David Cameron

The political system is broken, the economy is broken and so is society. That is why people are so depressed about the state of our country.

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    An interview with David Cameron

    The transcript of our chat with the Conservative leader

    The Economist

    (Mar 31st 2010)


    The Economist: A strange situation has evolved, whereby we have what was until recently the most unpopular government and Prime Minister in history, who then suffered a series of further calamities – strikes, sleaze, fiscal disaster – and nevertheless the gap magically seems to narrow. How do you account for that?

    David Cameron: Well, I think that as you get close to an election, people are thinking very carefully about how they are going to vote. And they just don't hand election victories to people on a plate. People are looking at the choice. And I always believed it would be close; it will always be a tough test. I'm still very confident that we can win it, but I think that is what is happening. People have had a very difficult recession. They have suffered in that way. They have also had the scandal of expenses and Parliament being dragged through the mud. And they are rightly sceptical, cynical, apathetic, sometimes very angry with politicians, and they want a lot of convincing. And I think that's what the polls are all about.

    The Economist: That's the thing, though – some people have been convinced to embrace Labour. Your numbers have come down, in some polls, while their numbers have come up in some. But there are 3-4% out there who have looked at things in the way you describe and have decided to opt out.

    David Cameron: I think some of Labour's core voters have returned to Labour, and that is to be expected. But we don't have to spend too much time worrying about polls, because we're about to have the big one. I'm a participant, rather than a pollster; I'm trying to move the numbers, rather than talk about them.

    The Economist: There is a view that, after George's [Osborne, the shadow chancellor] speech at the conference last year, actually the gap in terms of specific, identified spending cuts between you and the government now is not very great; that you're rhetorically tougher but that, in practice, there isn't much to choose between you.

    David Cameron: I don't accept that. I think there are two important differences, one which has become clearer today, where we are actually setting out what we will do in 2010: 2.8% efficiency reductions, which is effectively less than 1% of government spending in a year, which I think is doable and deliverable. So we've explained what we're doing in 2010 that is different to the government. The second thing is, while they haven't set out spending plans for the future, and so it's impossible for us to do as well, we have said, in a number of difficult areas, like pay, pensions and benefits, what we'll do. And they haven't done that. Give me the government equivalent of our asking people to retire a year later from 2016. Give me the equivalent of our pay freeze from 2011. I don't think they have done that at all, and I think that was a brave and right thing for us to do. So I think there are two quite important differences, actually.

    The Economist: You said at your press conference last week – you responded very passionately to a question about various pensioners' benefits: the winter fuel allowance, the free bus passes.

    David Cameron: Winter fuel, TV licences, bus passes: those are the three areas.

    The Economist: And you obviously, understandably, felt aggrieved that you'd been misrepresented on this. But should you have been misrepresented? In other words, if you are going to address this deficit, isn't more means testing of precisely those kinds of actually quite expensive benefit the kind of thing that you would be considering?

    David Cameron: No. What I'm cross about is that Labour are deliberately lying about what we're planning to do. And they're frightening people. And they're writing letters and leaflets to people in their 50s and 60s, trying to scare them by lying to them, and that's wrong. That's all. And I think it's the wrong thing to do. I think that winter fuel benefits and the free television licence and the free bus passes are proper and effective – we should keep them.

    The Economist: Could we talk through this more expensive plan, which is cutting deficit through the programme of Conservative measures?

    David Cameron: What we're doing is we're saying, if you make savings now, in 2010, that you should use some of that to avoid the tax increase in 2011. It seems to me exactly what a business would do. If The Economist had a choice, either to increase your cover price in 2011 or find some efficiencies in 2010 and stop it happening – I'm sure you guys would probably put up prices anyway! So it seems to me an entirely logical and sensible thing to do. And it is still fiscally conservative, because we're getting the public spending baseline below the government's level.

    The Economist: I think the difficulty is the Gershon [efficiency] cuts, because they have been with us for a long time now. If you're planning to finance the National Insurance break, you need the Gershon savings.

