Normally when the Prime Minister descends on a workplace, production grinds to a halt. O2, whose huge call centre outside Runcorn was the venue for today’s “Cameron Direct”, is made of sterner stuff.
Those unlucky employees not participating in the Q&A carried on working, so the session took place against a disconcerting hubbub of earnest chatter elsewhere.
This didn’t stop the PM flattering his hosts. He had something to learn, he said, from the fact that the company served 23 million customers (fair point, as that’s more than twice the number of Tory voters in 2010).
Cameron then turned to O2’s ads about cats discovering their inner dog. “I’ve tried it with the Downing Street cat, Larry,” he said mysteriously. “But the other day he was sitting in my office and a mouse ran across the floor and he lifted his head and he did nothing about it.” But hang on, if he was more like a dog, he’d be even less interested… Oh, forget it.
But you can see why it might have been a relief to be in Cheshire after a difficult week.
Screened or not, the questions, on that £1.7bn he would “not be paying on December 1” to the European Union, on interest rates, even on zero-hours contracts, and, from local broadcasters, on drugs – “I don’t believe in decriminalising drugs that are illegal today” – were mostly ones he could answer standing on his head. Indeed the encounter might have been a bit more interesting if he’d done just that.
Sensibly, he did not belabour his new theme, that there was a “moral” duty to reduce taxes (as opposed, say, to rescuing drowning would-be migrants in the Mediterranean). In fact, he mentioned the “moral point” that “it’s your money” only once.
Asked about “corporations that avoid paying tax”, he suggested the Government had forced a “change of culture”. “These people are now sitting in the boardroom and they’re realising ‘hang on, Britain is setting a low tax rate; they’re going to make us pay it and we’re going to get bad publicity if we don’t…’”
He didn’t supply the evidence for this impressively optimistic assertion.
So, nothing about those tiresome Ukip-ish issues like immigration or the European arrest warrant. Which made you wonder whether he might indeed be giving up on “that” by-election.
Maybe he’ll blitz it next week. But for now Runcorn seemed as far from Rochester – politically and physically – as you can comfortably get in a single afternoon.