David Cameron may be the Conservative party’s most successful leader since 1997, but doubts linger about whether he’s a traditional shire Tory or a liberal moderniserby Wendell Steavenson / April 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
Turn right off the Oxford ring road towards the middling, contented, unremarkable town of Witney. There’s a small industrial park on the outskirts, cul-de-sacs of anonymous new housing, rows of pretty stone textile workers cottages and a church with a tall storybook steeple. The high street is lined with the usual chain stores interspersed with Tudoresque pubs; the new Marriotts Walk shopping centre has a multiplex, with Starbucks coming soon. On Saturdays there is a market: tracksuits and fleeces, fruit and veg, pic ’n’ mix. Three old men with flying white hair and pinched March wind faces, one bent over an aluminium walking stick, rummage in a plastic bin for tweed flat caps.
There’s not much to complain about in Witney. One of the more contentious local issues this spring was the lack of allotments. The crime rate is one of the lowest in the Thames Valley (although there is plenty of disquiet in the Witney Gazette about the yobbishness in the town centre on a Saturday night), and the council tax is one of the lowest in the country. The credit crunch hit but glanced off: most people made redundant could find another job, if perhaps not as well paid.
Witney is one of the most rural parliamentary constituencies. The town is in the south; drive north, and you find yourself in England’s green and pleasant land. If the weather is good, sunshine will burnish the Cotswolds stone yellow and you can brave an outside table at one of the tea shoppes in the postcard-pretty towns of Banbury or Chipping Norton.
“We’ve got all the usual issues of rural life,” explained Barry Norton, leader of the West Oxfordshire District Council. “Services and facilities under threat: post offices, the village shop. We’re always fighting to get the ambulance response times to meet their targets.”
Shaun Woodward took over as Conservative MP for Witney in 1997, when Douglas Hurd retired. Married to a Sainsbury and ensconced in the stately Sarsden House (which he sold in 2006 for a reported £24m), he had seemed a good sort. But in 1999 Woodward crossed the floor and joined Labour, ostensibly in protest at his party’s illiberalism on gay rights. His sudden defection traumatised the local Tories.
Norton is also the consultant agent of the Witney Conservative Association. Sitting in their offices on the high street, he told me the selection committee “did not want to be let down again.” They wanted a committed conservative. “This is a constituency with a huge number of retired military people,” he said, (the RAF base of Brize Norton is a few miles outside town) “and they tend to be very Eurosceptic. They were not wanting someone on the Ken Clarke edge of things.”
David Cameron was the perfect candidate. Thirty-three years old, blandly handsome, energetic, articulate, easygoing and empathetic. Born in 1966, he grew up in the Old Rectory in the Berkshire village of Peasemore. His father was a third-generation partner in a City stockbroking firm, his mother a magistrate. He went to Eton, got a first in PPE at Oxford and married a baronet’s daughter. After university he joined the Conservative research department and rose swiftly up the ranks. He briefed John Major in the 1992 election and worked as a special adviser to Norman Lamont in the treasury (witnessing the 1992 sterling crisis) and to Michael Howard in the home office. In 1994, calculating that he needed to serve some time in the private sector, he took a job as communications director for Carlton Communications. He fought the Tory-held seat of Stafford but lost in the 1997 Labour landslide. He had experience, connections and charm and won selection, according to Barry Norton, “with flying colours.”
Cameron’s career can appear as a seamless rise. He entered parliament in 2001, unexpectedly seized the party leadership after its 2005 election defeat and then, for the first time since 1997, helped give the Conservative party a commanding poll lead and made it start to look like a plausible next government. Indeed, if not for the vagaries of the electoral system (and the Lib Dem surge after the first television debate) Cameron would be about to seal a simple victory march to Downing Street. Unlike Gordon Brown, he is markedly more popular than his party, but like Brown (and unlike Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher) he has risen from within his party’s mainstream.
And yet… for all his fresh-faced ebullience and competence, something seems to be missing. There’s a dislocation in people’s feelings about Cameron as an individual and Cameron as a potential prime minister. In particular, doubts remain about whether his comfortable conservatism and his elevated position within Britain’s old elite will hold him back from genuinely reforming both his party and his country.
