In the last of our interviews with the party leaders, Stylist’s Lucy Foster meets PM David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party
“Pinhead oatmeal. But make sure you soak it overnight.” The Prime Minister and I are in a first-class train carriage talking porridge. It’s not as strange a topic as you might imagine in the run-up to a general election. Stamina is important in these manic months of back-to-back campaigning, whizzing to and from the nation’s furthest corners, the marginal seats, the constituency, all to come back to London and face the press and the opposition, policy facts and figures firmly at the front of your mind. And for stamina, PM David Cameron advocates eating porridge. Pinhead oatmeal to be precise. Don’t forget to soak.
Before now, I’ve never conducted an interview when the Special Forces are guarding the exits and to be honest, it’s a little unnerving. How do I know they’re Special Forces? They’re massive, have funny wires behind their ears and say lines such as, “Wait here please,” while blocking carriage doorways (the automatic door doesn’t even dare to open). They don’t do eye contact. They don’t have to.
I’m a little on edge as it is. This is the leader of our country, a former Bullingdon Club member, Oxford PPE graduate and distant relation of King William IV so when I’m finally permitted down the aisle, I’m expecting a haughty, dismissive patrician Tory who has little time for women’s consumer magazine journalists. So I’m completely wrong-footed when I’m greeted by an incredibly charming, gracious David Cameron (to his face you call him either PM or Prime Minister. I don’t know why. You just do). He’s engaged and humble. I mention that our weekly readership is more than a million – “Well, I’d better not mess up then,” is his answer. His face isn’t even that shiny.
We’re on the return journey from Chelmsford in Essex where I’ve just watched him speak at a printing factory and announce the Conservative plan to build 200,000 starter homes for first-time buyers under 40 over the next parliamentary term. In the Q&A session that followed, he took questions on topics as random as local ambulance services and came back with detailed, knowledgeable answers barely taking time to draw breath. He hosts a ‘huddle’ (a five-minute Q&A where six local journalists crowd around him) and again gives punchy, stat-heavy answers on every topic. He takes a selfie with BBC Radio 1 reporter and makes a gag about Kim Kardashian.
Whatever your politics may be and even if he’s been heavily prepped, on performance alone, this is impressive. So I know I’m dealing with a pro. Especially when he sits forward in his seat and says, “Well, now I’m all yours.”
And the interview begins.
OK, so how are you planning to get women to vote?
I think the first thing to say is that this is going to be a very important general election. More important than most because Britain’s at a T-junction – turn one way to keep going with the economic plan that’s delivering. Turn in the other direction and you get a very different choice with Labour. So it’s a big election – look at how unstable and uncertain the world is, look how little growth there is in Europe, look how well we’re doing in comparison. For women, particularly young women, the economy growing is important. A growing economy is the opportunity for jobs and livelihoods and training and the chance to make something of your life. The most important thing we have to get across is that if we keep taking the right path, there’s security but also opportunity. Whatever career you choose. If it’s science, we’re still a top player in science, if it’s publishing media or the arts, Britain is really punching above its weight. So my message on why [your readers] should vote, Britain’s at a crossroads in terms of the choices we make. If we keep securing our economic future, the opportunities to secure a better life for you and your family are there.
What do you think the biggest challenge will be to the party that comes into power?
I’m afraid the biggest challenge is still getting Britain to live within its means. We’ve cut the deficit in half and we’ve still got one of the biggest budget deficits left. And you know this is not some dry accountancy issue – everything else flows from having sound finances and a strong economy. If you have those things, you will have a good health service, you will have good schools and you can invest in transport, training and the things we need. So the number one task is still going to be making sure we restore financial stability and soundness to the national finances while keeping the economy growing. That’s boring but it’s true.
And you’ve said by 2018?
