David Cameron talks to Simon Schama

At the foot of the staircase of Number 10 I’m looking at the portrait of Spencer Perceval, the only British prime minister to have been assassinated, when up pops the present incumbent, larger than life. Literally. Taller, bigger, meatier, a more substantial presence than I’d remembered from a glimpse of him tooling around on his bike in west London. David Cameron is loaded with what the ruling classes of Britain used to call “bottom”: a reassuring soundness that, so the theory goes, will stand the country in good stead in times of strife. In Perceval’s day, 200 years ago, Cameron might as easily have passed for a Whig as a Tory, and despite (or because of) a fine dusting of make-up that films his unlined, rather cherubic face, it’s easy to imagine him in breeches and buckled shoes, waxing Eminently Reasonable for the national interest.

Setting aside the biggish matter of policies that may yet shatter the country in two – the economically recuperating and the economically left for dead – Cameron is hard to take against: easy in his own skin; unstuffy, intellectually curious, and, unlike so many Conservative leaders – from Pitt (both father and son) to Peel, from Churchill to Thatcher – conspicuously untroubled by inner demons. In retrospect, it seems amazing that the Conservatives were on the brink of picking David Davis as their leader. If their top priority was shedding the stigma of the Nasty Party, they made sure to get themselves the Emperor of Nice, someone from whom affability falls so naturally that you have to grab a fistful of stinging nettles to avoid being disarmed. Whether the Cameron brand of collegiality will survive the season of snarling and screaming that will follow once we know exactly where the budget axe falls is another matter.

Which is not to say that the prime minister is unreflective. In front of the gaunt features of the reactionary, evangelical Perceval, I remind Cameron that his predecessor was done in by a disgruntled businessman, John Bellingham. “Was he?” he says, eyebrows rising. He shoots back, “Did you know one of his descendants is an MP?” I didn’t; history professor wrong-footed by PM. In fact, the descendant in question, Henry Bellingham, is a junior minister in the Foreign Office. Cameron looks back at the doomed Perceval and allows himself a moment of rueful gallows humour: “Useful to be reminded, isn’t it?”

The drollery isn’t entirely whimsical. Falling across the sunny face of Cameron’s can-do, bonny nature are long shadows of the cycle of life. In February last year, the Camerons’ six-year-old son, Ivan, stricken with cerebral palsy and epilepsy since infancy, died. Last month, Cameron’s father, a double amputee who had lost the sight of one eye, and evidently a role model of uncomplaining fortitude, had a fatal stroke. As if by providential consolation, a daughter, Florence, arrived between the two departures. Looking around his office I wonder where the baby photo is. “I’ve got a lovely one on my phone. Hold on,” he says, as he pulls out his smart phone and shows me a little moon-shaped face caught at that moment when smiling dawns. “She’s so new, but that is a very good picture … with her eyes open.”

So the first thing I ask him is to imagine Florence, 16 years hence, about to do her history GCSE (in the restored version of the curriculum I push him to reinstate), asking her pa what he’d done to deserve the plaudits. An unspoken but unmistakeable “blimey” ensues at the thought of Florence fast-forwarded so far beyond the nappy years. But his immediate response is telling: “I hope I will be able to say that I first of all established a coalition government, the first in 65 years. It was in the national interest to deal with the crisis in Britain’s totally overstretched public finances and deficit, and we took the country out of the danger zone.”

It crosses my mind that although you would never get David Cameron to admit it – perhaps not even to himself – coalition government might be the government that, temperamentally, best suits him, and which allows him to manage the restless hard right, whose man he has never been. “I think Clegg is a thoroughly good man,” he says. “We are working well together. It’s tough, coalition, because you have arguments and disagreements, but the relationships work well. It has got us off the sofa and around the Cabinet table, and it is having beneficial effects.”

From the right, though, he must be expecting a furtive grumbling that could yet turn dangerous. “Disloyalty,” the late Conservative MP Julian Critchley once said, “is the secret weapon of the Tory party.” Indeed, you can’t imagine Margaret Thatcher reasoning the same way. Faced with a comparable predicament you know she would rather have had her toenails torn out with red hot pincers than contemplate coalition government, much less list it as her crowning achievement. As if suddenly aware that it’s possible to overdo the consensus cuddle, Cameron reverts to the party playbook, hoping that his government will nonetheless be a radical government. “We are being radical; we are taking on vested interests in areas like health and education and welfare.”

