Cameron on Cornwall, cuts and the coalition
David Cameron must have thought he had Cornwall sewn up.
Within weeks of sweeping to power, the Prime Minister reversed Labour's tax on cider (a bigger coup for Somerset, admittedly), took his summer holiday in the north of the county and bestowed his newborn, Cornish daughter with a Cornish middle name. So far, so good.
David and Samantha Cameron with Florence Rose Endellion Cameron, who was born at Royal Cornwall Hospital in August and was given a Cornish middle name as a result
David Cameron chatting with local residents as he looks at flood-damaged property at Mevagissey in Cornwall earlier this month. He has come under fire for cutting funding for flood defence schemes
But faced with Cornish anger about a controversial plan to create a new constituency that straddles Devon, Mr Cameron jokingly dismissed the importance of the Tamar river – the natural border between the two counties since, some suggest, 936.
"It's the Tamar, not the Amazon, for Heaven's sake," the Prime Minister quipped as, unknown to him, a television camera rolled.
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The unguarded comment went down like a poke in the eye. Two months later and Mr Cameron is anxious to play down the remark.
"What I meant, of course, is that it's bigger," he explained to the Western Morning News at Downing Street when asked whether he stood by his words.
"There's no bigger supporter of Cornwall in the Government than me. I'm passionate about Cornwall, it's one of the most wonderful places in the United Kingdom."
But he acknowledges the tension constitutional reform has caused. That there is a "tough argument to win".
A cross-border constituency – dubbed Devonwall – is the increasingly likely result of plans to reduce the overall number of MPs from 650 to 600. The two counties risk losing at least one seat between them and, despite attempts to add amendments to legislation, Cornwall has yet to win the argument that it is a special case.
Mr Cameron has made plain that reducing the number of MPs and making the size of constituencies the same is a key component of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, a centrepiece of the coalition Government agenda.
More so than Cornish national identity?
The Prime Minister said: "The point I was making about political representation is I want to make sure we have equal-size seats right across the country.
"I don't see why we shouldn't cross county boundaries – even if they are quite historic boundaries – because that is the way you ensure you get proper representation for everyone in Cornwall. If you don't do that you might end up with fewer MPs than you really deserve. I don't think that's good for Cornwall."
His argument is clear. The unsuccessful Cornish amendments to the Bill have included one that sacrifices an MP – dropping six elected members to five – in order to keep the border sacred.
"I know passions run high on this issue. What I said about the Tamar, I was just making the point that I want Cornwall to have proper political representation, and I think that means crossing county boundaries to make sure you get the right number of MPs. That will make Cornwall's representation stronger, not weaker, in my view."
Many would beg to differ. Scores took part in an anti-Devonwall demonstration on the Cornwall banks of the Tamar. There was even a hunger strike. Just last week, Lord Myners of Truro, the former Marks and Spencer chairman and City minister under Labour, said the boundary change "strikes at the heart of the identity of Cornwall". So are the Cornish being hysterical?
No, Mr Cameron says. "I think Cornish national identity is very powerful – people feel a great affinity with Cornwall. We're going to devolve a lot of power to Cornwall – that will go to the Cornish unitary authority. That's right, but I don't think it's impossible for a Member of Parliament to represent a part of Cornwall and a part of West Devon. I don't think it's impossible.
"If you do think it's impossible the result is you end up with fewer MPs in Cornwall. And I think that's perverse – I'd rather have more MPs in Cornwall, but obviously with one of them in some way crossing the Tamar."
He goes on: "Lots of people live in South East Cornwall but actually work in Plymouth. Lots of people live in North Cornwall and work over the border in North West Devon. So I don't think it's impossible to represent a part of Cornwall and a part of Devon. There are people in Parliament who represent part of a city and part of the country who cross other boundaries. I don't think this will be impossible. I think it can be done. I know this is a tough argument to win, but I will go on trying to make it."
The Prime Minister was in Cornwall only last week, the third time (including holiday) since the May general election. After flash floods wrought havoc on hundreds of homes and businesses in Mid Cornwall, Mr Cameron visited victims of the storms ahead of a NATO conference in Lisbon.