2018 to get a surplus. Again, this is going to sound like some dry accountancy thing, but by 2018, the economy would have been growing for seven years and if at the end of seven years you’re not putting aside money for a rainy day, when will you? Of course, the nation’s finances aren’t entirely the same as an individual’s or a business’s finances. And while it’s OK to run an overdraft for one year, at the end of seven years of growth, you should be paying down the debt rather than running an overdraft. If you let your debts get too high, you’re less able to withstand the next shock that might come. This is fixing the roof when the sun’s shining, using the good years to save for a rainy day. That’s what we’re talking about.
A criticism people might throw at you is that your policies lean towards the elder population.
Yes. I don’t really buy this on any level. First of all, there’s the policy today which is about young people getting on the housing ladder. But second of all, young people want to know that if they work hard, there’ll be stability, dignity and security in old age. Young people also want their parents and their grandparents treated decently. But also, this government has been about sorting out our economy and getting it to grow and not leaving unsustainable debts to our children. That is fundamentally a very pro-young person policy. The way to wreck young people’s future is to mortgage it by not dealing with the country’s debts and leaving an economy that’s a mess. Look, we took over at a time when Britain was in a difficult situation, the deficit, the debt and the economy not growing, and the government did very determinedly say, “We’ve got to take long-term decisions”. So whether that was reforming pensions or indeed paying down the deficit, there aren’t instant benefits from that but it’s the right thing to do. The long-term stuff is what really matters.
Now with female representation in Parliament, the Lib Dems are in a worse position than you…
They’re in a terrible position!
But you only have 48 female MPs, is that right?
When I became leader of the party, we had 17. I think we hit 50 at the election [the correct figure was 49]. Obviously one, Louise Mensch, left, so that’s one less but I think we went 17 to 50, which was good but that’s 50 out of 300, so it’s not enough. The encouraging things are, if I look at the safe Conservative seats where someone stood down, about a third of the candidates are women, so that means we’re doing better. But I still want us to do more.
And how would you do that?
Before 2010, we tried everything [to encourage women to stand], helping women who want to be candidates to make sure they got the training necessary, making sure the process isn’t maleorientated. That sounds a bit weird but sometimes the process of picking a candidate – you stand in a room and make a speech in front of a lot of people – that’s just one part of being an MP. Yet, there are lots of parts to being an MP: how good are you at listening to people’s concerns, acting on their problems, convincing people on the doorstep? So we’re trying to take into account all those things.
Let’s talk about the NHS. I feel attached to it, so do our readers. We’ve been brought up with it. It’s got to stay intact.
Yep. Well, first of all, it should stay as the National Health Service – free at the point of use, based on need not ability to pay and that is vitally important to me, to the country. I feel very emotional about it. This government had to make lots of cuts as people know, but we did not cut the NHS. We put more money into the NHS every year, £12.7billion as a whole.
Will you manage the requested £8billion [by Simon Stevens, head of NHS England] by 2020?
Er, we are going to do what is necessary to deliver the Stevens plan. We’ve put down the first £2billion for next year, and if we continue at the same rate, then we will fund the plan. The positive side is we are treating thousands more people. Take cancer. Most of us have family members who have been affected or who will be affected. The number of people referred and treated for cancer over the last five years is up about 50%, and that means we’re identifying more cancers earlier and getting people into treatment. They’re still not as good as I’d like but our outcomes are getting better. Yet, we have some specific challenges. Obviously, we’ve got more elderly people and we’ve got to do better at getting the health and social care systems working together. That’s not working as well as it should and that is fixable. People are living much longer and we need to make the social care system work better – more treatment in the community – as A&E isn’t always the right place.
OK. Could we move on to the gender pay gap…
Yes. The good thing is that under-40, it’s eradicated, so that’s good news for young people.
Yes, but we still have an issue, don’t we, where women who leave work and have children – despite all their training and experience – just can’t get back into that level of work.