In the run up to the election, as I talked to friends (Cameron’s and mine; some of which—full disclosure—we share), politicians and political analysts, I tried to fathom both his appeal and those lingering doubts. Who is David Cameron?
The confidence trick
“He’s got the star quality. He’s got the luck. The ball has bounced for him so many times,” said James Hanning, deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday.“But he also has the capacity to make his own luck,” he added, correcting his hindsight. Hanning is co-author, with Francis Elliott, of the (very good) 2007 biography Cameron: The Rise of the New Conservative. Cameron was seen as someone to watch early on—senior Tories noticed his talent, his intelligence, and were maybe beguiled by his ability to be “very good company.” They liked him: he seemed, even in his early twenties, to be one of them.
“I’ve always had the very highest opinion of him,” Michael Howard, former leader of the party, told me. “A couple of years ago I happened to be sitting next to his mother at a lunch party and she reminded me that I had said ten years previously that if it was possible to say of someone in their twenties—because luck plays such a large part—that he was going to be prime minister, I would say that of David.”
Cameron was a mediocre student. One report card from Heatherdown prep school, which Princes Edward and Andrew also attended, placed him bottom of the class. But at Eton he applied himself to his A-levels and hard work got him accepted by Brasenose College and then helped him to the top first of his year. Cameron’s politics tutor was Vernon Bogdanor, who said he was one of his most able students. They are still in touch. (“The last time I saw him he borrowed a book, The Boundaries of the State in Modern Britain—he still hasn’t returned it,” Bogdanor complained.) Cameron’s capacity to apply himself has been essential to his success. Several people remarked that he remembers almost everything he has read and that he is good at cutting through the guff. Danny Kruger, who was a speechwriter for another Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith, and then for Cameron, recalled a meeting during the 2005 election that got bogged down over immigration policy. “No one could make any sense of it. Michael [Howard] was getting annoyed and David just cut through the complications. He said: ‘These are the issues 1-2-3; we must make a choice.’ He completely clarified the situation.”
Interestingly, two of Cameron’s close friends used the swan metaphor. “Everything graceful on the surface and underneath he’s paddling furiously,” one remarked. “When we go and stay with him at the weekend I notice that he’s always up at 6am. I think that’s his secret. He’ll spend the rest of the day doing normal things, lounging around, because he’s already got three hours of emails in while you were asleep.”
There is something more than hard work and intelligence underpinning Cameron’s undeniable political talent. Almost everyone I talked to remarked on his confidence. “Immense self confidence,” “a kind of inner serenity,” “remarkably cool under pressure,” “completely unfazed,” “David is preternaturally calm,” “more confidence than anyone I’ve ever met.” There appear to be no emotional skeletons in the closet, no itch of insecurity to scratch, no chip on the shoulder, nothing to trigger a tetchy ego. Cameron doesn’t sweat the small stuff: polls, headlines, Westminster village squawking.
Danny Kruger has left politics and runs Only Connect, a prisoners’ rehabilitation charity (about which he wrote a Prospect column). “Among politicians I would say that about 90 per cent are doing it to expiate some wound, some hang-up, some neurosis. They’re trying to get over some deep scar, prove something to themselves or to their schoolfriends. But for a tiny number of politicians, including Tony Blair and Cameron, it’s the natural continuation of their previous success.”
Etonians don’t like to admit that the special atmosphere of the school—the way it encourages easy relationships between boys and masters and the power it gives older boys over younger ones—somehow gilds its graduates with an armour-plating of social confidence. But non-Etonians think they recognise that confidence and an ease that can appear bumptious or conceited. Kruger (himself an old Etonian) recalled of Cameron: “the first day he sat on the frontbench in the Commons he put his feet up on the big table. Cabinet ministers and shadow cabinet put their feet up all the time—but maybe not on their first day. Was it arrogance or was it just that he was totally comfortable?” Cameron has always been an institutional being: Eton, Oxford, the Conservative party, parliament, he understands the rules, written and unwritten, the corridor politics and how to navigate the hierarchies. Matthew d’Ancona, former editor of the Spectator, is a friend of his—they holidayed together during the 1990s in Tuscany (“I remember he sat by the pool reading prolifically, exuding confidence”). D’Ancona thought that Cameron’s self assuredness is so deeply inscribed in his psyche that “it transcends arrogance.”
