Sitting in the reception area of David Cameron's House of Commons office suite I observe two pictures on the wall of Baldwin and Disraeli. A consolidator and a social reforming radical. As I walk into his office he immediately tells me that he's just been looking at my blog. I try desperately to remember what I have written earlier that morning. He's fascinated by a County Court fining Labour MP Ann Keen for being lazy. "Is she really lazy?" he asks, displaying a neat penchant for Commons gossip. As we sit down, I reflect on the fact that the last time I sat in that seat was in July 2005, when I was meeting Michael Howard's confidante Rachel Whetstone to discuss the transfer of power if David Davis won the Tory leadership election. At that point David Cameron didn't figure in many people's calculations. Three years later, he is tipped by Ladbroke's as a racing certainty to become Britain's next Prime Minister. My task is to find out what makes him tick.
ID: It's 5 June 2010, you've just done your ‘where there is discord, may we bring harmony' bit, you've opened the bottle of Newky Brown which Gordon Brown has left you as a welcome present.What's the first thing that Prime Minister Cameron does on Day One in office?
DC: I sometimes get that question at my Cameron Direct town hall meetings. I never have a satisfactory answer because I don't think like that. I know exactly what I want to do in the early part of a Conservative government, if we are elected, and that is education reform and the family policies we have set out. Those are the things I am most passionate about. But we will face an enormous economic challenge so our first task will be sorting out the finances and getting the economy back on track and restoring confidence. We won't be able to do everything else that we have set out in vast detail, so we will have to be clear about the early priorities. Education will be absolutely right up there. That's the thing I have a personal passion for, as well as a political one.
Boris's answer when I asked him that question was that he would ‘rejoice'.
[laughs]. I think you are allowed a small moment!
What made you decide to do your Cameron Direct town hall meetings?
I'm genuinely a bit bored of the routine of going somewhere, having a meeting with some people, going to see local worthies, and then going home again. I found the McCain New Hampshire meetings riveting. I enjoy them, I like public meetings. It's a great way of getting round all the marginal seats. The idea is that after you've been to, say Chatham & Aylesford, half the people will have known about the event, even if they couldn't come. Politics is getting more personal. People want to make a connection from their area to a political party and the person who wants to be Prime Minister and say ‘Yes, actually he made the effort. He came here, he listened to particular issues'. That is an important connection to make. When it comes to the election, you're asking people to vote for a party they didn't vote for before and to give up the MP that maybe they quite liked. You've got to help them over that and say, ‘Look, OK, Joe Bloggs might have worked for you, but if you want change in Britain, if you want a Conservative government, if you want Gordon Brown to leave Number 10, this is the step you've got to take'. Although I've done 26 or 27 of them, I really enjoy them, they're good fun, and a very good way of keeping in touch with what people's concerns are, because they vary from time-to-time. And it's also a good way of testing out your arguments and seeing where there are gaps in your approach.
What's the question you get where your heart sinks and you think, oh no, not again?
[long pause]. The question you get which you always give a disappointing answer to is university fees. There are always young people there who are worried about debt, and it would be lovely to say we're going to get rid of all these top up fees and tuition fees, but you can't, so you have to give an answer that is truly disappointing. That's another good thing about these meetings, is that they make you confront the fact that you have to give people some straight talk, as John McCain would say. If you haven't disappointed a few people when you've left the room, you're not doing it properly, in a way. Increasingly, people are asking about the economy as we face this enormous economic and fiscal crisis.
Do you fear the economy is going to derail a lot of the things you want to do, because the situation is so serious?
I think inevitably it is going to change what a government can achieve. We've got to be honest about that. We are going to be facing a situation where we are already borrowing eight per cent of our GDP. If the economic forecasts change at the budget it could be a lot more than that. It won't be possible to do all the things we want to do. We will have to be rigorous in prioritising. And we will have to do tough and difficult things as well. We have to prepare people for that over the coming months. I'm really getting a sense that people understand that. Six or nine months ago people were saying: ‘Get rid of them, they're hopeless'. Now, it's much more ‘Gosh, this is going to be incredibly tough, you've got to do it, but it's going to be tough'. There's a mood change. The country senses the state of the economy.
Mark Field wrote on ConservativeHome that there will be three stages to this recession: fear, anxiety, then anger.
There is an anxiety, which is now turning into anger. Before Christmas, people were very anxious. They turned back to the government for a bit. The first thing you do when you are anxious is ask ‘what's the government going to do to get us out of this mess?' They got the benefit of the doubt. It's changed since the New Year. I have a clear memory of going home and watching on the Ten O'Clock News the announcement of the second bank bailout. As a citizen, not as a politician, I just thought ‘God, this government has completely lost control of things'. They don't know what they're doing and they are behaving like headless chickens and the things they've done don't seem to be working. I think what's happened since the beginning of this year is that the Conservative Party has pulled itself together in a good way. The reshuffle was very important. I think there has been a mood change. At the same time, the government is not saving the world, they are trying to save their own skins and they don't know how
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.
When you're popping down to your local supermarket to get a pint of milk, and people approach you, are they talking about different things now?
People are always very friendly. I get very little abuse, although I am sure that will change if I am successful! The things they say do change with the times. It's now all about the economy, their concerns, their anxieties. People see their friends losing their jobs, they see their own pay being cut, the expectations they had being taken away.
