David Cameron is planning new tax cuts for married couples as he seeks to win back disillusioned Tory voters ahead of the general election.
In an exclusive interview with The Telegraphon the eve of the campaign, the Prime Minister:
• Hails a pensions windfall for 2.1million over-55s, who will be able to take a total of £140billion out of their savings next week, or £25,000 each
• Renews his vow to cut migration to below 100,000 a year, telling voters: “I hear you, I get your message”
• Makes his strongest ever pledge to save the Army from further cuts
• Describes his anguish at taking life-and-death decisions involving British troops or hostages
• Declares he wants “Jihadi John” to be taken "out of action", dead or alive
• Rejects his reputation for “chillaxing” and suggests he will not have much time go on 'date nights' with Samantha in the campaign
“I work bloody hard,” says David Cameron, clearly stung by the claim from his critics that he is too fond of “chillaxing” at weekends, or playing video games on his iPad.
“I’m normally up before six at my kitchen table working away. I certainly was today,” he insists.
For our interview, the Prime Minister avoids the now ubiquitous politicians’ kitchen in favour of his private study, an altogether more serious setting at the heart of Number 10.
From here, Mr Cameron can look out on the “rose garden” where five years ago he stood, side by side with Nick Clegg, in the dappled spring sunlight, to announce the birth of Britain’s first coalition government for 70 years.
Last week, Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg handed out bottles and commemorative beer and crisps to the Cabinet during its final meeting before the election, to mark the end of what was at times a bad tempered marriage of political convenience.
“I don’t want another coalition,” Mr Cameron says, entirely unprompted.
David Cameron and Nick Clegg, 5 years ago
In his final interview before the start of the full-time election campaign, the Prime Minister sets out his personal mission to bring job security to millions, cut taxes for married couples and help Britons to enjoy “the good life” that he says is now within their reach.
He hails a £140 billion cash windfall for pension savers, and attempts to win back the Tory voters he has lost with new promises of tougher action on immigration and Europe.
In some of his most revealing remarks, the Prime Minister describes the personal strain of dealing with the deaths of British troops and hostages murdered by the so-called Islamic State.
He wants Mohammed Emwazi, the terrorist known as “Jihadi John”, to be found, he says, dead or alive.
For many traditional Conservative supporters, Mr Cameron’s five years in Number 10 have been a disappointment. MPs fear the party’s inability to break away from Labour in the polls can be traced back to disillusionment among this group of grassroots voters, many of whom have chosen the UK Independence Party instead.
Chief among their complaints are the coalition’s sweeping cuts to defence, with 20,000 soldiers sacked, the decision to spend billions more on foreign aid, and a new law legalising gay marriage.
Speaking on Friday, on the eve of his campaign for re-election, in which he will need all the support he can get, Mr Cameron offers his critics humility.
“I accept I have a task in the next 41 days to win back people who are instinctively Conservative, who have strong Conservative values and some of them have drifted off to other parties. I need to win them back.
“It’s not easy being in coalition. We have had to take some difficult decisions and inevitably over five years you lose some people’s support.”
Perhaps the most spectacular failing, and certainly one of the most politically damaging, has been the government’s inability to deliver Mr Cameron’s “cast iron” promise to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands.
On latest estimates, the figure stands at 298,000, higher than when Gordon Brown left office.
“Britain is facing quite a lot of pressure because the level of migration has been too high for too long. You see that on school places, and you see that in some places on the health service.
“I can absolutely say to people who are concerned about this, I hear you, I hear your concern, I get your message,” Mr Cameron says.
By way of proof, he re-dedicates himself to the target that he has just missed, insisting that cutting net migration – the difference between the numbers leaving and entering the country each year – to below 100,000 is right for Britain.
Asked if there is a “limit” to the number of people Britain can accommodate in the population, Mr Cameron replies: “Yes, I think there is. Getting net migration to below 100,000 annually remains the right ambition. That, obviously, therefore has an effect on population.”
Has this target just been downgraded to an “ambition”? “No, you can call it an ambition, you can call it a target. That is what I want to achieve.”
But he has abandoned the idea of putting a cap on the numbers of immigrants who can come to Britain from the EU. It simply wouldn’t work, Mr Cameron says. Making European migrants wait four years before they can get benefits is “more potent than an EU-set cap”.
If he can’t get EU migration rules re-written, what chance does the Prime Minister have of achieving a good deal from his negotiations with European leaders for other reforms?
Could he ever imagine voting to leave the EU in the in/out referendum he intends to hold in 2017?
