We interview David Cameron for today’s issue of The Spectator. Here’s an extended
version of that interview for CoffeeHousers:
The most striking thing about David Cameron is how well rested he looks. You wouldn’t guess that he was the father of a ten-month-old baby, let alone Prime Minister. He has no bags under his
eyes — unlike his staff. He also seems relaxed. He jovially beckons us in to his Downing Street office and then flops down into one of the two high-backed chairs and urges one of us to take
the other: ‘the Chancellor’s chair’, he calls it, with a chuckle.
The last time we interviewed him, during the general election campaign, he was a different man, tired and tetchy. High office evidently suits him better than scrambling for votes. He seems to
relish the variety of items on his agenda. Yesterday, he says, he spent the afternoon in a seminar with scientists and businessmen on genomics and its possible commercial applications. His next
appointment is with Martina Navratilova.
But these are not easy times for the Prime Minister. His ‘very simple goal, which is to make this country great again,’ by fostering ‘values like responsibility, like family, like
genuine fairness where people that put in get rewarded rather than punished,’ still seems a long way off. The economic recovery remains fragile and events in Europe could push the country
back into recession. This morning, Cameron had a breakfast meeting with the governor of the Bank of England, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Business Secretary to discuss what is
happening in the eurozone. The financial crisis could turn out to be the defining issue of Cameron’s premiership, a possibility that the Prime Minister is now beginning to acknowledge.
Cameron starts with the premise that the eurozone countries will do what it takes to keep the single currency alive. ‘No one in Britain, however sceptical they are about the euro — and
they don’t come much more sceptical than me — should have any doubt about the immense commitment there will be from other European countries to make the euro work,’ he says.
‘We would be kidding ourselves if we thought somehow they’re sitting around thinking, gosh it’s not going very well, how are we going to get out of this one? That’s not what
they’re doing. To them the euro is absolutely central to their vision of their membership of Europe — and they will, I think, do pretty much anything to make that work.’
The eurozone, he adds, will have to move ‘towards much more single economic government’. And in that, crucially, he sees a great chance to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with
the European Union. Or, as puts it in a slow and deliberate way, ‘There will be opportunities for Britain to maximise what we want in terms of our engagement with Europe.’
Eurosceptics accuse the Prime Minister of having fluffed one such opportunity when he agreed to the treaty change that established a permanent bailout mechanism for eurozone members. But Cameron
stresses that he did receive something in return. ‘I got us out of the bailout mechanism which has been used repeatedly and from 2013 cannot be used again, so I think I exacted a good and
fair price for Britain going ahead with this treaty change.’ But then he says again: ‘Are there more things we’re going to be able to do? Yes, I think there will be
These words represent quite a shift in the British position. Until recently, the coalition line has been that because a stable eurozone was in Britain’s interests, we wouldn’t
capitalise on any crisis to pursue a narrow national advantage. Now Cameron is talking explicitly about ‘opportunities’ and how to ‘maximise what we want’. He has an
endgame, then, for the euro crisis, but it’s not something he expects to be playing tomorrow. As he puts it, ‘Sometimes Europe gets to a crossroads and takes quite a long time to decide
what it’s going to do.’
Cameron has plenty to keep him occupied at home. On public services, he is keen to persuade people that he remains ‘bold’. He uses the word seven times in a matter of minutes. He wants
to make it clear that the government’s recent retreat on the NHS does not mark a general abandonment of reform.
Cameron stresses that he remains a reformer, pointing to his route-map for public service reform coming out — after several months of delay — next week. ‘The Public Services White
Paper is a bold and exciting document, and I think the important thing about it is it will help change the culture in the civil service and the government about looking at future public service
reform because it lays a bit of a blueprint and it makes points across the public sector so people can see the full direction of reform. So I want this to be a bold reforming government.’ He
also boasts about what the government is doing in terms of putting information into people’s hands, allowing them to compare the performances of not only individual schools and hospitals but
departments within them. Cameron says with a half-smile that ‘people haven’t really woken up to the full extent of what we’re doing there.’ Later, he says with a flash of
passion, ‘If you give people information about what government spends, how it spends it, what everything costs, what local government is doing, information is power and we’re putting
that power in people’s hands.’
The paradox of David Cameron, though, is that while he sees himself as a radical, he doesn’t want to be seen as divisive. So policies that pit him against received opinion are a no-go. He is
prepared to lead but only at a pace the public are happy with. As Cameron puts it, ‘someone once said that democracy is government by explanation and I really believe that.’ He says
with a certain pride that the coalition’s planned overhaul of the NHS is a ‘bold set of reforms and they are back to where they should be, which is evolutionary rather than
revolutionary’. The concept of ‘bold evolution’ is meant to sound both radical and reassuring, in the hope that these two contradictory qualities can be reconciled.