He is, on the day of this interview, drafting his Party conference speech and perhaps rehearsing his argument that accepting a referendum on the Alternative Vote is not, for a true-blue Conservative, tantamount to committing an unnatural act.

Looking back on the election, Cameron assumed all along that in the event of a hung parliament he would form a minority government. “I didn’t think, ‘Gosh, there’s going to be a hung parliament and haggling for a coalition.’” He fondly recalls the breathless fervour of Vernon Bogdanor, a constitutional historian and his old tutor at Oxford (a time he recalls as “the best three years of my life”). “He looked forward to a hung parliament. He had this vision that I would be on line one, the Queen would be on line two, the BBC on line three and he would basically be telling us all what to do. It didn’t quite work out like that. It all happened so quickly.” Given the state of the country (the spine-tingling word “Greece” then dominating the headlines), he thought “the right thing to do was to respond with a generous and big offer … Let’s try and shoot for a strong, stable, maximalist government.”

In hindsight, did he regret the TV debates that, overnight, turned Nick Clegg from lightweight tyro to heavyweight contender? “After the first debate, when the Liberals were shooting up in the polls, it was obviously slightly stressful,” he concedes, but having been in favour of debates since 2006 he couldn’t then “turn on a sixpence” and refuse them. “Overall,” he says, with a rueful smile, “I thought I came through all right.”

So, is “Non, je ne regrette rien” to be the theme tune of the Party at Birmingham? Well, he says, “I just had a meeting this morning of some Conservative members of the Cabinet. The Lib Dems were away. The mood of the party in the country seems extremely positive … it seems happy.”

And why not? The deficit, he says, is being tackled; manifesto pledges fulfilled. The Tory rank and file in Birmingham will behave as though the Lib Dems are just a shower of visiting relatives who must be temporarily entertained before resuming their quaint way. Cameron will represent the coalition as doing Conservative bidding just as Clegg and Vince Cable took the opposite tack. In all likelihood, though, it won’t be enough to uproot the suspicion that deep within Cameron’s DNA there’s not a cell of Thatcherism, and that although all the pre-election literature about his brand of Conservatism pronounced “One Nation” Toryism of the Macmillan vintage dead, that is, in fact, what he is offering. “The Conservative party prides itself on being less ideological than other parties, more pragmatic and practical,” he says. “I would argue it has often done the right thing for the country.”

When we talk some more history, about which Cameron says he has always been “passionate”, his centrist instincts become still more apparent. When I invoke Disraeli’s government of 1874 as the originator of state interventionism – in health inspection, and in the public provision of water and sanitation – Cameron is quick to celebrate Dizzy as an authentic Tory democrat. “He dished the Whigs!” he says with schoolboy glee, as if he had just exited the House of Commons on the day in 1867 when Disraeli pushed through the Parliamentary Reform Act, granting universal male suffrage to borough householders. The Tory party, he insists, “isn’t anti all forms of state action. The Guardian tries to write that the Conservative party is viscerally anti-state, but if you look at history, Conservative governments have often taken state action to do something worthwhile, whether it is slum clearance or factory acts.”

Later, I would ask him what he thinks of American conservatism’s lurch to the libertarian extreme. “How shall I put this? We seem to have drifted apart … there is an element of American conservatism that is headed in a very culture war direction, which is just different. There are differences with the American right.”

But then, just as he seems to be casting himself as the heir to Churchill’s reforming Liberalism and Macmillan’s One Nation pragmatism, Cameron lets slip a comment of breathtaking lordliness. Of course he is concerned that the poor don’t fall below the safety net, but it should be understood that “if we don’t make cuts it will be the poorest who will be hardest hit by the failure of the economy … too much of [Labour’s attempts] was about redistributing money through the tax credit scheme, rather than trying to tackle the causes of poverty.”

For all his professions of a shared British community, this sounds remarkably like the Home Counties lecturing the unwashed about what is really, truly, in their own best interest. First take care of the bond market, then the shopper in the supermarket. Suddenly, from a place called Manchester, you can hear distant strains of Thoroughly Modern Milibandery tuning up its retort.

So is the “Big Society” just so much window dressing for a government abandoning any pretence to palliate social inequity in hard times? Though mystifying to the electorate, and the product of some pencil-chewing effort to position the party between tooth and claw laissez-faire and state collectivism, Cameron clings unrepentantly to the phrase: “It’s not just a few words,” he says. “It’s caught on, the Big Society, because people get it.”

