Wednesday, February 18, 2009
The TOTAL POLITICS David Cameron Interview: A Taster
My extended interview with David Cameron is published in this month's TOTAL POLITICS, which should be in newsagents from tomorrow. I realised when I decided to do the interview that I was on a loser - either I would be accused of asking soft ball questions, or being disloyal by asking difficult ones. Anyway, the whole point of these conversational type interviews is to draw people out, rather than harangue them, as I hope I have shown with previous interviews with Alex Salmond, Nigel Farage, Hazel Blears and Tony Benn. Anyway, here are some extracts.
Do you worry that the move back in the polls towards the Conservatives is more of an anti government vote than a pro Conservative vote?
I always worry about that. My big thing is that we don't have to show that the Labour Party has failed. People know that. We have to show how we are going to succeed. You can never quite tell if it's Labour doing badly or the Tories doing well, you just get on with it.
You made frontbenchers declare all their interests and if they have family members who work for them. Are you going to expand all that to all MPs?
Yes. I am proud of the fact that a reform pioneered by the Conservatives is now being adopted by the rest of Parliament. It's right that people can see what their MP is spending money on and who they are employing. I designed the Right to Know form myself. I took a piece of paper and wrote down what should be on it. The front bench had to fill it in, and in the event only four of our MPs refused to do it. Parliament then came along and decided to produce the same form for all MPs. That's great. If for any reason this gets delayed we will still publish ours and it will be a condition of being a Conservative MP.
Some people think that with David Davis out of the Shadow Cabinet and Chris Grayling being appointed to be Shadow Home Secretary, that the Party's approach to civil liberties is going to change, and the Party will revert to its more traditional authoritarianism. What do you say to that?
I don't think so. There's a strong strain of conservatism that is about civil liberties. We believe in limits to state power, we believe in the importance of individual liberty. When you've got people like Dominic Grieve and Oliver Letwin sitting round the table you will always have strong voices standing up for civil liberties. I don't think it's fair to say that Chris Grayling isn't interested in those things either. Look at the response of the whole Conservative Party and the instinctive response I had to the arrest of Damian Green. A lot of stuff gets written about who really argued for what on 42 days and other things, but look at the number of times I challenged Blair and Brown on issues like this across the Despatch Box - that shows a pretty strong personal commitment.
Without using a four letter word, what was your reaction when David Davis told you that he was going to resign his seat?
Confusion - no, confusion is the wrong word. [long pause]. When someone brings me a very bad bit of news I don't throw my toys out of the pram. What is the right word? I'm trying to think. It was incomprehension. Because I am quite a logical person, I couldn't get the logical connection between the loss of a vote in the Commons and a decision on something the whole Conservative Party was united about and the decision to resign and fight a by-election. I am very fond of David. We worked extremely well together - perhaps better than many people predicted. He is an extremely talented politician. It did demonstrate, and perhaps surprised some people, that the Conservative Party cared so much about civil liberties, but we do. I tried to persuade him out of it because I didn't think it was the right thing to do, so I didn't think it was something the Conservative Party could say, well that's our policy - when we disagree with something we'll all fight byelections. You can't do that, so that's why I had to say quite rapidly that I was going to have to get a new Shadow Home Secretary.
Having decided to move Dominic Grieve in the reshuffle, why didn't you reappoint David Davis as Shadow Home Secretary?
Any leader has to be able to shuffle their team and put round pegs in round holes. I've got a great team. I wanted to get everyone in the right place. I think Dominic Grieve is best suited to the Justice role, with his great knowledge of the law and legal processes, and I think Chris Grayling will be very good at making sure we have very strong and tough approaches to the crimes that really matter to people like burglary and knife crime and the guns on our streets.
I guess the point is that in government you've got a choice to make. You either have a cabinet of the biggest beasts and best talents like Ken Clarke and David Davis or have a cabinet made up of lesser known people who've done the legwork in opposition. Maybe it was too early to bring David Davis back, but the electorate would have seen it as a good thing.
It's a very good question. You've got to get the right people in the right jobs and forge a strong team. Those things shouldn't be in contradiction but that's the way I approach it.