What can the internet bring to your campaigning over the next 18 months?
We ought to be doing a lot more and a lot better. Let's look at the positive side. The Conservative website is now good. Webcameron was at least a start and ahead of what some other parties have done. We use quite a lot of internet devices to launch policies, but we still have a long way to go before we are up with the best. It's boring and trite to say it, but what Obama achieved with bringing together campaigning, advertising and fundraising all in the same place was fantastic. So often in politics people think these things are all separate. We'd really like to do more of that.
That's not happening on the Conservative website, is it?
No, but we are working on it. Could we do more in terms of people who want to help through internet contact - ring these ten numbers, organise a house meeting? Clearly, yes. Can we really go to a small, individual fundraising model? Well, we can try, and we should try, but actually when you look at Obama, he still raised quite a lot of big money from other sources.
But if you want to impose a £50,000 donation cap, you've got to make up the shortfall somewhere and the internet is the only way you can do it.
It is. There is no enthusiasm for state funding. I would like to have the cap at £50,000 and I have always argued that if you can deliver that, then there might be some legitimisation of some limited state funding, but at a time of straightened public finances it's about the last thing you want to spend any money on. So I absolutely recognise we will need to do better on small donations. Could that be accompanied by some sort of tax relief on donations to encourage giving? Maybe that's one answer. What we want is parties that have, as a matter of course, to engage massively with people in order to win support and win donations at the same time. Any reform has got to be focused on that. Yes, we do still take some very big donations because we have to compete with the Labour Party who can literally pick up the phone to three unions and get the money, but we have massively broadened the number of people giving £50,000.
Do you think the reason politicians don't embrace the internet is that they fear it? They see the threats rather than the opportunities?
Yes. That's true. It's a problem. I am of a generation that didn't grow up with the internet. My first job did not have a PC on the desk but I am now completely computer literate. I spend a long time on the internet - shopping. I buy holidays and presents on the internet. A lot of the family shopping is done on the internet. I enjoy the political blogosphere. I think it has enlivened things. There's an awful lot of crap and gossip...
That's enough about my blog...
[laughs]. No, no... I think if you look at some of the stories you have broken, or Guido, it has enlivened politics and debate and democracy. It's great. So then the politician thinks, well, how do we make sure we avoid the danger of getting left out of the picture unless we use all tools of communication. We've got to work out how we do it. You do have to be a bit careful because politicians do have to be responsible for the words which come out of their mouths. Being a politician is not the same as being a journalist.
Would you encourage candidates and MPs to have blogs, recognising the risks that there are?
Yes I would, but I would encourage them to be responsible. The one person they can be absolutely sure is reading their blog is Derek Draper and his team of henchmen.
Are you ever tempted to comment, even anonymously, if you see a particular vicious attack on you?
No. You get frustrated when someone misses the point, particularly in a complicated argument. In politics you've got to have a feel for what's going on but you mustn't allow yourself to get obsessed by any one thing. The BBC site is good, I look at Guido, your blog, and I think the Spectator Coffee House is bloody good. I also love Willem Buiter's blog on the FT site. I tend to look at them on the BlackBerry in the back of a car.
How much of a priority is House of Lords reform for you?
If you mean, can we please throw out people or suspend them if they are touting for business, then that's a very high priority. In any legislature there has to be a way of suspending or expelling people who break the law. In terms of reform, having a more elected chamber, which is what I favour, to be frank it is not an urgent priority. The urgent priority is to sort out the economy and introduce social reform programmes. But I will sort out the egregiously broken things in politics like expenses, pay and pensions and the House of Lords - I will do that early on.
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 theguns 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 particularlyfair. 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 outwardbounds 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.
On your relations with Gordon Brown it seems to me that there's an absolute mutual loathing there, which sometimes goes beyond where it should.
When we meet each other at state functions we're perfectly polite and we get on.
But when you were walking together to the House of Lords for the Queen's Speech you had a complete poker face and didn't say a word to him.
I couldn't! I couldn't get a word in edgeways! He launches into a long conversation and that's it. I would have loved to have said something, but I didn't get the chance. Maybe next year.
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 varyit 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.
Jack Bauer or James Bond?
Both! But James Bond, just.
Book you are reading?
I've just fi nished Robert Peston's book, which ought to be called Who Ruined Britain? rather than Who Runs Britain? I'm now reading America and the World by Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft.
Are you supersticious?
Food you hate?
None. They haven't invented it yet. Abolone, a weird fishy thing in Chinese restaurants. I was made to eat it once in Hong Kong. Other than that I have yet to find a food I don't like.
Worst present you have given your wife?
Worst one she has given you?
The worst was when we both forgot our 10th wedding anniversary and we only remembered when Alastair Stewart sent us a card. We both forgot, so it was alright.
Most embarrassing song on your iPod?
There's some hot competition for that accolade. You Don't Bring Me Flowers by Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand.
Sarah Palin or Bree Van de Kamp [Desperate Housewive]?
Bree, every time [said with just a little too much enthusiasm]. And the rest of the cast.
From the top of the road from Dean to Chipping Norton looking into the Wychwood Forest.
Last time you cried?
Watching the Sound of Music, worryingly recently.
Swedish schools or Swedish films?
Schools! And not to confuse the two!
Have you ever sampled a slippery nipple?
No I haven't! Of either variety!