    David Cameron: There are very good Gershon savings. The fact is, Gershon recommended some savings for the government, which they didn't implement. He is the government's wage guru, and he is specifically saying that what we're suggesting is doable and deliverable. And I think it is pretty self-evident that it is. Any business, in the situation of the government, would be saying to itself, what can I do in terms of recruitment? What can I do in terms of advertising and consultancy, IT, my suppliers, my energy bills, my telephone bills? What can I do to save money on those things? The government simply hasn't done that. I mean, they make a virtue of saying they're not doing it. They've made a massive political attack on the state and they've identified £11 billion of waste, and said, ‘Oh, by the way, we're not going to do anything about it until 2011'. They've given us an enormous opportunity to save that money now, and to stop the taxes rising. Think about what the government's saying: they're saying, ‘Let me go on wasting £11 billion this year, so I can put up your taxes by £10 billion next year'. Have you ever thought of a crazier policy?

    The Economist: The point about the government is absolutely well taken, but you could take the Gershon savings and us them to reduce the deficit.

    David Cameron: Well, in year one, we are. That, I think, is quite an important point. It is worth saying that in 2010 if you find the savings, you deliver lower public spending than Labour, you deliver a lower deficit than Labour, and by starting early that entitles you to say ‘Let's also do something else which is good in the meantime for growth and deficit reduction, which is to get rid of an absolute killer tax'. You do not have to be an economist to know that putting up the cost of employing someone is a pretty barking thing to do when you're trying to get out of a recession. That's why I think you're going to see a lot of very strong business support for what we've said today, because if you are an employer and you want to expand your workforce having a tax on jobs is about the craziest thing you can do.

    The Economist: If you look longer term at deficit reduction, I suppose in a macro way you look at where government spends its money and the two big-ticket items are the welfare bill and the NHS. The NHS you've ring fenced and you don't have many opportunities to reduce either the scale of benefits or the amount of benefits, or the categories of people who receive the benefits. You want to reduce the welfare bill by getting people into work and so on, like all governments and like Tony Blair wanted to do in 1997.

    David Cameron: Yes, but he wasn't prepared to do the two difficult things. One is proper involvement of voluntary and private sectors with aggressive payment by results; he wasn't prepared to do that. Secondly, they weren't prepared to say ‘If you don't take a job you could do, we reduce your benefits'. Those are the two key steps which we are prepared to take.

    The Economist: Looking forward, your strategy for growth places a lot of emphasis on keeping interest rates low by cutting the deficit.

    David Cameron: Yes.

    The Economist: Would you consider anything more activist?

    David Cameron: Yes, I think we are quite activist in terms of in our emergency budget saying any new business that sets up, no National Insurance on the first 10 employees, scrapping some of the allowances relief to deliver a lower corporation tax rate. If you look at our green-jobs agenda, I would say it is as aggressive as any modern industrial country's got in terms of feed-in tariffs, interactive energy grid, DC cables to link up marine and all of the other things that go with the Green Deal. The Green Deal is an enormous jobs and growth driver in terms of greening people's houses. I think when you look up all the green policies, it is a very aggressive programme of decarbonising the economy and growing green jobs at the same time. If you look at the Dyson report, I think that's quite aggressive too in terms of – it's just got to be the right sort.

    The Economist: I know you mentioned earlier you don't use this phrase ‘Broken Britain', but you say we have a broken society. It does in a way sound fortunate that you're now identifying a lot of things as broken, broken society and the broken economy. The broken society you began campaigning on before saying the economy was broken too.

    David Cameron: And the politics. I've talked about the three brokens. The political system is broken, the economy is broken and so is society. That is why people are so depressed about the state of our country.

    The Economist: You don't think it's rather overly gloomy to mean it?

    David Cameron: I think you have to take each one in turn. When you look at our economy and see longest this and deepest recession since the war, record youth unemployment, national debt doubled and set to double again, it's quite hard to say – and a bigger budget deficit this year than Greece. Which bit of that isn't in quite big difficulty? When you look at the political system, you have the worst couple of years in British politics for the reputation of Parliament and politics. When in the last decade have you had a question of a meeting of people in a warehouse, as I just had, where one of the questions would be about MPs' expenses? I mean, that is really bad. I know The Economist and I have a disagreement over what I call mending the broken society, but I think – and I read your piece carefully – when you look some of the key indicators like the fact there are more children growing up in homes where nobody works in this country than anywhere else in Europe, and some of our records against the rest of Europe on things like teenage pregnancy and drug abuse, alcohol, family worklessness, educational problems – I think it's a pretty strong case to say ‘Of course not all of our society is broken, but parts are badly-off and need to be mended'. So I don't think it's – I think people want a realistic assessment of what's right and what's wrong and what needs to change.