Do you think you take advice from a wide enough circle of opinion? Some people think you don't.
[becomes very animated]. Yes I do! And I'd really like to get this across. You are right that some people think I don't, but you're wrong to think they're right! [laughs]. I think people haven't seen enough of this from me. If I think about how I make decisions and who I listen to, I would say that first of all I have a wide range of advice from the wise heads in our party.
But a lot of people, especially backbench MPs, feel they can't penetrate the inner circle if they have ideas to feed in.
Any backbench MP can come and see me, and they do. Look, every leader in history has been accused of not having an open enough door, not listening to enough people. I have strong opinions and convictions, but I think I do listen. I run the Shadow Cabinet with quite a team approach, so I don't think the accusation is particularly
fair. Maybe I haven't demonstrated, or shown enough about these things.
Last year I had a civil partnership. I have little doubt that a previous Tory government would not have passed the legislation enabling me to do that. How can you assure the gay voters that a Cameron government won't just not discriminate against them, but will deal with whatever policy concerns they have?
I stood up in front of a Conservative conference, my first one as leader, and said that marriage was important, and as far as I was concerned it didn't matter whether it was between a man and a woman, a man and a man or a woman and a woman. No other Conservative leader has ever done that. I don't think any Labour leader has done that. Even since then. The good thing was that they applauded. On civil partnerships, Oliver and I talked about it a lot ... not that we were going to have a civil partnership, I hasten to add [roars with laughter]...
There, I've got my headline from this interview!
... We talked a lot about it because there was a real problem which needed to be overcome. There was a series of ways in which gay people were being discriminated against because they couldn't get married, so there was a strong, logical argument for civil partnerships. I think most Conservatives voted for it. The argument was getting stronger and stronger because the only other alternative was to try to deal with all these instances of discrimination - inheriting property, visiting rights etc - individually, and I think civil partnerships were the right way through it. If you believe in commitment, as I do, then the argument is even stronger. I totally agree that on some of these issues the Conservative Party had some work to do. Individually, some of us had some work to do and we needed to do it. I am not saying it is done but big progress has been made.
How will you defend the right to offend?
This goes back to the 'do you listen' question because on the one hand you don't want someone inciting hatred of gays but on the other hand you want to live in a society where people don't feel their free speech is restricted if it is about humour. So there is a balance. We all rage against political correctness and there's lots of political correctness which is ridiculous- silly health and safety worries that stop children grazing a knee on an outward bounds adventure. We have got to get rid of that. But there's one bit of political correctness which is terribly important and that's about politeness. I have a disabled son and I don't want people to call him a spastic. You are a gay man, you don't want someone to call you a poof. If you have a black friend, you don't want someone to call them something offensive. It's about manners and I think what we've got to do is frame this debate in a sense of what is good manners and politeness and what is common sense.
You're accused of being a bit of a focus group politician, of being an opportunist...
[almost leaps off the sofa]. Bullshit! There are lots of misconceptions in politics and you shouldn't worry too much about them, but I would argue that this Conservative Party which I am leading is one of the least focus group, opinion poll-led parties for a long time. Did I ask a focus group before saying I am a marriage nut? Did I ask a focus group about gay marriage? Of course not! I just don't! I have never pre-tested a speech, which I know other politicians do. I think our Prime Minister does. Of course, we hold focus groups to try to fi nd out what the mood of the nation is and understand it. Of course, we have regular reports and opinion polls. It would be crazy not to. But I really don't think this party, this leader, my team are obsessed by focus groups, and it's a great misconception that we are. It's frustrating.
How can people be confident you are not just another Blair? I think the 'heir to Blair' comment has haunted you.
Yes. You shouldn't worry about these things too much. I've been doing this job for three years. People have seen I have some very strong views about things that not always everyone agrees with - marriage, or reforming the police. The line we took on the VAT cut. I mean, since when did the Conservatives not support a tax cut? We did not sit around and ask a focus group whether it was right to cut VAT. We thought it was wrong and said so.
