'This will take longer than I’d thought' - an interview with David Cameron

The Prime Minister on his unexpected election victory, European crises, the Middle East and the legacy he wants

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

The last time David Cameron sat down with The Spectator for an interview, he was on a train and looking rather worried. There were just weeks to go until the general election and the polls were not moving. At the time, almost no one — and certainly not him — imagined that he was on the cusp of a historic election victory that would not just sweep the Tories to power but send Labour into an abyss. This time, we meet on another train. But he’s far more relaxed, reflecting on winning The Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year award and recalling how election night brought him some of the ‘happiest hours’ of his life.

These occurred in the men’s changing room at Witney Leisure Centre. ‘They gave me a room to sit in with my tea and the television,’ he recalls. ‘There were like six of us sitting there, surrounded by smelly socks and changing lockers. And seat after seat coming through — Twickenham, and all that sort of stuff, happening.’ It soon became clear that he would not need the concession speech he had practised a few hours earlier. ‘You have to be ready for anything,’ he said. ‘It’s a good reminder about democracy. Voters can tell you to carry on, or chuck you out. You’ve got to be ready for both.’

So once again, David Cameron executed a great escape. He’s getting rather good at them; in 2007, it looked as if Gordon Brown was set to call an election and crush the Tories. Even now, Cameron talks about how Peter Brookes depicted his predicament in The Spectator’scover illustration (above): ‘You put my head in a noose!’ But he kept his calm and prevailed.

This year, what Cameron did in drafting his concession speech during those uncertain hours on polling day provides an insight into his character. He says he is ‘a great believer that you have got to do things properly and make sure you behave appropriately’. The ending of his unused concession speech was about how he hoped people would say that ‘he had done his duty’. Is this still the political epitaph he would like? Cameron shoots back a quick: ‘Yes, I think it is very important.’

So rather than an ‘ism’ or any great political mission, he would be content with a perhaps slightly old-fashioned sense that generally he handled events as well as he could. It is one of the curiosities of Cameron that while he is so often described as ‘a moderniser’, he actually harks back to a much earlier tradition of political leadership.

Being the first Tory leader in more than 20 years to win a majority has given Cameron a confidence he hadn’t always had about the project he started when he became Tory leader in 2005. He declares that the general election was a ‘victory for Tory modernisation’ because he won votes from all manner of parties. ‘It demonstrated that you don’t have to keep tacking to the right to win votes — and, indeed, actually it’s a self-destroying ordinance if you do.’

Cameron says he is particularly proud of gay marriage, labelling it a ‘big achievement’, and talks with pride about how he still gets ‘a regular stream’ of letters. ‘As people go to get hitched, they send me a nice letter saying thank you very much.’ He is convinced that opposition to it is almost gone, remarking with great satisfaction that ‘even Nigel Farage is now in favour of gay marriage as far as I can see’. This is a change of emphasis: when he listed his proudest achievements during the Lynton Crosby-run election campaign, gay marriage didn’t feature. What a difference a majority makes.

Changing the Conservative party is something that still matters to Cameron: he wants his ‘one nation’ politics to define Conservatism even after he’s stepped down as leader. This is why he was so pleased by the speeches of his two most likely successors at Tory conference, George Osborne and Boris Johnson. ‘What surprised me, in a very positive way, was that the tone, message and overall feel of those speeches were absolutely similar. Very much that the Conservative party should be strong in the centre ground, a compassionate force.’ He says that it made him think that ‘this party really has changed in a good way. A traditionally Conservative way of responding to events and things going on in our society to make sure it is still doing a proper job.’

But this Tory unity is threatened by the whole issue of Europe, and the referendum that Cameron has committed himself to holding within the next two years. At the same time as the British renegotiation, the EU is being buffeted by both the eurozone crisis and the migrant crisis. Not the easiest background against which to make the case for the EU, but he attempts it. ‘In a way, two crises for Europe doesn’t make Europe look great. I get that. I get the temptation for people to say: look, it’s just one thing after another; surely we’d be better off separating ourselves from this organisation? But I think that’s the wrong conclusion to draw, particularly if I get my renegotiation.’