Yes. I think childcare is the answer to not just the gender pay gap, but also the gap between people’s aspirations and what they’re able to do. Lots of mums will be sitting down and thinking, ‘Well, I’d like to work some more hours’ or ‘I’d like to go back full-time but I can’t because the childcare doesn’t add up’ and we’ve got to do better. We have done a lot in that there’s the 15 hours of childcare for threeand four-year-olds, we’ve got tax relief on childcare coming in, we’ve got support through the tax-credit system. I very much agree, this is an area where I would like us to keep thinking, ‘What more can we do?’ because I think for many families it’s the key discussion. I don’t believe in saying, “You must do this, you must stay at home, you must go back to work”. People want to make their choices, but they should be able to make the choice they want to make, rather than the one they have to make.
But some of the brightest women I know are at home with children and that seems like a big waste.
Yeah, but you might find some will say, “Well, that’s the choice”. My sister’s an interesting example – she was a TV producer in Soho, fantastically successful and surprised us all when she said, “I’m going to go and look after [my children] at home for a few years, then come back”. It’s her choice.
Yeah, but what about the women who…
Yes, exactly, but lots of people would like to. My wife is different – she likes to get back to work relatively quickly after having children, and there are lots of people who want to return to work or do more hours but can’t because the maths doesn’t work, so childcare is a key area.
Time is ticking and although I’m aware I’m being given the political runaround on this, I’m worried I will lose valuable minutes trying to nail him down. I turn to the PR – “Are we alright for time?” “Just a few more questions” is his answer. Fine. That means five minutes at best. Let’s see if I can pin the PM down on something else.
So, housing. Even with Help-to- Buy, if you bought a £600,000 home in London, which is almost entry level, let’s be honest…
Well, there’s London and London.
Sure, I’m not talking Croydon. But in London, you’d still be looking at mortgage payments of £2,600. You’ve got to be earning an awful lot to be paying that off every month.
Look, London is expensive and we’ve got to build more houses and find ways to make sure there are affordable homes in London – all of which are happening, but when we come up with schemes like Help-to-Buy or indeed starter homes, you’ve got to do it in a way where you’re trying to benefit the maximum number of people. So we have put a [maximum sale] cap on it – £250k outside of London and £450k inside London.
But with £450k in London, you would be buying in Zone 5 or Zone 6, wouldn’t you?
But you know, if we are making the money stretch as far as possible, you’ve got to work out where to put the cash. When I was in Thurrock [Essex] this morning – OK, not London but easily commutable to London – newbuild two-bedroom flats sell for £160,000. So, it’s difficult this, I understand that, and London is different because it has become this global city and that has its drawbacks – it means expensive property – but it also has benefits. We were talking earlier about being young and growing up in Britain. In London, we have one of the premier cities of the world so London is a great benefit to the country.
The quick questions
Mr Cameron deals with the important issues…
How much sleep do you get? Last night I went to bed at 11 o’clock and I got out of bed at just before 6 o’clock. I’m not Mrs Thatcher who did five hours of sleep a night.
What did you think of Labour’s pink bus? I thought it was a bit condescending and strange. If the Tories had announced all of a sudden we were going to have a pink bus to attract women, we would be killed, I mean, literally. I’d be dead on the floor. Harriet Harman would have personally cut me into small pieces and fried me up on a feminist barbecue.
Is getting into government like opening Pandora’s Box? Do you suddenly get access to the real files? It’s not, funnily enough. There are briefings you get about the nuclear deterrent and all the risks that we face, you get lots of that but they don’t suddenly say, “And here are the aliens that we met earlier.” [Laughs] I haven’t been shown the Roswell Files, but maybe they’re not showing me.
If you had to be stuck in a lift with Obama, Merkel or Putin for three hours, who would you choose? I get on very well with Obama and Merkel. I’ve had Merkel to stay and we sat up and put the world to rights with a whisky or two. She’s good company and Barack is extremely good company too. I’ve got to know him a bit. They both come in slightly ahead of Vladimir, with whom I have had some interesting meetings over the years.
I’m sure. How’s your Russian? [He says two words I can’t possibly translate] That’s about it.
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Photos: Rex Features and Getty Images