    The Economist: One part of your strategy for changing things is your schools-reform programme. Another Economist sort of critique would be ‘excellent in principle, but flawed by the fact that you're so reluctant to allow people setting up these schools to make a profit'.

    David Cameron: No, we've said that we understand the need for people to – some idea that people need to be able to make the finances work properly. But I think the idea of sort of profit maximising schools is not a good one. But the idea of surplus and a return, we have talked about. The point is the appetite. I mean, look at the appetite. You've got waiting in the wings the Future Schools Network, like the Civitas school; you've got those who sponsored academies. You know, I can give you more details if you like. There are quite a number of people waiting in the wings, desperate for this policy to be introduced, who are ready to introduce really great new schools. I think you would be surprised by the appetite there is, even under the current rules, for people to get involved.

    The Economist: What are the cost implications?

    David Cameron: In terms of schools, we have always said that new schools should have access to the Building Schools for the Future programme, but I actually believe that there is quite an appetite for this to happen without the sort of carrot of a lot of extra money. If you take for instance, I was talking to some parents yesterday who send their children to the New Model school, the Civitas school. The Civitas school fees are not far away from the cost of a state-school place, so I reckon you'll find – I was in Bristol last week where there are some independent schools wanting to opt into the state system as academies. In Bristol, if you want an argument about mending a broken society, I think I am right in saying that in Bristol only 40% of children get five good GCSEs when you include English and Maths. Now, Bristol is one of our biggest cities: 40%, five GCSEs. Now, you would expect that the minimal for children in one of Britain's most prosperous cities in one of the world's most prosperous countries – 40%.

    The Economist: Are we wrong and mistaken to focus so much on your Swedish agenda, when in fact the pupil premium may be the more important aspect? Or maybe it won't be sufficiently big?

    David Cameron: I think that the opening up – I think the two things that matter most are the rigour, standards and discipline agenda, which don't underestimate. If you really have a team of ministers who actually buy that agenda, that makes a big difference because you suddenly have someone to fight the ‘all must have rises' mentality, which I think has done a lot of damage. The QCDA and all these other organisations are enthused with the ‘all must have rises' agenda, so you have to fight it. I think opening up the state sector to competition – the pupil premium is important, but clearly money is going to be tight in the early years.

    The Economist: Another one of your big themes has been giving power away. Is there a danger that you become so enthused by the second part of what David Miliband has talked about on devolution, the private stuff, that you become a little complacent about localism proper?

    David Cameron: I think that where we sort of trump Miliband, although I still claim I came up with it first, is where you can devolve a service to individual choice, you should. Where it's doable, and it needs to be collective or accountable, it should go down to the lowest level of government. So I think it is more thought through. There are some important ways we will be giving local councils new powers, and I don't think we are complacent about that, with city mayors for instance.

    The Economist: Let's back up for one minute to your point about pupil premiums. You said money will be tight. Is the implication that there won't be much of a pupil premium?

    David Cameron: No, we want to do it. It is very important and we will do it, but money will be tight.

    The Economist: City mayors?

    David Cameron: Yes, so I think that is another good agenda of giving power away, of proper devolution. I think we have shown the way. You can see how London is now working, and I think all the big cities of Britain should have mayors and we're going to have referendums to give people the chance. With a government that is right behind it and wants to make it happen, I think it will happen.

    I think it true that, you know, sometimes things start to change even before a government changes and, actually, I think you can begin to see even the Labour machine beginning to understand that it has become over-reliant on targets and processes, that local governments have been over-bossed and bullied. You are beginning to see even they are talking about getting rid of ring-fencing, so there is, you know, a move, which we, I think, have been in the vanguard of, there is a move towards more devolution, people using local discretion, local decision-making, in housing as in other things.

    The Economist: You say you are in the vanguard of it, but I mean the Liberal Democrats went further than you in terms of independence for local government financially through income tax, which you haven't.

