What David Cameron needs to do between now and the general election to prove he is ready to governAug 20th 2009
The Conservative leader sets out his thinking to The EconomistAug 20th 2009
An interview with David Cameron
The man who would be prime minister
Aug 20th 2009
From The Economist print edition
The Conservative leader sets out his thinking to The Economist
OF THE DIARY commitments David Cameron had scheduled either side of his interview with The Economist on August 18th, the first, an appearance alongside a feted intellectual at London’s Royal Society for the Arts, would enthuse Gordon Brown. The second, a campaign tour, would appeal to Tony Blair. Though he is neither as showily cerebral as the current prime minister nor as scintillating a retail politician as the previous one, Mr Cameron is adept in both settings.
Such roundedness may contribute to the leader of the opposition’s lack of definition (“Who is David Cameron?”, The Economist once asked on its cover). But it also helps to explain why the 42-year-old is the favourite to become prime minister after the general election likely to be held next spring, only nine years since he entered Parliament, and four-and-a-half since he was elected leader of a then reviled Conservative Party. The rapid journey has nevertheless allowed time for disruptive events. Mr Cameron set out to rebrand the Tories as kinder and greener. It worked. The recession and a fiscal deficit he describes as “intimidating” have forced him to re-rebrand them as a party of economic competence and austerity.
Here, his record has been mixed. Mr Cameron insists he was right to oppose the government’s fiscal stimulus last year, an initially lonely position that has won adherents since. His critics still invoke his response to the financial crisis in 2007, when he opposed the nationalisation of Northern Rock, a stricken mortgage lender, before eventually bowing to the inevitable. The government did the same, Mr Cameron points out, as if to deny that he allowed right-wing ideology to trump pragmatism. The Tories were also slow to ditch their boom-time pledge to share revenue between tax cuts and public spending. “We should have abandoned Labour’s spending plans sooner,” he says ruefully.
The main critique of Mr Cameron these days looks to the future. If fiscal retrenchment under the Tories takes the form of spending cuts rather than tax rises (though he does not rule out the latter), where will the axe fall? He has committed to few specific cuts. Indeed, he has declared some areas immune from austerity measures, namely health care, a fraught issue for him of late. On August 13th Daniel Hannan, a high-profile Tory MEP, disparaged Britain’s beloved NHS on American television, provoking much ire back home and a slapdown from his leader (see article). Other Tories resent Mr Cameron’s commitment to spend more on the NHS but his view “is the one that counts”.
If a fiscal squeeze is on its way the Tories will want to win a mandate for it. “Getting the deficit under control will make or break my government,” he admits. Accordingly, more fine print will emerge before the election. But by accepting the principle that spending must fall, Mr Cameron says he has already been braver than the government. “I can’t think of an opposition party going into an election promising spending cuts since 1929.”
Mr Cameron is frustrated at credit not being given where it is due. He and his Treasury spokesman, George Osborne, made a point of resisting right-wing pressure to promise an overall cut in taxation. No one could know the state of public finances in future, they argued during this struggle. Then came the fiscal crisis and, with it, barely acknowledged vindication.
Pressed to say what he has learned from Barack Obama’s early travails as American President, Mr Cameron is diplomatically reticent. But he confesses to being wary of having “too many aims and goals”. Whatever political capital he can spare from cutting spending will be largely used to introduce market-based reforms to Britain’s schools. The plans fit the Tories’ theme of “giving power away”, which encompasses everything from strengthening local government to avant-garde ideas for granting individuals control over the money the state spends on them. Such boldness is missing in other areas, grumble some Tory thinkers.
It is on foreign affairs, however, that Mr Cameron has been most inscrutable. His hostility to further integration of the European Union is clear enough, though he remains vague on what he would do if the Lisbon treaty, which his party loathes, is ratified before the election. Europe may be the least of his worries, though. If troublespots such as Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan worsen while growth and employment recover at home, international security may begin to rival the economy as the issue of the day at some point during a first-term Tory government. Mr Cameron, against most expectations, may end up becoming a foreign-policy prime minister.
He lists the world leaders he has assiduously cultivated. He mentions his chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn, who brings international contacts from his years as a diplomatic aide. But his efforts to “build a knowledge base” do not signal a direction. His reluctance to “carve out a philosophy” of foreign policy seems wise, as these rarely survive first contact with reality. Instincts and past decisions are a better guide to future action. Mr Cameron’s gut feelings on Britain’s role in the world may herald a change of direction. Unlike Mr Brown, who seems unmoved by the non-economic aspects of foreign policy, he wants an active Britain on the world stage. (His answer to whether it should punch above its weight is an immediate “yes”). But unlike Mr Blair, he does not insist that the role takes a missionary liberal form.
The right temperament
As for his record, he was sceptical about the Iraq surge and admonished Israel during its war with Lebanon, which cheered his party’s doves. They see in William Hague their kind of foreign-affairs spokesman. But Mr Cameron also visited Georgia last year to denounce its invasion by Russia and did not criticise Israel’s incursion into Gaza this year—to the delight of Tory neo-conservatives. They may be encouraged that many of his deviations from Blairite orthodoxy (including a speech critical of America on the fifth anniversary of 9/11) took place in his early, rebranding phase as leader. These may have been driven more by the need to soften the Tories’ image than by his own sentiments.
The lesson of the Brown premiership, undermined as it often has been by its own obsessive political calculation, may be that temperament is more important to leadership than intellect. If so, Mr Cameron is well-placed. He is whip-smart, to be sure, but the equanimity with which he approaches politics seems the bigger asset during a crisis era. His collegiality (“I like being the chairman of a team”) also signals an end to the imperial premierships of recent decades.
Mr Cameron—who has an “implementation unit” devoted to working out how his policies will be put into practice, and a stable if not stellar shadow cabinet—claims to be readier for power than any recent incoming prime minister. But if he is unusually well-prepared, he will also be unusually burdened with challenges.