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”.
Best General Election 2015 quotes
Best General Election 2015 quotes
1/10 1. "Am I tough enough? Hell, yes, I'm tough enough."
Ed Miliband bats away suggestions he would be too weak on the international stage. It likely to go down as one of the quotes we remember this election by.
Matthew Lewis/Getty Images
2/10 2. "If I'm getting lively about it, it's because I feel bloody lively about it."
David Cameron attempts to prove how passionate he is about wanting a second term as Prime Minister after Tory donors criticised his lack of enthusiasm.
3/10 3. "Oh it's crats? I thought it was Liberal Demo-cats"
Reality TV star Joey Essex is taught a thing or two during his meeting with Nick Clegg.
4/10 4. "Brain fade"
Green party leader Natalie Bennett gave what was described as the "worst political leader's interview ever" on LBC Radio as she fails to answer how the Greens would pay for its ambitious housing policies.
5/10 5. "We're a shining example of a country where multiple identities work. Where you can be Welsh and Hindu and British, Northern Irish and Jewish and British, where you can wear a kilt and a turban, where you can wear a hijab covered in poppies. Where you can support Man Utd, the Windies and Team GB all at the same time. Of course, I'd rather you supported West Ham"
David Cameron experienced his own brain fade when he forgot which football team he supported.
6/10 6. “This is a real career-defining … country-defining election that we face in less than a week’s time”
The Prime Minister made another gaffe when he made it sound like the election was all about himself.
7/10 7. “Ed Miliband stabbed his own brother in the back to become Labour leader. Now he is willing to stab the United Kingdom in the back to become prime minister.”
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon launched a vicious personal attack on Ed Miliband.
8/10 8. "Ajockalypse Now."
The colourful term used by Boris Johnson to describe a Labour government propped up by the SNP.
JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images
9/10 9. “The SNP are openly racist. The anti-English hostility, and the kind of language that is used about and towards English people, is totally extraordinary.”
Nigel Farage launches an attack on Nicola Sturgeon and her SNP party.
10/10 10. "Terms are like Shredded Wheat. Two are wonderful, three might be too many."
David Cameron rules out a third term as Prime Minister.
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.Reuse content