“That’s not what I want to see. If I don’t achieve the changes I think we need, I rule nothing out. But I am increasingly confident that this can be done,” he says. “Europe does not want Britain to leave.”
The negotiations will be “tough” but a clear “mandate” for reform from the electorate – for which, read a Tory majority in May – will help, he insists.
His implicit message is clear: if you want change in Europe, you have to vote for it and I am the only man who can give it to you.
Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, recently offered to prop-up a Tory government after the election if Mr Cameron promises to hold an in/out referendum by Christmas, two years earlier than his current plan.
The Prime Minister is not impressed. “I don’t think Nigel Farage is going to have many, if any MPs, frankly,” he says. “I will have the referendum as soon as I can get the changes that I need.”
Perhaps the greatest alarm for traditional Tory voters has been the fear that the defence of the realm will be compromised further by even deeper cuts to the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force when government spending is reviewed again this autumn.
With Vladimir Putin now meddling in the Falklandsdispute with Argentina, former Tory ministers and military commanders have warned that now is not the time to abandon our commitment to the Nato target of spending at least 2 per cent of GDP defence.
Yet Mr Cameron still refuses to guarantee the 2 per cent target. “I don’t want to make a commitment now before I know whether I can meet it.”
But he does give his clearest promise so far that troop numbers will be safe, saying there will be “no further reductions to regular armed service personnel.” This, he says, is a commitment “that I am absolutely certain I can keep”.
Are the reservists, who are supposed to be filling the gap created by previous rounds of cuts, also to be protected? “Effectively, yes.”
More than 600 British fighters have travelled to the Middle East to join the terrorists of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil). Mr Cameron has described the group, also known as "Isis", as a “poisonous death cult” which must be defeated, so grave is the threat that these fighters pose to British national security.
Since September, when MPs voted in favour of returning to conflict in Iraq, British aircraft have been playing a major role in the international war against Isil. Mr Cameron is keen to stress that UK forces have undertaken a greater proportion of the air strikes than during the two previous Iraq wars.
Jihadi John ? "I would like him out of action”
But he is clearly frustrated that “Jihadi John”, the grim figurehead of Isil barbarity, who was recently unmasked as the former London student Mohammed Emwazi, continues to evade the West.
Why have we still not caught him, given that everyone now knows who he is?
“That’s a very difficult question to answer,” Mr Cameron replies, after a lengthy pause.
“I can’t give a running commentary, I’m afraid. But the thing I can say is we use everything at our disposal to find, defeat and destroy Britain’s enemies and he is very, very high up the list.”
Does the Prime Minister mind whether he is captured or killed? “No. I would like him out of action.”
For Mr Cameron, 48, the human tragedy facing the families of British troops who die in action, or of the murdered hostages Alan Henning and David Haines, must be all too vivid.
He knows as much as anyone about the pain of losing a child, having had to cope with the death of his six year-old son Ivan, who had cerebral palsy and epilepsy, in 2009.
"The saddest moment as Prime Minister is writing letters to families who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan" (Photo: Sgt Ian Forsyth RLC/PA)
“The saddest moment as Prime Minister is writing letters to families who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan or those who we have tried to help in hostage situations but it hasn’t worked out,” he says.
“Those are the most difficult decisions you have to take. And I feel a big responsibility.
“It’s terrible for the families concerned. I feel it’s right that the prime minister should get personally involved.”
How does he protect himself emotionally from the human consequences of the decisions he has to take?
“You can’t. When these things happen, they are very all-consuming. You think a lot about them and you’ll go to bed at night with the telephone two inches from your head.
“But you have to make a decision and stick with it and then you have to get on with the rest of the work.”
THE GOOD LIFE
Such a frank and personal account will perhaps serve as a rebuke to those on his own side who have complained that they do not know what Mr Cameron stands for, or who question his commitment to the task facing the party and the country.
Murmurs of doubt over the existence of a guiding passion, a vision for Britain, have been persistent during Mr Cameron’s leadership.
But with the focus of a man fighting for his own future, the Prime Minister now offers a clear distillation of own mission.
“We want a sense that in this country we have the right values so that if you work hard you can live the good life. That is what my politics is all about,” he says.
“Some people might say that’s a bit too simple or a bit too down to earth.
“But for me there is no greater sunshine in politics or in life than to have a job, security for your family, a good school place where you know your child is going and the sense that if I put in, there will be a decent, secure retirement at the end of it all.”
THE PENSIONS GOLDRUSH
For 2.1 million of over-55s, Mr Cameron’s vision of a new Britain is about to become a radical new reality. From April 6, savers will be able to take their life savings from their pension pots to spend the money as they wish.
