With the days counting down to the crunch June 23 vote, Mr Cameron visited the West Sussex County Times offices, in Horsham, taking questions from reporters and editor-in-chief Gary Shipton.
Topics ranged from democracy of the EU, controlling immigration, Conservative Party ‘personality clashes’ and perceived negativity of the campaign so far.
He said: “My message is don’t risk it. We can have the best of both worlds staying in the single market, out of the single currency, an ability to get things done in Europe and still being a great country in Great Britain.
“That to me is the right choice on June 23. Whatever you do, don’t leave it to someone else.”
The Prime Minister spent the day travelling across Sussex, Surrey and Oxfordshire, meeting undecided Conservative voters.
See below for the full question and answer session.
In today’s Daily Telegraph, which as you know is a Tory-supporting newspaper, there are reports of Conservative donor and major pensions expert Edi Truell planning on quitting the party because of the campaign on pensions and he says this is the final straw. Is this true?
Cameron: I don’t know, I certainly know the guy well. He is a bright guy, he has very strong views on Europe as far as I recall, but we are making a very simple case, which is if you vote to weaken your economy, which most economists agree a vote to come out does, you weaken your pension system, and also you weaken your ability to pay future pensions.
We have a very generous triple lock in this country, 2.5 per cent wages or prices, whichever is the highest, and that does become unaffordable if your economy does not grow properly.
If you leave your leading market you put your economy at risk and if you put your economy at risk you put your pensions at risk.
On the subject of the economy Lord Bamford and James Dyson, two great innovators, have come out in favour of Brexit. Why are they wrong?
Cameron: They are two industrialists but if you look at the overwhelming majority of Britain’s largest employers and companies they are all in favour of remain. In fact if you look at small businesses, according to the Federation of Small Businesses, the majority of their members want to stay. I think the reason they are wrong is this point about access to the single market.
You have got it today from the President of the European Council who said that if Britain votes to leave we have to leave and then negotiate a trade deal, so we would have a period where we go to WTO, World Trade Organisation, rules that would mean ten per cent tariffs on all British made cars. That would mean tariffs on British made shoes or clothes, it would mean tariffs on beef and lamb.
It is a really bad outcome for Britain, and Anthony Bamford I know very well, James Dyson I know well, but I’m not worried about their jobs. I’m worried about the jobs of hard-working people in Britain whose businesses rely on unfettered access to a market of 500 million people
You said on the Andrew Marr Show yesterday that Brexit was not just about leaving the EU, it was about leaving the single market?
Cameron: It is, definitely, the leave campaign say that, so you have got now the leave campaign saying if we leave the EU we are leaving the single market and they want a trade deal with it. The EU itself is now saying that’s what would happen. We would leave and then have to negotiate a trade deal. Even if you think you are going to get a good trade deal the best one that there is outside Europe at the moment is the Canada deal. It took seven years and it still hasn’t been completed.
You could be looking at seven to ten years, the first seven to ten years of your working life being dominated by what’s Britain’s relationship with Europe, what’s our trade deal with Europe, and what’s our trade deal with 53 other countries we have trade deals with around the world.
That’s a bad position to put your economy in. We want certainty moving forward as part of a single market rather than moving backwards.”
You have repeatedly said in different contexts while you have been Prime Minister that the first duty of a Prime Minister is to keep its people and its country safe. Given all the risks that you have outlined of the Brexit option, why did you call a referendum in the first place and why have you committed yourself to implementing its outcome?
Cameron: I think it was time to hold one. We have not had one for 40 years. Referendums have been promised and withdrawn and it was time to put this question and have it answered and I put that in my manifesto, conducted a renegotiation, and now we’re keeping that important promise and I think that’s the right thing to do, but just because I promised a referendum does not mean I do not have a very strong and passionate view about what the right answer is.
People can understand why you can’t control immigration from within the EU, but we can control immigration from outside the EU. Why is the level of immigration from outside the EU more than tens of thousands?