    David Cameron: No, well, I think local income tax is a bad idea and, actually, it is interesting in Scotland, where that was the closest they got, suddenly everyone got cold feet and bottled out of it. It's just not a good idea. We're already over-taxed as a country and I think if you – nobody likes the council tax, I accept. The problem with the council tax is not its nature; it's its level. It's perfectly reasonable to have a modest property tax as part of your tax base and I think the idea of getting rid of it, and having it all as income tax, is a bad change. I think it would be an anti-enterprise change, an anti-aspiration change, so I think the key is recognising the problem is that it's not the wrong sort of tax, it's just too high. And that's what lies behind our council-tax freeze – is just trying to put a lid on this to start making things so that we can then, you know, try to improve the system.

    The Economist: Can we ask you a bit about foreign and international affairs? Would you say you're broadly happy and satisfied with the strategy in Afghanistan?

    David Cameron: I'm a lot happier than I was. I think I've been every year for the last four years. The last time I went I had much the most optimistic sense that there was now a better plan, it was being properly resourced, the arrival of large numbers of American troops in Helmand is making a big difference. I've been banging on about this force-ratio point in Parliament and outside Parliament, but there's not much point in doing it unless you also at the same time make sure there's a proper divide-up of who does what in Helmand. We are still in the situation where British troops are in charge of two-thirds of the population, but there are only 10,000 of us and 20,000 Americans.

    That is changing, so I'm much more enthusiastic. I think we still need to push harder on the political settlement and I think there's an opportunity for an incoming government to push harder and faster on that, the so-called reintegration and reconciliation procedures. In fact, there's an opportunity for that, but it's a lot better than it was.

    The Economist: So no big change in Afghanistan we'll see if you were to –

    David Cameron: No, if you have proper war cabinet, proper war footing, you know, all on day one, I've never needed to be persuaded about the importance of this. It will be important from the very moment I walk through the door. The change I'd like to see is more emphasis on the political settlement. We've got to have a sense that the government in Afghanistan is capable of truly representing the whole country.

    The Economist: Have you met [Hamid] Karzai?

    David Cameron: Five times.

    The Economist: What's your opinion on him?

    David Cameron: I think at his best he can do good things, but we have to be very clear about the need to cut out corruption and to achieve good governance. That is a process of permanently reminding him of how important that is. They were talking about bad corruption stories while I was there last time and you could really feel the damage that it was doing.

    We have Conservative MPs who spend a lot of time in Afghanistan. You know I get very good advice from people both from people who are fantastically enthusiastic and others who are deep sceptics, so I mean it's very good to listen to all the sources of advice. Someone made the point to me recently that, you know, Operation Moshtarak was using a Dari word rather than a Pashto word. I thought that was quite a fair point.

    The Economist: When we saw you last summer, I think at the time you sort of said something along the lines of you didn't get enough time to spend thinking about foreign affairs as you'd like, or words to that effect. Obviously, the closer you get to sort of being Prime Minister, the sooner you have to think what the possibilities will be. Have you had less rather than more time?

    David Cameron: I would say I think – I mean I can't remember exactly what I said to you, I hope I'm about to say something broadly similar. One of the good things about having this role, Leader of the Opposition, is actually over a four-and-a-half year period, you know, I have met President Obama twice, I have met Merkel three or four times, Sarkozy three or four times, Netanyahu four times, Karzai five times. You know, I've travelled to South Africa, Darfur, Israel, America, China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan. You know, the good thing is you do actually have an opportunity to learn and to build up contacts, and that's useful.

    I think what I was saying last time is during a recession it's very difficult – you're rightly focused on the domestic economy, domestic politics, and how you get out of recession and build recovery. And so I haven't done in the last year as much foreign travel as perhaps I would have liked to, but that's right.

    I do quite a lot of thinking about it. William Hague and Andrew Mitchell have both done a huge amount of travel and I think are as well-prepared for government as any kind of foreign and international team ever have been. They have done a huge amount of travel and got a huge amount of contacts and a huge amount of ideas about what they want to.

