ he says. ‘But I think they do make a difference…I can show you the list of letters and emails and stories saying: ‘because I’m on the visit’, ‘because that gives me the stamp of authority that opens up new deals and opens up new avenues’.
But 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. ‘If you look at the trade missions, I take a lot of SMEs, trade organisations as well as just big firms.” So small corporations, as well as big ones. But some of them, he says, need politicians to seal deals. ‘With major hydrocarbon contracts, major defence contracts, you need the involvement of the government. Deals wouldn’t happen necessarily without the involvement of the government. I think standing up for British jobs, British investment, British manufacturing is a very important part of my job.’
The Dalai Lama non grata
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.
Q: But would you be open to seeing him again before the next election?
A: No, I said I don’t have plans to meet him.
Q: I understand, but are you open to the notion or are you closed to the notion?
A: I don’t have any plans.
Q: I understand, but the implication is that you are closed to the notion except you wouldn’t say so in public.
A: Well I think I’ve answered the question.
We move on.
Tax cuts: he wants them. But not yet.
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. ‘What matters is getting it right and making sure that the system works well. I don’t want a system where people suffer or struggle because of change from one system to the other.’ 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. ‘You’ve got to deliver a system where every pound you earn, you keep a good portion of it. My aim is low marginal tax rates for everybody, especially the poor.’ But the welfare trap remains.
Immigration: time to deport EU nationals
And this, of course, means a system half of the rise in employment is driven by immigrants. As Cameron knows. ‘I was very struck on a visit to a factory in my own constituency where I think 50 per cent to 60 per cent of the workforce were Latvian, Lithuanian or Polish,’ he says. ‘It was a company that made the strips on cars…paying £7.30 an hour, so £1 over minimum wage. These people do come here and work hard. I’ve always said that to me, immigration, education and welfare is a three sided coin. We’ve got to crack each, we’ve got to make sure we get each bit right, and we won’t solve this problem unless we do all three things.’
This also involves getting tougher with immigrants – and deporting those who can’t don’t work. Even EU nationals. “We are changing that not just for Romanians and Bulgarians, we are changing that for everybody. It is a change you can make and that is a change we are making. Rough sleepers, people who don’t have means of support, begging, people who’d be better off in their own countries where they would have access to benefits – they will be removed.”
But for as long as they come here to work – and that the unreformed welfare system pays British people to stay on the dole – you can expect foreign-born workers to account for most of the increase in employment. We have been making this point on Coffee House but noticed last week that the British-born workers slipped over the 50 per cent mark. ‘I saw your blog,’ Cameron says, ‘that the domestic born workers have overtaken. Congratulations on a correction anyway.’
Why he’s on #TeamNigella
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 two 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. So when I ask “Are you on Team Nigella?” I expect him to stay out of it. Instead, he offers a direct answer.
“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, but I’m also an amateur cook and I like like her recipes. Nancy [Cameron’s nine-year-old daughter] and I sometimes watch a bit of Nigella on telly. Not in court, I hasten to add.’
Cameron’s book of the year: ‘Why Nations Fail’
Does he have any book recommendations? He singles out Beautiful Ruins, a novel by Jess Walter (‘a brilliant book about Richard Burton’). “Samantha reads lot of novels. Every now and again she says: right, this one is a real cracker. But in fact she didn’t recommend Beautiful Ruins.
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 its culture or geography but by the strength of its institutions (property rights, courts, education). It’s up to politicians, the book argues, to safeguard those institutions and make sure power is distributed broadly rather than by an elite. All this is catnip to Cameron. ‘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,” he says. “I said, well, what’s wrong with that?’ It is such a good read and I think it’s a very good guide for policymakers and for diplomacy”.
The best Christmas song is a question that bitterly divides us at the Spectator office. I ask if he has a favourite. ‘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.’
Throughout the interview, Cameron has peppered his answers with references to recent Spectator articles both in the magazine and on Coffee House. I have to admit that it’s impressive, if a little suspicious. Does he really, as Prime Minister, have time to read what we write? ‘Yes I do, funnily enough,’ he says — then, to prove it, 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.
Give something clever this Christmas – a year’s subscription to The Spectator for just £75. And we’ll give you a free bottle of champagne. Click here.