So you'd describe yourself as a conviction politician?
Yes I would. Because my conviction was that the Conservative Party needed to reconnect with its compassionate conservative roots and have more to say about social policy and be a one nation party, some people took that to mean that it must be poll-driven. It wasn't. It is a misconception that people have but it's not the most worrying thing in the world.
Do you think the BNP should be ignored or actively taken on?
I think the first thing to do is recognise that it is an excrescence rather than a party. Don't ever run towards it, but the way to defeat it is to campaign actively on the ground. Pavement politics. People turn to extreme parties if they think they have been forgotten by the mainstream parties. That doesn't mean running towards issues they are campaigning on, it means running towards the people that they are talking to and showing you are listening to their concerns, taking up their issues and working for them. You have to show that no part of the country, no part of your constituency, no ward, that no housing estate is forgotten. That's the key thing. Eric Pickles is an expert on this and has helped teach me this lesson.
Do you think it is time to show UKIP a bit of love and attract some of their voters at the European elections?
I don't believe in showing any love to the party itself, about which I have said some things that turned out to be fantastically true. If people want a referendum on the European Constitution then it is self evident that the right things to do is vote Conservative. That's the way to maximise pressure on the government to do what they promised.
Do you think Nick Clegg is in the wrong party?
[pauses] I don't really know him or his views well enough. I think it is very exciting what they are saying about education because our policies are very close together. That's a good thing. I'm a liberal Conservative so I think there is always going to be lots of common ground between liberal Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. If you look at what we are saying about decentralising power, passing power down to the lowest level, if you look at what we are saying about the environment, opposing identity cards, the priority given to education, I think there are a lot of people in the Liberal Democrat party who would agree with that, so that's encouraging. Is he in the wrong party? I don't know enough about his views on other things.
Describe Gordon Brown in one word.
[long pause]. Wrong.
Describe Simon Heffer in one word.
[sighs]. God, I don't know. The same applies! The last time I described him in a few words it set off this great tirade, so maybe I won't. Oh, alright then. Misunderstood! [roars with laughter].
Do you think that your questions at PMQs have become far too long. Gordon Brown seems to be flummoxed when an MP asks him a five-word question.
It's not about the question being long. I like answering the charges and engaging in a debate rather than having a series of short pithy questions. He often asks me a question and although I don't want to turn it into Leader of the Opposition's questions, if he makes a point it's important to rebut it. Luckily, most of them, like the 'do nothing' charge, are so ridiculous that I don't think anyone believes them. I don't think anyone really believes the Conservative Party would do nothing. He has this habit of saying things which are self evidently not true but he doesn't realise that it does enormous damage to him rather than the person he is saying it about. The most important thing is to get your point across and sometimes it takes a few more words. But perhaps I should vary it a bit more.
How will you make sure you don't outstay your welcome, because most politicians do?
Yes, they all do, even if they say they're not going to. What you have got to do is to keep a perspective on life. This job requires an enormous amount of application and hard work. I love it. If I am fortunate enough to be elected Prime Minister I will thrive on the hard work and throw everything into it. I very much believe that, in politics, what matters most of all is your judgment, your character and your ability to listen and then make a decision. You lose that if you lose what makes you who you are. How do you know when it's time to go? Hopefully you just have a perspective and you try to avoid that seemingly inevitable process of losing touch.
Your current job has an effect on your work-life balance and family life. Do you worry about how things would change if you were Prime Minister?
Yes, of course, you worry about it. But I would not have put myself in this position if I didn't think there was a way of handling it. It must be possible to be a good Prime Minister and a good father and husband.
When my niece sees me on TV she rushes up to the screen and kisses it. What does your daughter do? Does she comprehend what your job is?
She does. She doesn't kiss the TV, but she refers to it as 'politicianer'. It's a bit like doctor, lawyer, you're a politicianer. She has come to the conclusion that what politicianers do is talk a lot. She said to me the other day, 'oh, you're always fixing a speech'. [giggles]. My children are very young but they have an idea of what's going on.
This is an extract of about one third of the interview. You can read the whole interview online HERE.