    And I think there are some real opportunities for Britain in some areas of the world where we underplay our relationships. I think in the Gulf, particularly, there are very longstanding, strong relationships that have been underplayed in recent years that I think we could get great benefit from, from giving more time and effort and resources to. That's a message I've had from many Gulf leaders themselves. I think South East Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia, as well as obviously India, I think again – and Singapore – we underplay the potential of the relationship there. And, you know, I meant what I said in my Spring Conference that, you know, the Prime Minister makes his jokes about salesmen, but actually, you know, there's an important time to get out and help promote British business and British interests around the world. And I think there are, as I've said, areas of the world which we underplay and we could do better with.

    The Economist: The old alliance with America – what do you make of the notion that it's over?

    David Cameron: I just don't buy that. I think that, you know, one can get into sort of definitional problems. Is there a special relationship? Yes. Is it real, tangible – does it mean something? Yes. I think sometimes people, you know, you have to remember though we are the junior partner in that relationship and I think part of getting the relationship right is understanding how best to play the role of the junior partner. And I think there are times when leaders have done it very well and times when leaders haven't done it so well. But does it still mean something? Yes, it does.

    And I think you can see it in Afghanistan very clearly. I think, you know, on any number of issues you see Britain and America working very closely together, closer than with other allies, so I think it does still exist. I mean we don't overstate it and don't ever think that it's a sort of equal partnership because it isn't.

    The Economist: The other alliance is Europe. Do you have a firm sense of which powers and competencies you would take back and exactly how you would do it?

    David Cameron: Yes, I mean I do. I think that, you know, in terms of social-chapter powers and then firmer opt-outs on charter of fundamental rights and home-affairs issues, that's where we want to make the difference. We said we'd do it over a Parliament; we don't want an immediate bust-up. And the response to what we've said, even from people who disagree, is that this is not unreasonable. You know there was a social-chapter opt-out before, so it wouldn't be too difficult to put one back into place. And I think people in Europe will be pleasantly surprised that we will be activist and engaged from day one, working in areas where we want to see things improve, but we have a very clear view about the direction we ought to go in.

    The Economist: You mention they'll be pleasantly surprised. Some of your centre-right colleagues in other European countries have been unpleasantly surprised by your seeming to leave the EPP. You mentioned that you'd met Merkel and Sarkozy; is this a subject that's come up in those discussions?

    David Cameron: Yes. Actually, the most recent meeting with Sarkozy I don't think we discussed it at all. We had a very positive meeting about a number of different things. He made a number of interesting proposals and invitations, including inviting me, if we win the election, to the whole French Africa summit, which I don't a British leader's been asked to before. So there's a very good relationship, a very warm relationship there.

    The Economist: But it has come up previously when you've –

    David Cameron: Yes, of course the other members of the EPP were disappointed that we left, but we left for a good reason, which is we wanted to be honest about our disagreements over the future direction of Europe and I said to them, ‘We will be friendly neighbours rather than unhappy tenants' and the first thing we did together with our friendly neighbour was to make sure that Barroso was President of the Commission. We voted for that, but there is now a group in the European Parliament of Conservative reformers who, for instance, on things like open and free markets and agency-workers directives and things like that can actually be more pro-market and more pro-enterprise, and you've seen that on a number of occasions already.

    The Economist: One criticism one might make of that move is that it actually misconstrues what the EPP and, indeed, what the EU is. That actually this idea of the EPP and the European Union as this Franco-German federalist conspiracy is actually outdated and that your allies in most parties, including those of France of Germany, actually no longer see Europe in that way and don't have those aspirations and are looking at it in the same pragmatic way that –

    David Cameron: I think there are some good signs; there are good signs and less good signs. After all, we weren't all ‘Right, no more treaties for decades to come' and a couple of months later these people are talking about another treaty. But no, look, I think there are some good signs that some other centre-right leaders in Europe do want an agenda which is pro taking action on climate change, but pro enterprise and pro trade and that's a very good thing. But the reason for leaving was there was an honest disagreement about the future direction of Europe and the accretion of more powers and I think it's good that there's now a centre-right grouping that is free market and pro enterprise, but anti further federalisation. I think that's a positive development.

    The Economist: Is it a bit strange to see your former MEP now standing as a Member of Parliament against you?

