David Cameron, the interim PM? Don't bet on it

Some say his European tour is a candy floss designed just for show, and to leave a sugary taste

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The Independent Online

A friend of David Cameron’s commented before the election: “I hope he loses.” The friend had the Prime Minister’s interest in mind, because he thinks that they all go mad if they are in the job for too long. He was thinking not just of his friend’s sanity but of his three children of primary-school age. 

It wasn’t to be. For all the confident predictions revealed after the event that the Conservative leadership knew that the polls were wrong, Cameron’s own mood seemed resigned, if not to defeat at least to a difficult situation in a hung parliament. When I travelled briefly with him on his battle bus, I was puzzled, although not puzzled enough, that we seemed to be visiting a lot of Tory-Liberal Democrat marginals. Thus I missed the Tory strategy of Pac-Manning up Lib Dem seats, but I detected a fatalism about Cameron himself. He felt he had fought the best campaign he could, and that, if he fell short, he wouldn’t look back at something obvious that he had done or shouldn’t have done.

When I asked him about the legacy that a second term would allow him to leave, he did not hesitate, but it didn’t feel real. I unkindly suggested he might be remembered as a 10-year PM who held three referendums to keep things as they are. “Two referendums,” he said, revealingly forgetting the 2011 referendum on the voting system. He thought keeping things the same would be a successful “conservative” record, but that completing the work of fixing the broken economy, and of reforming education, welfare and housing, would be more of a “revolution”.

But there he was at 3am, in the upstairs gym of the Windrush Leisure Centre, where the count was taking place in his Oxfordshire constituency, Witney, when he realised he actually had to start doing it. He was going to win a majority – to become, as Simon Burns, the Tory MP, put it in the opening speech of the new  House of Commons, the first prime minister to increase his party’s share of votes and seats since Lord Palmerston in 1857.

Cameron said to Craig Oliver, his soon-to-be-promoted head of communications: “We’d better write an acceptance speech. What will I say?”

Oliver said: “Say ‘one nation’. It’s what’s in your heart.”

Thus it began, with words on the steps of Downing Street laying claim to liberal Conservatism without the Liberals and, last week, a many-nation tour of the European Union. Some commentators, both inners and outers, like to complain that Cameron hasn’t yet set out his demands for changing the terms of our EU membership, and that the whole thing is just a candy floss designed for show and to leave a sugary taste.

They haven’t been paying attention. Cameron’s requirements are specific. The most important is that he wants to deny tax credits to EU immigrants for four years. He argues that they add a lot to take-home pay and thus act as a magnet for central European workers. I am not sure he is right: I think the UK labour market is attractive enough anyway. And Ewa Kopacz, the Polish prime minister, was blunt when she met Cameron on Friday, saying that she would not accept “discrimination against Poles”.

The nub of the negotiations is that EU law allows the nationals of different member states to be treated differently by social security systems, but does not allow “discrimination” by tax systems. Hence the Government’s legal advice that withholding tax credits would probably require changes to EU treaties. Angela Merkel said on Friday that treaty changes were “not impossible”, but they would require all EU members to agree, so Ms Kopacz could yet be important.

I don’t know how these negotiations will work out, and it may not make much difference to the immigration numbers if Cameron gets what he wants, but the changes are not cosmetic and the negotiations are not about nothing. The referendum, whether it happens next year (as Ed Llewellyn, Cameron’s chief of staff, is said to prefer) or the year after (supposedly favoured by George Osborne, the Chancellor), will be a momentous event that is unlikely, like AV, to slip the PM’s mind a few years later.

And then what? Are we really to believe what Cameron said in his  kitchen at the start of the campaign, that, if he has won the referendum and the economy is in good shape, he would want to put up his feet and watch Boris Johnson and George Osborne slug it out to succeed him? His friend would point out that, by the end of 2017, Cameron’s children will be 13, 11 and seven.

But I find myself unable to disagree with George Pascoe-Watson, long an observer of politics at The Sun, who said last week: “I’ve seen a number of PMs come and go. None ever walked out of No 10 willingly.” Even Harold Wilson quit in 1976 only because he felt his faculties failing. I don’t think Cameron is going to break that run.

Twitter.com/@JohnRentoul

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