According to new government calculations, the total amount of money which will become available for people to spend in this way – on buy-to-let homes, or sports cars, or shares, for example – will be some £140 billion.
Such a massive figure dwarfs the entire annual NHS budget and equates to an average potential windfall of £25,000 for each pension saver over the age of 55.
Britain, the Prime Minister says, is just days away from becoming “a country where it pays to save”.
“These pension reforms are very profound and fundamental,” he says. “They are about trusting people who have worked hard and saved all their lives to spend their own money as they choose and I believe in trusting people profoundly.
“I want a country where it pays to work hard, it pays to save. It pays to put aside money for your future and where we trust you, you are trusted to spend that money as you choose for your future.”
Mr Cameron concedes, though, that another coalition reform will be less popular for some pension savers.
The lifetime allowance for savings is being capped at a less generous, lower level of £1 million, which is a reduction from £1.25 million, and represents an effective tax rise for thousands of people on final salary pensions.
“This affects something like the most wealthy four per cent of the country in terms of people saving for a pension,” Mr Cameron says. “We have to make sure we are using the pension tax relief that we give wisely, and so I think a lifetime allowance of £1 million, rather than £1.25million is fair and reasonable.”
LOVE AND MARRIAGE
The Prime Minister also promises to pursue new tax cuts for married couples if the Tories win power in May.
After a typically tortured coalition struggle, Mr Cameron eventually persuaded Mr Clegg in 2013 to let him announce a transferrable tax allowance for married couples. The tax break, which comes into force in April, will be worth up to an extra £212 a year for married couples.
Happiest memory? "The birth of Florence" (Photo:PA)
However, the bonus is relatively small, and it will not apply to higher rate taxpayers earning more than £42,385 a year. Does Mr Cameron want to extend the tax break if he is back in Number 10?
“Yes. I am very proud to have kept my commitment to introduce the married couples' tax allowance. I think it will prove very popular,” he says. “I think it’s absolutely right that we recognise marriage in the tax system properly and I would like to see that expanded.”
What about the Prime Minister’s own married life? Will he and Samantha – a successful businesswoman in her own right as well as his chief source of counsel and support - be able to keep up their habit of regular “date nights” during the next frantic weeks before the election?
“I think that will probably be a bit testing,” he says. “I think there won’t be much time for some of those things.
“Samantha’s going to be on the campaign trail with me. She has also got other things she has to do, including making sure the children make it to school every day.”
How does he cope with what must be sometimes intolerable pressures of the job? “I do try to make sure that [I] don’t get exhausted. I try to get a decent amount of sleep. I try to spend some time with my family.
“My view is, the most important thing as Prime Minister is trying to make the right judgments. In order to make good judgments, you need good advice, you need good principles and you need a clear head and you need to have a sense of equilibrium.”
ELEMENTS OF CHAOS
Equilibrium is the precise opposite of what he sees in his political opponents. True to the Tories’ core message scripted by the party’s election strategist, Lynton Crosby, the Prime Minister groups the other leaders together under the same single banner of “chaos”.
When pushed to say what he sees when he examines his rivals, Mr Cameron gives the kind of response which goes down well with Tories in the Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions.
“When I look at them collectively, I see chaos.”
As individuals? "Elements of chaos that, if combined, could create total chaos”.
So what is his verdict on each? “Salmond: definitely chaos. Miliband: leader of chaos. Farage: potential contributor to chaos and Clegg, could go either way, but chaos too.”
He adds: “We are on the brink of doing something really special in this country, which is recovering from not just an appalling recession but also recovering from a situation where we were pursuing the wrong values. It was easy to sit on welfare and not work.
“The wrong values are being replaced by the right values. That is what I find really satisfying about this job. We are changing the country for the better. But the job isn’t finished, which is why I want to serve another term.”
Quickfire Cameron: Five years in Number 10
Happiest memory? “The birth of Florence. It was a lovely day in Cornwall, when she popped out and coming back to Downing St with her was a very precious memory. She is now four years old so has grown up here.”
Saddest moment? “Writing letters to families who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan or hostage situations. Those are the most difficult decisions and I feel a big responsibility.”
Best memory as PM? “The Olympics. That magic Saturday night of watching Mo Farah and Jess Ennis. That was an amazing night. The whole thing was a magical experience for the country.”
Worst moment of coalition? “There was a very straight deal which is we would give them a referendum on the Alternative Vote and they would agree to the boundary changes which were good for democracy. They ratted on that deal. For me that was the low point .