    David Cameron: No, not at all. It's a free country and I've invited him to come and stand against me in Witney rather than waste his time in Bexhill; come and have a proper fight.

    The Economist: You've actually asked him?

    David Cameron: I did on one of the media interviews, because obviously he's standing at the next election, so I was asked by the local TV. But it's a free country and you can stand wherever you like.

    The Economist: Just one thing on your new European allies, I know you've been asked about this before, including by me, but you had a little discomfort in an interview you gave recently to the Gay Times, I think –

    David Cameron: Yes, yes.

    The Economist: – over votes concerning Latvia's Section 28, as it's known.

    David Cameron: Yes, that's right.

    The Economist: Is this is an awkward position for you? Not to mention the fact that they had their commemoration march in Latvia recently of the Latvian SS. Did you foresee these kinds of embarrassments when you entered into –

    David Cameron: Look, we obviously carried out very careful checks on any party we're going to ally ourselves with. With all the issue in the European Parliament, I think it is a reasonable position to take. Look, we're not federalists. We don't believe in voting on internal matters in other countries and that's why the Conservative MEPs voted as they did. When it's actually come to issues of homosexual equality in the European Parliament, they've actually always voted in favour of that. So I don't think it's an unreasonable approach to say we're not going to vote on the internal matters of other countries.

    As for the other issue with the Latvians, that has been dealt with exhaustively and, actually, Latvian ministers and ambassadors have complained about things that David Miliband and the government have said.

    The Economist: Just to back up a little bit to the special relationship, did you experience any kind of disappointment or discomfort over the position that the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton took over the Falklands recently where they wanted us to negotiate with Argentina over the –

    David Cameron: I thought it was disappointing, yes, but sometimes allies will not always agree. But I would want to make the point very strongly to them that if you believe in self-determination as a key part of the UN charter, then there's the strongest possible case that the Falkland Islands should maintain under the sovereignty of Britain, because that is what the people who live there want. That's what we went to war over.

    In 1982, I was only three and a half – well, actually, I was 15, but I always thought it was just absolutely clear that there was just no justification for what Argentina was saying or doing and no justification to support it, because the population of the Falkland Islands want to be British. So I think it was disappointing, frankly, but I've always said the special relationship should be a frank and a candid one and I think you should frankly and candidly say we're disappointed.

    The Economist: There was a lot of fuss when Obama became President about how he has this grudge against the British because of our –

    David Cameron: I don't agree. I don't believe it.

    The Economist: You don't believe it?

    David Cameron: I think he bore a grudge because British Airways lost his luggage when he first went to Afghanistan.

    The Economist: But it seemed to be with no justification that he removed the bust of Churchill from the Oval Office. That all seemed to me to be a bit overdone, but one does look at this, as you say, key part of our national interest and we are the second-biggest contributor to the forces in Afghanistan, as we were in Iraq and one does wonder if over this black and white issue, as you see it, they take a different view, actually what is this relationship worth?

    David Cameron: Well, go back to the Falklands War and you can remember how much it was worth, because the Americans gave us a huge amount of help in terms of military and logistics and all the rest of it. So at the key moments I would always say that the relationship has proven to us. It did during the great Atlantic alliance; it has over NATO; it did over the Cold War; it did over the Falklands. Have there been ups and downs? Yes. Grenada, Charles Powell tells me the story that Reagan was holding the phone out here because Thatcher was shouting so much. The relationship will have its ups and downs. Clearly, America has a very strong interest in maintaining very friendly and strong relations with all the countries in South America and so there's a clash, there's a grinding of wheels there, but we just need to be clear to our best and oldest friend how strongly we feel about this.

    The Economist: Can we go on to some party campaign types of questions?

    David Cameron: Yes.

    The Economist: Okay. You'll have read in the weekend's papers that Labour perceives or claims to perceive George Osborne as your weakest link. Do you think there would have been a case for having somebody different that role, in the economic climate particularly?