The various European crises, he says, help him — because ‘these two pressures actually add to the argument for the flexible Europe that I’m talking about’. Listening to him speak, it is impossible to imagine Cameron ever campaigning for ‘Out’. When we ask him explicitly if he would campaign to leave if he doesn’t get what he’s asked for in the renegotiation, he can’t bring himself to say that. Instead, he sticks to his usual line that ‘I have always said I rule nothing out.’ But he’s careful not to say, in terms, that he’d never campaign for an ‘Out’ vote: ‘I don’t want to give you the pleasure of another headline,’ he laughs. ‘So — tough.’

While the British public may be having a wobble over Europe now, he says, things will change. ‘With both the eurozone crisis and the migration crisis, the short-term impact is for people to think, “Oh Christ, push Europe away from me, it’s bringing me problems.” I think the longer-term reaction might actually be: well, if they are going to have a single currency and they’re on our doorstep, let’s make sure our relationship with them works.’ Voters, he thinks, will conclude: ‘If they are going to have a borderless Europe which we’re not part of, for heaven’s sake let’s make sure they have strong external borders. And proper ways of exchanging information with us about who is crossing those borders, so we know even before they try to get to Britain.’

Cameron describes the renegotiation as a ‘plane I am trying to land’ — he says he didn’t push for a deal at this month’s European Council because ‘it’s about trying to bring everybody together around the things that Britain needs. That is just going to take a bit longer than I’d thought.’ He admits that ‘it is difficult getting 27 other countries to agree to the things that we think will be good for Britain’ and can offer no compelling reason why eastern European countries would go along with his plan to limit the benefits that can be claimed by migrants.

But if you want to make the problems facing Europe seem simple, then turn to the Middle East. When the conversation moves to this topic, a weary tone enters into Cameron’s voice for the first time. Does he genuinely think that Libya is better off now than it was before he led the campaign for regime change in 2011? ‘I would say that Libya is better off without Gaddafi,’ he says. Yes, but its economy has plunged by 50 per cent; the United Nations now says a third of Libyans will require humanitarian assistance this winter. Hasn’t this proven the point he used to make about the futility of trying to bomb countries into democracy?

‘To build these things takes a lot of time,’ he says, quietly. ‘Of course you had the option in Libya of doing what was done in Iraq: piling in western ground troops to try and stabilise the situation. But I think that would have made it worse.’ Worse than having the country torn apart by militiamen and a humanitarian catastrophe looming? ‘Well you have to work with the new government, see if it performs to get rid of the militias. It takes time. There just aren’t any easy answers with any of these things,’ he says. ‘Whether you are looking at Libya or Syria or Iraq or Nigeria or Somalia, you have to try and build governance and government.’

Ultimately, the most surprising develop-ment in British politics this year was not Cameron’s majority but Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader. Cameron admits that he ‘did not see it coming at all’. He seems genuinely puzzled — ‘I thought it was so obvious why they lost the election’ that they would plump for a ‘more sensible centre–left approach’ — but likes to credit himself with a small role in Labour’s lurch to the left. ‘One of my longstanding friends and supporters said that because the Conservatives have taken the sensible centre ground, we have left Labour with so little to camp on that they have done that classic reaction of heading off into the hills.’

Even after five years in power, Cameron has managed not to become some great sealed-off figure. One train passenger waiting impatiently for the loo is clearly taken aback when the door opens and the Prime Minister emerges. Another passenger snatches a selfie with him. He is a great believer in finding time to switch off; playing tennis with his children and (as he puts it) ‘sitting on the sofa watching telly’. He even offers a Christmas boxset recommendation, The Last Panthers (‘it has a diamond heist and Serbian criminal gangs and it’s sort of quite good’). He’s reading Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (‘absolutely fascinating’) and his Christmas plan is to ‘launch into’ The Plantagenets by Dan Jones. And, of course, The Spectator. ‘I was reading Rod Liddle only this morning for some reason,’ he says. ‘He does make me laugh.’

One gets the sense that Cameron will enjoy this Christmas more than last year’s. He boasts that he’s already sent out a bunch of cards, including one to his former deputy Nick Clegg. But he will know that he can’t be sure what his political legacy will be until the EU renegotiation and referendum are done: he still has to land that plane.