Cameron: I think it demonstrates that even when you have the levers in your hands, it’s quite difficult to determine, because for instance you have rules of family reunion, which are in part determined by the courts, as well as by the politicians. We obviously have this as a short-term issue. We are saying we want more foreign students to come to Britain to come and study, that puts the figures up in the short-term but actually at the end of their studies the overwhelming majority go home, so that will net out over time but at the moment you are seeing a rising trend of people coming to study and pay to come to British universities, which I think is good for our country.
But it does demonstrate there is immigration in a modern economy, there are big movements of people out and there are big movements of people in and trying to get the right net position is quite challenging.
Do you think we’ll ever get to net migration in the tens of thousands?
Cameron: I do yes, because as recently as 2008 the number of British and EU nationals leaving Britain to go to Europe and the number of EU nationals coming to Britain was actually a slight minus, so there was less than zero net migration, so if that were to happen again, which I think it will over time because the other European economies are starting to grow, then I think you just need to do better at controlling outside-EU migration where I think there’s more we can do, so yes I do.
You said at the start of the campaign you would not make it a blue-on-blue fight but Amber Rudd, our own Hastings MP on TV last week, made a number of comments about Boris Johnson, the only figure he was interested in was Number Ten and the party issue, do you disassociate yourself from those comments?
Cameron: They’re lively these things. I’ve done these TV debates, they are always lively debates and I thought Amber gave a very good account of herself.
I’m going to focus on arguments, facts, figures and the personalities will not, hopefully, pass my lips in the remainder of this campaign.
If you started the campaign again is there anything different you or your side would have done?
Cameron: No, not particularly. I think there’s a balance of positives: ‘stronger, safer, better off’, and risk, don’t take risks with the economy, and I think that’s right. I think we need to do more to demonstrate the breadth of the coalition. The Prime Minister does not have to hog the limelight. We have the Green Party, the Labour Party, the trade unions. I think getting a very strong voice from all of them is important because the breadth of the coalition is really quite striking.
There’s been a lot of speculation about the possibility of a European army should we remain. What is your view on that is that a possibility?
Cameron: No, we have a veto, so if someone suggested Britain should be part of a European army or something like that we can say no, we have a veto. We exercised it a couple of years ago when they suggested having a European military headquarters and we vetoed that.
But European countries should work together to tackle problems, sometimes under the umbrella of NATO as we are doing in the eastern Mediterranean, sometimes as part of an EU mission but all volunteering to join together. We did that actually off the coast of the Horn of Africa where we wanted to stop pirates taking our ships hostage and it’s been a fantastic success. Piracy is right down we have arrested most of the pirates and have them tried and imprisoned and our ships and our goods are safely navigating those waters.
So working together, yes, European army no, and it’s under our control.
Isn’t it time to make a positive case for remaining in the EU rather than worrying about the dangers of leaving?
Cameron: I think we need to do both.
This is a huge choice for our country. The positive case is that we are stronger as a country if we stay in, we are safer from terrorism because we work with others and there’s strength in numbers, and we’re better off because we are part of a market of 500 million customers.
Those are all very positive reasons, but I think it would be wrong as Prime Minister not to warn of the dangers to our economy, to jobs, to prices, to livelihoods were we to leave. I want us to wake up on June 24 knowing that there’s going to be more investment, more jobs, more opportunities. I don’t want to wake up on June 24 and find that we’ve given ourselves a self-inflicted wound to our economy and a potential decade of uncertainty that could wreck the life chances of young people in our country.
Can you see a time when Britain joins the Euro?
Cameron: No. Never. And I rarely say never in politics but I don’t think we need to. We are the fifth-biggest economy in the world, so we can have our own currency.
We learnt an important lesson from our membership of the exchange rate mechanism that flexibility for a county and an economy of our size and having your own currency to set your own interest rates for your own needs is important.
Third, the Euro is partly a political project.
The countries that joined, they wanted the Euro to be part of a more integrated Europe and I don’t think that’s what Britain wants.
We are, as Churchill put it, not ‘of Europe, we are with Europe’ and I think that’s the way we should think about it. We should be there for cooperation and working together but our membership is different. I don’t think we will ever join because I don’t think we have to, I don’t think it would be right for us and I don’t think it’s the sort of Europe we want to be in. We want to be in the trading, cooperating working together bit but with very much a British flavour to it and I think that’s what we get.