    David Cameron: No, I don't. I think George has made the right calls on the right – on the big issues. On the issue of should we rescue the banking system we made the call in advance of the government that it needed to be done and that we would back it, unlike what happened in America. On the issue of the VAT cut, which we think added £12.5 billion to our debt without making a noticeable difference to the economy, that we made the right call of opposing it. On the issue of highlighting the problem of debt and deficit and public spending, which now the government actually has moved towards our position, they haven't come the whole way but you don't hear investment versus cuts anymore, George made the right call. So I think if you look at all the responses he's made to all the budgets and the pre-budget reports, I think he's done an outstanding job. And I don't keep people in their jobs because it's convenient; I keep them in their jobs if they're the right person to do the job and I think he is.

    The Economist: So they're just state-school bullies, these people who attack?

    David Cameron: No. Next question. Look, they've got to try and run a campaign and you're running a campaign, Peter Mandelson's already had to be sacked from the Cabinet twice for misleading people and he's got to pick on someone and it might as – I mean fine, try, push as hard as you can.

    The Economist: There's also a view that was expressed in a column by James Forsyth about six weeks ago that your leadership is too removed from the rest of the party.

    David Cameron: Yes. I don't really accept that. If you are decisive and change things and try to drive things, you're always accused of – leaders are either accused of being weak and hopeless or having a ruthless cabal; it's very rare you get the true picture. Look, it's been a difficult parliament because of the whole expenses scandal and, of course, there are probably some MPs who think I should have done more to defend them and less to attack the system. Well, I just don't agree. So in that respect it's not been the happiest of parliaments for anybody, but I think, you know, do I listen to a range of voices, do I listen to my elders and betters, do I take advice before making decisions, I would say yes, I do. I wouldn't have managed to persuade William Hague to come back to frontline politics or Ken Clarke to come back to frontline politics. I regularly listen to older and wiser heads in the House of Lords, whether it's Lawson or Lamont or Howe. I even had Norman Tebbitt in my office the other day.

    The Economist: But not in the back of your cab.

    David Cameron: No, not in the back of my cab, in the front of my office. The difficulty with being Leader of the Opposition is that you could keep your own party much happier if you spent all your time in the House of Commons and in visiting safe constituencies and I don't visit safe constituencies ever and I don't spend that much time in the House of Commons. I think my job is to get out there and promote what the Conservatives would do and to galvanise the public and to win over the marginal seats. So I've done 72 Cameron direct public meetings, but I haven't done a single Association dinner in a safe Conservative seat. Previous Conservative leaders, it was always felt that there was a certain amount of Association dinners you had to do around the country. I don’t think that's a good use of time.

    The Economist: Do you think that leadership, and particularly in an insurgent movement like the Conservative Party, always tends towards cabals a bit? Necessarily, there will always be three or four people you rely on most.

    David Cameron: The truth is I think the Shadow Cabinet is a very good body. I think the meetings are positive. I think we share a lot of information. I think it's got a great team spirit. I think if ever I try and veer off the strategy, funnily enough, it's the Shadow Cabinet that pulls me back onto it. They absolutely buy in to all that we've been doing in the last four years, but can you run things on the basis of every decision being made in Shadow Cabinet by a Shadow Cabinet? No, you can't. Of course you have to have a smaller team and I think everyone knows that. But do we listen, do we consult, do we use the Shadow Cabinet? Yes. Well, I hope I've answered the question.

    The Economist: Do you have a firm sense of how many of them will keep their jobs if you win election?

    David Cameron: That's too close to curtain measuring, I think, as a question, but what I've tried to do is put the right people in the right jobs and when they're good keep them there. I think if you look at people like Andrew Lansley or Michael Gove or Andrew Mitchell, you can see people who really know and understand their policy area very, very well and I think that's a good thing. One of the pleas you get when you're talking to the tourist industry or the energy industry or the whoever is ‘please, can we just have the same minister for longer than five minutes?' We have been at war and we've had five Defence Ministers. We've got an energy crisis and we've had seven Energy Ministers. We've got massive under-selling of tourism in Britain and we've had God knows how many Tourism Ministers. I think greater consistency would be a good thing.

    The Economist: You mentioned William Hague. Are you disappointed that he didn't tell you about Lord Ashcroft's tax status as soon as he found out?

    David Cameron: No, because we didn't find out that far apart from each other and the whole issue's been dealt with. I think, as William said in a very good Today programme interview, could we have dealt with it all faster? Possibly, but the questions people had – what's his tax status, what are the undertakings, how were they negotiated – that's all answered now. Embarrassingly for the government, it's quite clear that the government negotiated and agreed them.