Whether “it” is actually anything more than neo-Victorian cant about the citizenry (them what can afford it, that is) getting stuck in for the local good, I’m not at all sure. But he makes a spirited attempt to invest it with some human reality, even claiming it had always been part of the Conservative tradition to invite people to ask “What do I put back into society?” rather than just have them fork over taxes and let the elected decide.

But what can a good Conservative do about this sorry state, save hand-wringing and a call to voluntarism? I point out the difficulty for any government legislating behavioural modification. But the prime minister persists with his call to civic awakening for the common good. Take obesity, for instance, he rather surprisingly says, as if top of our agreed social agenda is the assumption that Britain should be a Big Society, but not that big. Reversing the growth of girth is not, he admits, something the government can accomplish (unless, I think, you hike VAT on a Big Mac), and yes, it is, in the end, a matter for parents, schools and doctors to deal with. But government can, he thinks, act as educator, moral cheerleader. “I think people like Jamie Oliver do have a positive effect on our national culture, as they are getting us to think about respecting what we eat,” he adds. All very nice, I counter, but in tough times, calorific needs will make the needy reach for the chip butty. Cameron won’t back off from the war against obesity, however, or any other challenges calling for “social responsibility”. To do so would be, he insists, “a counsel of despair”.

This prime minister cares because he is himself a bit of a cook. The first at Number 10, I wonder? No, he says, “there is a photo of Mrs Thatcher in the kitchen. I’ve always been fantastically greedy and liked food. I learned a bit from my mother. I enjoy it. It’s a very good way of unwinding, actually.” He confesses he “cribs a lot of Jamie Oliver recipes. I like everything on one page. And Delia is very good.” I tell him that British bison is fantastic. “Oh my God, right!” he says, not quite convinced. After learning there is a herd of bison roaming not far from Stonehenge, he becomes more curious. “Presumably they can live outside all year?”

The next day I hand over some bison sausages. Cameron sighs lightly and laments that since taking the top job, he has spent less time in the kitchen than he would like, though the night before, “I cooked steak. It was very boring, but it was very good, actually … and some French beans, and we watched Spooks, which was lovely. It’s quite odd watching Spooks now, as it’s kind of not like it really is.”

Wow, really? The boyish illumination, like discovering Santa might actually not be up there at the North Pole, is hopelessly winning. I reach for my nettles. And we get back to brass tacks. Just which Birmingham will you be talking to, I ask: the party faithful, or the world of trashed hopes out there in the rust and rubbish? It can be done, he says, places can be turned round. He tells me about Balsall Heath in Birmingham, just such a place, once in captivity to drug gangs and kerb-crawling prostitution. Locals determined to reverse their ruin got together and demanded the police clean up the place. Balsall Heath is a prize case for Cameron’s gospel of socially redeeming voluntarism. Property prices have risen; the streets are safe. “There are places to grow flowers,” he says, “and … plants,” (the word “vegetables” somehow eluding the cook of Number 10). “It shows that it is not true that the Big Society only works in the leafy suburbs and the posh parts of West Oxfordshire or Dorset.”

While we’re about it, then how about a dose of ethical retraining for the financial classes? Wasn’t it the hoodlums of the banks whose casino games ended up with the rest of us footing the bill? Cameron flares just a bit, a sunspot of indignation. It was the last government, he says, that looked the other way. “The economy in the last decade became dangerously unbalanced and the last government exercised a policy of benign neglect. It just thought this thing, the City, is generating the money for us to spend on all our programmes, so let’s just shut our eyes and not ask the questions about whether it is properly regulated or sustainable.”

Cameron waxes nostalgic about the demise of Good Men in the City, especially Brian Pitman, the longtime chairman and chief executive of Lloyds TSB, a banker, he says, of the old school, and an era in which regulators and the central bank presided with a “sense of discretion, judgment and proper clout”. On impenitent bonuses, Cameron pledges – like Vince Cable – to be a terror. The centre right “should never be frightened of standing up to big business”, he says. “We have tried to come down hard on excessive pay in the state sector. I think that there are pretty strong things to be said about pay in other parts of the economy. I don’t have a problem with doing that.”