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  • Busy Mum

    Cameron is ‘convinced that opposition to gay marriage is almost gone’. Actually gone, or effectively silenced?

    • Earthenware

      Gone, because all the real conservatives have left the Tory party. He’s probably very happy about that.

      • Daffy Duck

        Totally agree.

        Everyone talks about Corbyn and ‘Momentum’ deselecting ‘New Labour’.

        Cameron has surrounded himself with ‘center left’ Tories.

        Watching ‘ Tom Tugendhat’ nearly burst into tears during the Syria debate told me everything i need to know about the modern Conservative party.

    • davidshort10

      I think he meant in his enclosed world of political parties, the Westminster bubble.

    • Daffy Duck

      He is probably right. He does not give a damn what you or I think.
      He was talking about his MP’s. Why do you think they would be personally happy?

      • Todd Unctious

        In Cameron’s World there are 88 people in the UK. 470 in the USA, 185 in China, and about 1100 in the rest of the world. They are called billionaires.

    • smoke me a kipper

      Who cares? No one apart from a few obessives

      • Busy Mum

        Anybody who cares about freedom of speech and liberty should care a great deal if people have been silenced, surely….

        • smoke me a kipper

          I meant who cares about whether gays can marry in church, apart from a few obessives?

          • Busy Mum

            They can’t marry in church.

          • smoke me a kipper

            They can in law, but you just don’t accept it. What strikes me as odd, is why some Christians are so determined to impose their moral values on others when it makes absolutely no difference to their lives. Do unto others what you would have others do unto you

          • Busy Mum

            Redefining marriage was basically the sodomites imposing their (im)moral values on others.

          • smoke me a kipper

            Not at all, gays marrying in church does not affect your ability to do so. They were not trying to stop anyone from doing anything. You on the other hand are. What about the other point that the early church would not allow marriage of any kind.

          • Busy Mum

            I’ll give you an answer when gays start campaigning to get ‘married’ in mosques.

          • smoke me a kipper

            In other words you don’t have an answer. However perhaps you should consider converting to Islam, if you feel so strongly on the issue. That faith may better reflect your believes

          • Busy Mum

            You have summed it up; gays wanting to get married in church are trying to prevent anyone except Muslims from disapproving of their sodomite behaviour.

          • Serenitatis Serenitatus

            You win by a country mile. The other clown must have escaped its cage at the circus.

          • Busy Mum


  • davidshort10

    Not exactly a tough, challenging interview……Just an opportunity for him to pontificate.

  • Eastsix

    “He admits that ‘it is difficult getting 27 other countries to agree to the things that we think will be good for Britain’ and can offer no compelling reason why eastern European countries would go along with his plan to limit the benefits that can be claimed by migrants.”

    Really? How about telling them that if they go along with it they can still have access to the UK job market, and that if they dont the referendum will mean they have NO access to the UK jobs market?
    If you can’t make that point in a negotiation, just give up now.

    • Daffy Duck

      Since Cameron will never support a NO / OUT vote. Why should the EU and its members give him anything. Whilst I will vote No/Out, I am not convinced I am in the majority. I doubt the EU are convinced either. He is wasting EU time, his time, and our time.

      • Bristol_Boy

        No, he is just prolonging the con, there is no real intent to re-negotiate as shown with his pitiful list of four. There never was any chance of changing anything, the parasites are conning the fools and they follow along like lemmings.

      • smoke me a kipper

        I suppose it’s a game of bluff. If they give him nothing then it is more likely the UK will vote Out. Of course it is possible the other EU countries may want us to leave, however I doubt that is actually the case as the UK is one of the richer countries of the Union.

        • Marvin

          They just would not survive without our enormous fees to them.

        • Marvin

          He knows it is the con of the century, the EU knows it, the IN fools know it, the left liberal socialist cowards know it and most importantly WE know it. So let’s go and win our biggest victory of freedom and leave the sinking raft of idiots and fools.

      • Marvin

        The start of the infestation in spring will help the OUTs.