    The Economist: Well, they did, but it's also clear that they negotiated the agreement basically because to allow him to be a non-dom. I mean you think it through. The Conservatives negotiated hard to allow him to –

    David Cameron: That puts him in the same status as Lord Paul and a number of other people in the House of Lords and elsewhere and, again, who are the people who actually said non-doms should pay more tax?

    The Economist: My point is that you negotiated it – not you personally, the Party – for him to be able to be a non-dom and then William Hague claims that he didn't know he was a non-dom, despite having –

    David Cameron: I would recommend that you go to BBC iPlayer and listen to that excellent interview and you will hear all the questions answered very well, including that one.

    The Economist: I guess really the point my colleague's making is William Hague was very much involved in the negotiations and he must have known before you.

    David Cameron: On the issue of when he knew and when I knew, we've answered that question. On the issue of the undertakings that were given and how they were then put in place by the government, that's all been set out for everyone to see.

    The Economist: Do you think now that this – regardless of the merits of the argument – wasn't the best of times, and it wasn't quite the worst of times, but it certainly wasn't the best of times for this whole issue to erupt? Do you wish now that you had dealt with it a year ago or three years ago?

    David Cameron: I don't know. Probably. The main thing was it was just before the election and I felt it was important that we answer the questions people were asking. They are all answered.

    The Economist: On Freedom of Information?

    David Cameron: Yes, but, I mean, I was keen that the questions were going to be answered and they were answered.

    The Economist: Looking forward to the campaign, do you think that people are getting too excited about the television debate? I mean, it's a novelty, obviously, in this country but do you think they are going to swing things?

    David Cameron: I just don't know. We haven't had them before. It's a very exciting opportunity because there's a chance of communicating directly to millions of people who presently, all they get is the 30-second sound-bite on the six o'clock news, so the frustration all of us politicians feel that you actually don't get the chance to explain in detail why our education policy will make a difference, or our health policy will make a difference. Now here's your chance. That's very exciting. Is there a danger they’ll be formulaic and boring? Yes, of course. Politicians have an unlimited ability to make things boring and dull, and I'm sure we'll do our best, but I mean there's a chance that actually we'll be helping to communicate with people, which is what it should be about.

    The Economist: Are you now running a more negative campaign?

    David Cameron: We're running a campaign which is about choice, I would say. If you look at, for instance, our posters we have run very many positive posters, all, ‘I've never voted Conservative before, but I want to sort this out,' so it's a hugely, positive, inspiring, uplifting campaign. But are we also drawing attention to Labour's record? Yes. I think elections are a choice. Labour would like nothing more than just to talk about the Conservatives and run away from their record and run away from their judgements and we're not going to let them do that.

    The Economist: What counts as a good result for you in this election?

    David Cameron: Winning.

    The Economist: So any kind of majority is a victory?

    David Cameron: I've always believed, and that's why I don't feel too shocked by the tightening of the polls because it is – really, we need to win 117 seats, and everything, really, is I know each and every one of them, I've spoken to them and I’ve campaigned in them and I know how tough it is to win seats, and so I've always believed it's a very big mountain we have to climb. So a good result is winning.

    The Economist: So not winning, for example being in a hung parliament, is not a good result.

    David Cameron: A good result is winning. The aim is to win it in a way that gives us an overall majority so we can form a government and bring the change where it's needed, and that is what we are aiming for, shooting for and fighting for.

    The Economist: Just to sort of go human interest, you said something about not choosing when the stork comes.

    David Cameron: Yes.

    The Economist: It'll be a busy year for you.

    David Cameron: Yes, it will be very busy. Well, the timing is not ideal, but I think I explained in the press conference, you know, we wanted to have another baby but you just sort of don't know with these things when, so you can't. You're not setting a stopwatch; you just have to get on with it and see what happens.

    The Economist: You've already lost weight.

    David Cameron: No, no, no, it'll be a sympathetic pregnancy. Fortunately she's craving pizza, which is very good and which I love, so I'm feeding for two as well.

    The Economist: Thank you very much.


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