Cameron’s ambition is tempered by his desire for the public to feel comfortable with the pace of change. When asked if he has any ideological objection to new state-funded free schools being
able to make a profit, he replies that he wants ‘boldness to show results, to embed, to deliver, before you move to subsequent stages’. In other words, free schools can make money, but
not before the reforms that introduced them are seen to work.
He cites as support for this approach an argument by Ferdinand Mount, the one-time head of Mrs Thatcher’s policy unit, which argued that government reforms needed a long runway to take off.
But Cameron should remember that planes can’t get airborne if the pilots leave the brakes on.
There are, moreover, plenty of people who want to slow Cameron’s government down. We are talking to the Prime Minister the day after the public sector strike. He is keen to defend what
he describes as his ‘intensely reasonable’ approach to the unions. ‘I believe in general respect and politeness in the way you handle your relationships with people, including
trade unions,’ he says. But then he shifts gears: ‘No one should mistake reasonableness for a lack of resolve and resilience. There is absolute resilience over this issue.’
Cameron emphasises that, ‘I’ve never wanted a confrontation with the unions. It’s not winning a confrontation I want, it is actually reform of pensions and I think that’s
very important when you say you could go further on dealing with some of the abuses of trade union power and all the rest of it.’ But if the unions are hell bent on confrontation then Cameron
has options. When we ask him about the idea of requiring a minimum turnout for strike ballots or stopping the practice of full time union officials being on the public payroll, he remarks ‘I
have sympathy with some of those suggestions, great sympathy in some cases’. One senses, though, that Cameron won’t reach for these weapons unless he’s forced to.
For most of the interview, Cameron — unusually for a senior politician — actually tries to answer the questions. But when asked whether increasing overseas aid by a third is a good
idea, he becomes evasive. He remarks wearily that the subject is ‘a bit of a hobby horse’ for The Spectator. ‘Look,’ he says, with an air of irritation, ‘we’re
not going to agree about this.’
After a couple of exchanges in which he comments that ‘one of the ways we punch above our weight is because we have got a big aid budget,’ it is clear that Cameron isn’t going to
engage on this issue. So we move on. The conversation turns to how Cameron finds the actual job of being Prime Minister. We ask him where he does his thinking, to which he replies, ‘I
don’t think in a solitary way. I like thinking by talking.’
Warming to his theme, he starts to talk quickly and energetically, his leg bouncing up and down as he goes. ‘I like thinking by debate, argument. I like being challenged by people who
don’t agree with me.’ Cameron is so into his stride at this point that it seems rude to point out that he gave rather the opposite impression a moment ago when we were talking about
‘I love the clash of argument,’ he carries on. ‘I got that from working in the Treasury when I was a special adviser — I like the fact that there was a sort of atmosphere in
the Treasury that you could turn up at the Chancellor’s office and have a bloody good argument.’ Cameron feels he has replicated that atmosphere in No. 10. ‘Meetings are quite
feisty,’ he says. ‘Because I’ve got characters with strong opinions and ability like Steve Hilton and George Osborne, you won’t be surprised they don’t always agree
and I like that, that’s good because you want to have argument and discussion.’ Intriguingly, this suggests that the arguments that matter in the government, or that the Prime Minister
remembers, are between Conservatives, not between them and their coalition partners.
In terms of how he does the job, Cameron says that he has had to supplement his desire to give ministers the freedom to get on with things with a fixer role. ‘If you think about how
I’ve spent my time in the last month or so, I’ve been spending a lot of time on health, where I think we had a problem, and I think I’ve helped to fix it. I’ve spent some
time on justice where I think we had a problem, but I’ve helped to fix it.’
One place where the coalition could soon have a problem is Scotland, where the SNP First Minister Alex Salmond is doing all he can to prepare the ground for independence. Cameron isn’t yet
prepared to call Salmond’s bluff and call a referendum now, but he indicates that his patience is limited. ‘I want to treat the First Minister and his government with respect, I think
it’s the right thing to do but if the whole of the next few years becomes about tussling rather than governing then there may be a moment where we have to say, okay, we need to answer
this question properly but I don’t think we’re there at the moment.’
One of the most remarkable things about the interview is that Cameron doesn’t even mention the Liberal Democrats. He doesn’t refer to them once in 45 minutes. He only mentions coalition
when saying how difficult it is to make progress on dealing with the European Convention on Human Rights and the flow of regulation from Brussels. Gone are the attempts to talk about a
Liberal-Conservative synthesis. Rather, Cameron stresses that the ‘common theme’ of his reforms ‘is pretty standard Conservative stuff of “trust the people” ’.
He no longer sounds like a coalition prime minister who happens to be a Conservative, but a Conservative prime minister who happens to be leading a coalition. That is the big change of
Cameron’s first year in office.