    • Bristol_Boy

      Do you still believe there will be a referendum?

      • Marvin

        He’s got to, it has gone too far now. Hope you are thinking what I am thinking.

        • Bristol_Boy

          I am thinking it will be the stitch up of the century.

    • Marvin

      “THEY” keep on about sitting at the top table, we are there and not one of Cameron’s 40 vetos/demands have been passed or met. The spineless one has four aces in his hand and is folding to a pair of twos.

  • Todd Unctious

    Not so much an unexpected election win. More undeserved. A political midget lucky enough to have been opposed by an unelectable marshmallow .

    • Marvin

      Anyone who is incapable and incompetent at almost everything he does, MUST resort to deceit and lies.

  • Steven Whalley

    Far from being successful in 2015, Cameron’s majority is barely into double figures, and is less than Major’s, Thatcher’s, or Heath’s. The Conservatives polled just 630,922 votes more than in 2010, compared to Labour’s increase of 740,787. That is correct, the Conservatives gained fewer voters in the five years that they were in power than the heavily troubled Labour in opposition.

    The Conservatives are kept alive not by any grand strategy or public approval, but by the exigencies of the FPTP voting system. If PR were in place, people would not tend to vote for the least worst of Con or Lab, but would have a genuine choice with a much more meaningful vote.

  • aristophanes

    He redefined Conservatism, redefined marriage, saw membership of the Tory party halved, starved the defence forces and increased their duties, wanted to bomb one side in Syria in 2013 and then the other side in 2015, made a promise about Heathrow but has signalled how it can be broken, made about 24 pledges concerning his EU negotiations but has abandoned about 90% of them……..
    I, as a life-long Tory having known several eminent Tories, refuse to acknowledge him as a Tory.

    • Marvin

      He is certainly consistent. There must be one thing he got right, can’t think of one so far.

      • aristophanes

        Thank you for your post. I belong to your club, please.

  • Richard Young

    Clearly slipped his mind ,forgetting to mention us opening our doors to Poland’s unemployed 7yrs
    before required.And when Germany needs lebensraum to accomodate its exploding immigrant population and Putin growls,who are they gonna’ call….Ghostbusters?

  • Patrick Roy

    Look, anyone who knows me, knows I like David Cameron. But he needs to grow a set of balls and get the UK out of the German-dominated European mess. Angela Merkel is a war criminal.

    • Peter Hirsch

      Angela is NOT a war criminal. She’s just an old granny with a will of iron, a heart of gold and bigger balls than Dave’s (if he has any).

  • Partner

    YES! It’s Dave’s BIG 5!!

    1. No money for EU immigrants. And we mean it.

    2. No ‘ever closer’ Union.

    3. Respect the pound, please!

    4. The ‘Red Card’ for new EU legislation –
    default call back message saying “Absolutely sure we need to do this
    Angela? Just asking – Dave”

    5. Extra fast broadband link to Angela.

    Dave says “It’s independence in our time! Fish (added preservatives)
    and reconstituted UK chips are safe”:

    1. Rejected by the Poles. And everyone else. Gosh that one caught us out. We fought
    our corner magnificently. And we conceded – at least that’s what they told me
    -headphones not working properly.

    2. Accepted! Well, in terms of the words being
    removed, anyway. As Angela said “Words ! Who cares, Dave?”

    3. Too difficult for anyone to understand other than
    George. And we all know how steadfast he is when in a political showdown.

    4. Understood. If no answer received from Angela
    after 5 Business Days (Berlin time) , UK must comply.

    5 Agreed! And Germany is going to contribute 4.3 % of
    the cost provided Siemens instals it . Who said PR men couldn’t negotiate?

  • Bernard Perkins

    Join UKIP online for £15 and get involved in your local branch. Given ISIS are on our doorsteps, we are under the most severe threat since WW2. We need out of the EU in order to prevent us being Islamitised.

    • Jenny Wren

      No thanks

  • jeffersonian

    ‘Even after five years in power, Cameron has managed not to become some great sealed-off figure.’

    Greatness (of any kind) hardly seems to be in his nature, and more time will make no difference.