Isn’t it true that the EU is hugely undemocratic because the European Commission is unelected?
Cameron: It’s democratic in one way in that the sovereign body is the Council of Ministers which I sit on, which sets the agenda and appoints the Commission president and it’s democratic in the way we have a European Parliament, in which we can call the commission to account and you have got MEPs here.
But I don’t want it to be like a country, so when people say it’s not democratic enough I think, no, it would be good if it were more transparent, good if it was more open but what I want it to be is an organisation that Britain is a member to get the cooperation and the economic benefits and the greater power in the world we want but I don’t want it to be like a country.
I don’t think we should want it to have a new democratic constitution. I think that would be the wrong approach. We want to keep it as inter-governmental as possible but more openness, more transparency is a good idea.
In event of BREXIT and money was freed up that we would have every week, how much would you put into health and social care?
Cameron: I don’t think there is any money to be freed up. You have got the £350million. That is total nonsense which doesn’t include the rebate - money that never goes to Brussels in the first place - and also it doesn’t include what comes back and is given to universities, poorer areas of the country and farmers. Our net contribution is about one penny out of every pound we pay in tax, something like £7-8billion a year.
But if you look at all the expert bodies, the IFS, National Institute, they are all saying the effect of leaving would damage our economy and make it smaller.
A smaller economy, fewer jobs, less tax revenues.
There is actually a cost to leaving. This idea you could take the membership fee and give it to someone else I think is a total fiction. I think we’d probably have a smaller economy and less tax revenues and be thinking about what cuts we have got to make or what taxes to put up.
I don’t think there is any dividend. The dividend is for staying. If we woke up on June 24 and we are in, I think we will see investors saying ‘Britain has made up its mind, let’s create more jobs and invest in this country because the uncertainty is at an end’.
How easy is it now to deport someone who is a criminal?
Cameron: If they are a criminal and they have committed a crime it’s actually easier inside the EU than outside because we have the European Arrest Warrant.
We have got rid of 7,000 criminals in Britain who were wanted by other European countries. They have gone and we have got 1,000 back. That’s easier.
The thing that is about to get a lot easier is getting rid of European prisoners.
There are a lot of Europeans in our jails and we now have a prisoner transfer agreement directive. It’s fantastically difficult for the rest of the world. I have been to Nigeria and Jamaica and all sorts of places trying to get them to take back their prisoners. It’s incredibly hard work.
Then there’s the question about someone who commits an offence and you want to deport them.
We are still subject to the European Convention on Human Rights which is actually outside the European Union and if our courts believe someone is going to be inhumanely or unfairly treated it is difficult.
That is frustrating and is something I am trying to change outside the European Union. We want to write our own British Bill of Rights so we make the judgement in the British courts about whether you can deport someone. The situation in Europe is getting better and would be worse if we left.
If we do vote to leave what would be the impact in the short-medium term on interest rates?
Cameron: Short-term I think there is a danger they would go up. If we absent ourselves from the single market of 500million people we are going to be a poorer country as a result. That’s obvious.
Trade less, make less, sell less, employ less - not a good thing to do.
If you think you are going to be poorer in the future what happens is your markets get marked down straight away and that’s why people predict a decline in the pound if we are to leave. If we have a decline in the pound there would be a risk of interest rates going up and banks might feel their loan books are less safe if the economy suffers a shock.
I think the forecast is interest rates will go up. And if young people think house prices there will be a decline in house prices which will be good and they will get on the housing ladder, actually mortgage rates go up and houses become less affordable.
My message is don’t risk it. We can have the best of both worlds staying in the single market, out of the single currency, an ability to get things done in Europe and still being a great country in Great Britain.
That to me is the right choice on June 23. Whatever you do, don’t leave it to someone else.
It’s not like a general election where you can vote one lot in and if you get fed up with them kick them out five years later. This is, I think, probably a vote for all our lifetimes. Conversely people say if you vote to stay in you’re stuck in I don’t think that’s true.
If you vote to get out, that’s it, you’re out. If we vote to stay in and in 10 years, 20 years’ time we took a different view, that this organisation is changing now and we don’t want to be part of it, that’s always there.
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