David Cameron profile: Gary Gibbon speaks to the Conservative leader
I caught up with David Cameron in the back of his battle bus heading from the Midlands into Wales. It’s a bus that normally takes travellers from Dover, under the Channel, to meet up with the Orient Express train in France.
It’s been repainted and reconfigured for the election with seats around tables for his entourage and the media pack and at the back the PM’s own den with sofa and a saloon bar door giving privacy.
Outside as the traffic whizzes by nobody toots their horn, there’s no abuse, no cheering either. The prime minister’s heavily branded bus moves from one fairly sterile event to another, where his words are recorded by cameras, reading off autocue whilst the electorate get on with their lives.
Talk to him a few months ago and you heard someone who thought it would fall his way; the other guy was unelectable and the economic lead too strong. Now not so much.
He draws hope from Labour’s difficulties in Scotland and what his team perceives as real weakness in Lib Dem seats where the Tories are second. He takes a text from a Tory MP telling him there are no Tories converting to Labour in his seat: “It’s firming up,” the text says but, like the rest of us, you sense he truly isn’t sure what’s happening.
If he did get back in, what sort of David Cameron would we see? The long gone husky-cuddling eco-warrior won’t make a reappearance presumably. The huge fan of coalition who said it would be a better form of government won’t be doing another turn. Former Conservative MP Paul Goodman told us that Mr Cameron, if he heads a minority government, would have to bind in the right of his party much more than ever before.
I put to Mr Cameron a quote from someone who came to work for him in No. 10. One of Mr Cameron’s long-serving allies told the newcomer: “Don’t go looking for Dave’s irreducible core. You won’t find it.” Mr Cameron said that was “unfair,” he was a “compassionate conservative” still through and through and there was “a line” discernible from the man who challenged for the leadership as a moderniser and the man before me now. What had changed was the circumstances, the economic challenge.
Ken Clarke talks of a different line – the political charisma line. He supports the idea that Mr Cameron is doing an impersonation of Tony Blair who was copying Bill Clinton who himself was trying to capture the hope and dynamism of President Kennedy. Ken Clarke says Mr Cameron walks and talks the part of prime minister with ease though he thinks over-confidence sometimes creeps in and makes Mr Cameron take decisions too quickly. Surprisingly perhaps Mr Cameron agreed that was a failing of his.
Today, the SNP has been launching its manifesto in Edinburgh to excitement not seen in a British election since 1997. Did Mr Cameron, passionate in his defence of the union in the referendum last year, rush too quickly into playing the English card? Is he up to the same thing with bells on in this campaign, inciting anti-English feeling in Scotland to win votes in England, playing fast and loose with the Union he professed to love?
Not at all, Mr Cameron insists. The reneging on the deal narrative is a lie. Everything he has promised on devolution will be delivered. He will not, though, go beyond Smith Commission proposals, even if the SNP sweeps the board in Scottish seats.
If Mr Cameron leads a minority Conservative government dependent on a small number of right wing Tories how might things be different? Former Tory MP Paul Goodman says it would mean Mr Cameron having to take much greater account of the right in the party, in his policy-making, in his ministerial team and in his inner circle. Mr Cameron says you’ll get the same “compassionate conservatism”.
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