Predictably, he walked into another political firefight. Ministers have come under attack for cutting the budget for flood defences in the spending review, despite acknowledging that the risk of flooding increases each year.
But Mr Cameron has pointed out that at £2.1 billion over four years, money lavished on flood protection spending has been safeguarded to a greater extent than the vast majority of areas. Indeed, fellow ministers argue Labour would have done much the same.
There are other ways to fund flood defences beyond the state, he tells the Western Morning News: "I am very well aware in my own area that sometimes there is a good proposal for a bit of flood defence work and because it doesn't tick all the boxes it doesn't get any money. I think a more flexible system where you can get some money and then work out whether local authority or businesses, or whoever wants to contribute, can make up that money is a better way of making sure that more flood defence work goes ahead."
The strategic defence and security review (SDSR), in which the Prime Minister took a close personal interest, could also have long-term ramifications for the Westcountry. He stresses he wants Devonport to be a "proper naval base" and not a graveyard for nuclear submarines, despite the very real prospect of the base boasting just one major battleship in ten years' time. Investment in frigates, submarines and aircraft carriers is proof positive the Government cares about the Royal Navy.
There are still key decisions to be made on rationalising the military estate, operational bases and training facilities, which again could be significant for an area like the Westcountry where the military dominates. Will Dartmouth Naval College go? Are search and rescue helicopters to be sold off?
With these questions still to be resolved, he dismisses suggestions that the SDSR was rushed, despite many claims that key decisions on scrapping the landmark Harrier jump-jets were taken at the eleventh hour. That Britain will operate without an aircraft carrier and corresponding planes for the best part of a decade is a result of the "impossibly difficult situation" bequeathed by Labour.
"The previous Government had ordered two aircraft carriers without a proper idea of what planes it was going to put on them or how it was going to pay for them. And it also looked like they were going to go for an aircraft carrier that was completely inoperable with our closest allies: America and France. We've had to sort that whole problem out."
Keeping the Tornado fighter jets but scrapping the Harriers was the "big decision", he admits. "The fact is Britain is currently engaged in war in Afghanistan where the Tornado is the more capable aircraft. So those people who say if you had Harrier rather than Tornado you could have kept them on an aircraft carrier is completely wrong – they would have been predominantly in Afghanistan. And if Afghanistan is the priority, which it is, you should have the planes that are right for that."
He goes on: "I'm quite convinced we made the right decision – I accept it would have been an easier, simpler decision to say let's keep the current carriers so you've got no gap in capability from one thing to another. It's much easier to explain, it just happens to be militarily wrong. We would have been making a politically convenient decision, without having the proper military logic underlying it."
Many of the implications of the spending review will not be felt until well into next year. But Stephen Otter, chief constable of Devon and Cornwall Police, has already indicated that one in ten police officers will be axed as a result of the austerity measures.
But Mr Cameron contends forces can cope. "I think they can be more effective with a progressive reduction in some of their resources and that is going to be what happens, and that is the test for them."
Cutting paperwork and freezing police pay will ease the financial burden before frontline officers have to go, he argues. Police forces need to ensure "everything is in the teeth rather than the tail".
He said: "I think it is perfectly possible to deliver as good or possibly even better policing than we have now, with less money. But that is the test. So every police force has got to ask: have I done enough to civilianise back-office functions that don't require uniformed police officers? Have I done enough to share back- office bills with other neighbouring forces? Am I sharing my diver teams, my helicopter teams? Am I looking at how I can combine serious crime and other work with other forces?"
While the cuts have proved as unpopular as expected, it is Mr Cameron's Liberal Democrat partners who have taken most of the flak. This is writ large over tuition fee protests.
Mr Cameron said: "I pay tribute to the Liberal Democrats for the way they have approached this coalition and putting the national interest first. That has meant making some difficult decisions, because neither of us won the election outright.
"But I think they should be commended for doing the right thing, and as we get this economy growing again, we reform public services, devolve more power to people, as we restore people's civil liberties – these are both things both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats want to achieve and I think that's what the Government is doing. And they will get some credit for that."