Q & A with David Cameron: Why Britain Needs a 'Compassionate Conservative'

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TIME: But a trigger issue was the question of which grouping the Tories sit with in the European parliament…

David Cameron: Yes, that's an important issue. I said the Conservative Party shouldn't sit with the European People's Party in the European Parliament after 2009, after the next elections, because at the end of the day, although there are many things we agree with the EEP about in terms of economy and immigration, we don't agree about the fundamental issue about the future direction of Europe, and I think we'd be better, as I've always said, as friendly neighbors rather than reluctant tenants. That's why we're going to establish a new group in the European Parliament with likeminded Conservative parties after 2009. This issue of the constitution rather proves my point that it's going to be promoted by a number of people who sit in the European People's Party, and we will be staunchly against it.

TIME: The polls currently show you firmly ahead of Labour, but not by a large enough margin to avoid a hung parliament, which means that every vote will count. The British press, particularly its tabloid newspapers and especially the Sun, are credited with influencing the outcome of previous elections. How important is it to you to win their endorsements?

David Cameron: If you're trying to win an election, you want endorsements from everybody. We live in a different environment to a decade ago. People's consumption of media is completely different. I was doing an interview last night on BBC Online, which now has 4 million daily users. The Internet, television, the proliferation of news and other channels on the TV, changes in the way people read newspapers and online, I think, have weakened the importance of any one specific endorsement. But of course I'd like everyone to endorse the Conservative Party — but I believe you've got to do what you think is right and explain to people what you're going to stand for, and then let people make up their own minds. I didn't win the leadership of the Conservative Party because I was backed by lots of newspapers. I won the leadership of the Conservative Party because I had the right ideas about changing the party. And I think it's the same when it comes to changing the country.

TIME: You're putting some faith in the power of new media, with your Webcameron web site. You've described Gordon Brown [who is expected to lead the Labour Party in the next election] as an "analog politician in a digital age."

David Cameron: Yes. He's a politician whose approach I just find very stuck in the past. It's all about top-down big government solutions, and if you look at the tax credit system, the NHS computer, the national ID card scheme, this belief in big government solutions solving the problems of the world. I just take a totally different view. Compared with Labour's state control, what we need is what I call social responsibility, which is trusting professionals to run our public services more, trusting parents to bring up their children more, trusting business to tackle some of the big issues of environmental and social problems more, and a greater trust in local government and civic leaders — so the four pillars of social responsibility being civic responsibility, corporate responsibility, personal responsibility and professional responsibility. It's a different approach to this belief in top-down solutions.

TIME: That sounds very much in tune with the [more left-leaning] Guardian readership. You're occupying much of the ground that has been occupied by Labour.

David Cameron: I think it cuts across. It's not a leftwing thing or a rightwing thing. I think it's quite a Conservative idea because it's about trusting people and saying that if you trust people with more decisions over their lives and greater responsibility, they will be stronger and society will be stronger. That's quite a Conservative idea. But this also does resonate with people on other parts of the political spectrum who don't believe in big government and who want a richer civic society. If you look at the role of voluntary bodies and social enterprises, they've got a huge contribution to make in tackling some of the most entrenched social problems, whether it's drug abuse or family breakdown or poor housing or lack of educational attainment. And I think that does resonate with people right across the political spectrum because they see that themselves.

TIME: You've said you intend to move towards a more consensual style of politics. That would be unfamiliar in this country.

David Cameron: It has been unfamiliar for the last few decades because there was a great division between the parties. When I grew up in the 1980s, there was this great division between the center right and the left. We wanted to be part of NATO and to deploy cruise missiles. They wanted to leave NATO and unilaterally disarm. We wanted to privatize state-run industries. They wanted to nationalize the top 100 companies. We wanted to reform the trade unions. They wanted to give more power to the trade unions. There were huge, ideological divisions. That has changed. With Blair, the left has accepted much of the settlement that we're a free market economy with good public services but an enterprise culture and all of that, and part of NATO and believe in strong defense. He's bought all of that, so it is a different world we're in. People want their politicians to live in the real world and not pretend there are divisions where there aren't any and so to operate in a more reasonable and sensible way. Now there are plenty of things we don't agree about. Between me and Gordon Brown, as I've said, there's a big division between his belief in state control and my belief in social responsibility, but in terms of facing Blair there have been times when I've helped him to get legislation through the House of Commons, like the schools bill. It was a good bill, gave schools some extra independence and I was happy to get it through the House of Commons — and without my help, it wouldn't have got through because his left wing wanted to stop it.

TIME: You won't have minded that your help served to highlight Blair's difficulties with members of his own party. Did it cause problems in your own ranks?

David Cameron: It was one of the first big things that happened last year that established a slightly new approach for the Conservative Party that initially some people were uneasy about — but then they saw the sense. This is positive politics, you're getting something done, you're sticking to your principles. It ended up actually being intensely embarrassing for the government because they were relying on us to pass their legislation. So, in the end the message came out: if you want a united party that knows about public service reform, that's the Conservative Party. Alternatively there's the Labour Party, deeply divided, it can't deliver public service reform. So it was an interesting moment in British politics.

TIME: People are anticipating a much bigger division in style, if not in substance, when you're facing Gordon Brown.

David Cameron: I don't really know him very well, and I don't know what his approach will be like. He seems more …there's less light and shade than with Blair. So I think probably there will be a bit of a contrast, but we'll see.

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