Cameron press conference as-it-happened

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By Ian Dunt

11:12 – A few minutes to go until the conference gets going, with Europe expected to dominate the agenda. Rumours over Tony Blair’s EU presidency continue to dominate conversation in Westminster, and a Czech court decision today may result in the Tories being denied their chance to offer Britain a referendum on the Lisbon treaty.

11:18 – Cameron arrives looking suitably sprightly. He tells everyone how successfully he is setting the agenda. He mentions cuts to the Territorial Army and poverty. He’s clearly satisfied with the reception the passages of his conference speech on poverty got. The focus is on instances where benefits pay more than work. He’s asked Osborne to lead a new programme to look for a solution to this problem.

11:20 – Apparently the Tories have been leading on correcting the political system. Funny how we heard nothing about this during party conference season – from any of the parties, really – but that now parliament’s back and they’ve been reminded of the public anger, leaders have to address the issue again. They never look like they enjoy it. All Tory peers will be asked to certify clearly which residence is their main home. “We are a modern, progressive Conservative party,” he says, once again.

11:22 – He wants to give people “confidence that we can in government make change happen”. He thinks ministers can only accomplish change if they know what they want to achieve. Ever member of the shadow Cabinet needs to think now about their reform priorities. He wants to hold them accountably for if the party wins the next election. Interesting tactic. It’ll be transparent, he insists.

11:25 – First question goes to the Sun’s departing political editor, who’s about to go to the dark side and do PR. “It’s something you could tell me about,” he tells Cameron. He asks about the Tories financial message yesterday, when George Osborne spoke out, rather tepidly, about bankers’ bonuses. Cameron says the move is about getting lending going, rather than bashing bankers. “People do feel a bit more hopeful about the outlook for our economy,” he tells the gathered journalists.

11:27 – Nick Robinson for the BBC – How is Cameron setting the agenda, when he’ll be impotent to stop Lisbon or a Blair presidency? Cameron reiterates his opposition to the treaty. “If it becomes clearer this treaty will be ratified, we’ll have to talk about what we’re going to do about that.” He says he opposes an EU president in the abstract, and he doesn’t support Blair in that role “even if there is a president”.

11:29 – Cameron says he wants a Europe that’s about cooperation, rather than just passing powers around. “The problem Europe has is actually about political will. The rhetoric of Europe outstrips the reality of Europe,” he argues. He thinks there’s not enough political will, and too much talk.

11:30 – Every week, Cameron accuses Brown of not giving straight answers at PMQs so let’s see if he can give one on Europe, a journalist says. Will there be a referendum on Lisbon? He reiterates the previous line: definitely if it’s not ratified, possibly if it is. Would Cameron urge Merkel or Sarkozy to reject a Blair presidency? Cameron says everyone knows what the Conservatives think and there’s nothing to add.

11:32 – Has he personally lobbied any European politicians on the issue? “I have the novel approach of having a shadow foreign secretary who I trust and William has made the position very clear. Any European politician who asks me has a very clear idea of where we stand.” Will Cameron repeat the Hague phrase that it would be a ‘hostile act’ for Europe to pick Blair? Cameron is answering lots of question he doesn’t want to answer here. “I support everything William has done on this question.” Evasive. He’s pushed on it. Does he deny Hague used the phrase? “I think I’ve made my position clear.”

11:36 – There’s relief on his face when the questions stray from Europe. He answers a question on welfare. Not so great when he’s asked about ‘Dave’s faves’ -people appointed to the Lords so they can work with government. That phrase is the early contender for a replacement to ‘Tony’s cronies’ and ‘Brown’s goats’. Cameron says he is in favour of a predominantly elected House of Lords.

11:38 – Cameron looks ever so slightly nervous, but then I wrote that about him during the party conference speech and no-one seemed to agree. He answers on by-election rules, which will apply from January. There’s been a bit of controversy on this since he announced his support for all-women short lists last week.

11:41 – More on Europe. Why would a foreign EU president better protect British interests than Blair? Cameron reiterates his opposition to the presidency. But if it is happening, he wants someone who wants to be chairman, not some “all singing, all dancing president”. Another question on Europe. If he was prime minister how much of a nightmare would a Blair presidency be for him? Cameron sips his water every time he doesn’t like the question. He assures the journalists he would work with anyone he needs to work with, “but I don’t think it’s the right step forward for Britain, and I don’t think it’s the right step forward for Europe”.

11:43 – He’s asked if he would debate on TV with Nick Griffin. Cameron says no. He spoke to people in his constituency about the Question Time programme. He says most agreed it should have happened, but thought Question Time was the wrong forum. He agrees with all that. There are more comments on candidates being selected for local campaigns, and he is asked much resistance there is to central HQ intereference. “I’m not sure I can entirely give you the assurance you want,” he says. He argues for a rapid procedure which gets candidates in place quickly, but ensures a mix of people. The party chairman’s views and HQ’s views are put forward, but the decision is for the constituency.

11:46 – There will be two more all postal primaries, he announces. Cameron is drilled on immigration, with claims he doesn’t like talking about it. The suggestion is he’s secretly soft, or disinterested, in it. He doesn’t accept that, and cites a long speech he gave on the issue. He backs his policy of a cap on non-EU immigration. He says he favours immigration, but that the level has been too great recently.

11:49 – More on quantitative easing. He said during the conference speech it would have to stop. “I think people read too much into that,” he says. He rows back a little and says obviously it won’t last forever. “It has to stop at some stage. How it comes to an end will be a matter for the Bank of England.” When Cameron left the EPP grouping did he think he would land in so much trouble for his new allies? Cameron says it’s a “political campaign” from people who wanted the Tories in the EPP. “I see this as a totally politically driven campaign.” Michal Kaminski, leader of the Tories in Europe, is not a homophobe or a racist, he says.

11:53 – What specifically does Cameron have against Blair? Is it simply that he would be a Labour politician that was still around. Cameron is visibly exasperated. “I’ll set it out again,” he says. He reiterates his opposition to the post existing, and says Blair would lead it down the path of greater statehood. “It’s about your conception of what the job involves,” he continues. Someone suggests that what he wants is that whoever does the job does it badly. “No, not badly,” he replies.

11:55 – What message does he have for Alex Salmond and his claim London will dance to a ‘Scottish tune’. Cameron says Salmond only says this stuff because he knows he is irrelevant in a British general election. “Alex Salmond isn’t even standing in this election,” he goes on.

11:56 – More on Blair. He’s asked what such a talented, experienced man should do for his retirement instead. “I’ve got so much to think about in my life, that worrying what Tony Blair is doing in his retirement is quite far down the list.” Cameron is asked on Lord Heseltine’s comments that Cameron will eventually have to go back to the EPP. Cameron gets a little vague, and repeats his argument about political will.

12:00 – For the millionth time, Cameron is asked if Lord Ashcroft has tax status in Britain. For the millionth time, he pretends it’s a matter for Lord Ashcroft. OK, that’s it for this month. See you next month for Cameron’s appearance in front of the cameras and see you tomorrow for our regular prime minister’s question time section.