Time is getting on, and I want to ask about encouraging the kind of history in school that can shape an inclusive but unapologetic version of British community. He’s all for that: not turning away from the stories that engage a post-imperial people, celebrating the abolition of slavery but never forgetting atrocities like the Amritsar massacre. Such stories, he believes, can also aid integration. “There was a tendency in the 1970s and beyond to deal with people in separate silos,” he says. “You had to have an approach only to the Somali population or only British Muslims … [the nation] is a house we are building together, rather than a hotel with lots of separate people in separate rooms. The approach was wrong. It was patronising.”

He is also in favour of narrative chronology. “I’m all for teaching ‘What does it feel like to be a Roman centurion?’, but the problem is if you can’t place it [in context].” So why, I ask, since history has always meant so much to you, didn’t you show up for your “S level” in the subject? For just a moment, the prime minister, who commands an armchair so completely that it looks as though it had been built around him, does a micro-squirm. “Ah,” he says, “there’s a story behind that.” But there isn’t really. Economics he needed for what lay ahead; art history was such a deep passion that he was determined at all costs to get an “A”. The sentence peters out harmlessly, poor Clio stood up by her Etonian devotee. We move on to art, with him encouraging me to send The Power of Art TV series “in digital form, then I can get it on to my iPad”. Why is “Guernica” his favourite painting? Another mini-fidget. “The Spanish civil war was a speciality at school and it [Picasso’s painting] delivers such incredible food for thought.” Well, yes, but also maybe panic, terror, incineration, slaughter and grief?

It’s this sunny imperturbability; the drowsy placebo of his genteel Englishness that I want to break through before we call it a day. Nice is nice, but as Barack Obama has discovered to his cost, without an instinct for the jugular it can do you in. “Tell me,” I ask, “when did you last lose it? What makes you lose it? And please don’t say ‘social injustice’.” David Cameron laughs. “Oh, you’d better ask Gabby that,” he says. Gabby Bertin is his assistant, the only person sitting in, and clearly not being Browned off. “You get annoyed when things aren’t done properly,” she gamely interjects. “I’m not a perfectionist,” he counters. “Just look at my desk!”

So why am I not surprised when the most serious object of his wrath turns out to be himself? “I suppose,” he says, “it’s when you really let yourself down; screw something up.” “Like that first TV debate?” I say, mischievously. More light self-mockery. “No, actually, I didn’t feel I’d done that badly!”

Of course David Cameron is not all pussycat. Like any politician who has got where he has, he’s got claws. But he is so invested in the politics of collegiality that when – as will happen – he becomes, in the barebones winter of cutbacks, deeply unpopular in the parts of the country that feel the pain most acutely, it will come, somehow, as a dismaying surprise – like an apostle pelted with rotting fish. Cameron’s air of patriotic chirpiness might end up irritating rather than reassuring those on the sharp end of the budgetary stick.

Although he talks to “Norman [Lamont] quite regularly,” he, George Osborne and Nick Clegg, and the rest of the nice guys, were off in their smart schools in the 1980s when the country was being torn apart. No wonder they don’t quite register its rancour. So while they may not imagine they are inflicting Thatcherism Round Two, what they are about to do may have that effect. There are times when you get the impression they haven’t thought through the magnitude of their “radicalism”. It’s just a Westminster word, but in Burnley and Brixton it’s a dose of daily pain. Acknowledging the risk of being cut off as prime minister, he concedes the need to “keep the walls of the bunker thin”.

What Cameron does have going for him is the impression he gives of having a life beyond the power game; and at the back of those priorities will always be the life-changing story of Ivan. “Yes, it put everything in perspective,” he allows. “I felt it with Dad, and baby Florence arriving; it does make you think of the big things you are trying to do. For heaven’s sake, you are only trying to do the right thing and make a difference, and concentrate on the things that matter.”

When I think back to the word that recurred most often, even more than the mantras of “social responsibility” and “maximalist government”, it was “children”. He had condemned business for its over-sexualising of children. How did he want to leave Britain at the end of his office? “A better place for children to go to school in, to grow up in.” And though I armed myself against the sentimentality, there is nothing of the politician’s fake baby-kissing when he says it; just an instinctive, almost animal feeling for family. Should his policies send the economy back into recession, no one will care about Cameron’s decency. Then again, it’s not such a bad quality with which to steel himself for the storm brewing out there, beyond the gentle undulations of the Home Counties.

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