But counterbalancing any perceived hauteur, Cameron has the virtue of likeability. The former Labour party lady mayor of Chipping Norton told me that Cameron helped cut through the red tape to get a clinic and hospice facility built after the old one was condemned. He even handwrote a card to her Mum on her 90th birthday. Witney is not a challenging constituency, but nonetheless Cameron is popular. He shows up, turns the Christmas lights on, cuts the ribbons, and runs the annual charity Chadlington Great Brook Run every year.
And not everything has gone to plan; life started to rough Cameron up a bit in the late 1990s. His defeat at Stafford in 1997—he was defending an 11,000 Tory majority—was a bitter blow. He had to return to his job at Carlton where, for another four years, he served under Michael Green, by all accounts an exacting master. Cameron made the rounds of selection for several seats, nearly always making the final cut, but never managing the cigar. According to Hanning and Elliott’s biography, his wife Samantha told him to tone down his smooth presentation—he was coming across as “too pat, too pre-baked.” By the time Witney came around he had learned to inject a little urgency and earnest outrage into his delivery.
Then, less than a year after his election in 2001, his first child, Ivan, was born with severe epilepsy and cerebral palsy. The Camerons were told their son would never speak, walk or feed himself and was very likely to die before reaching adulthood. The Camerons went to great lengths to make his life as full as possible; he was included in everything, from picnics to sledding. For the first time in his life Cameron had to rely on state services, spending long nights in the emergency room of St Mary’s Hospital in west London as his son suffered intense fitting, and fighting in vain for Ivan’s first special needs school to remain open. (Cameron was very impressed with the facility; he commented to one colleague that there was simply no equivalent private sector provision.)
How much the experience of Ivan and the exposure to public services changed Cameron’s political outlook is hard to determine. In a Channel 4 profile broadcast in March, he told Andrew Rawnsley in typically pragmatic English style: “I don’t believe in isms and was-isms and whatever else.” So what does he believe? And what sort of journey has he been on?
Shire Tory or liberal moderniser?
“Cameron is not an ideological conservative,” said Bogdanor. “He’s more like Harold Macmillan than Margaret Thatcher… he has small ‘l’ liberal instincts on matters like race, he’s a tolerant, liberal-minded person.” (Cameron was compared to Macmillan almost as often as to Blair by those I talked to.)
“His family are the sort of family that for hundreds of years has generated the kind of people who have taken their place in English society,” Michael Gove, shadow education secretary and former Times columnist, explained to me. (Gove is the adopted son of a fish merchant in Aberdeen.) “The chairman of the parish council, the deputy lord lieutenant, the magistrate on the bench, the leader of county-wide campaigns to raise money for the Red Cross, the local TA commander… Of course his family were materially comfortable, but the critical thing was that they had a particular set of values that has stood the test of time.” It’s a privileged upbringing that Cameron has never rebelled against or questioned.
In Danny Kruger’s description, Cameron grew up part of “a uniquely brilliant British thing: a home counties, upper middle-class family that wasn’t rich but never had to worry about money.” (Kruger is from the same happy stock.) Cameron then grafted west London gloss onto his home counties root stock. His lifestyle became a mix of traditional gentry and urban organic: plus fours to go stalking, eco windmill on the roof; weekend house parties in the Cotswolds, bicycling to work in a Gore-Tex jacket. He joined the gentlemens’ club White’s, like his father before him, but didn’t go often.
Samantha Cameron is a working mother, creative director for the upmarket stationers Smythson, but there’s no doubt he made a good social and political match as well as a love one. Her mother, Annabel, runs a designer furniture business and married Viscount Astor after divorcing Reginald Sheffield, Samantha’s father. Astor became broadcasting minister in John Major’s government, just a little after Cameron was hired by Green at Carlton. The Camerons’ constituency house in the prosperous hamlet of Dean is bang next to the estate of Lord Chadlington, the former PR guru, brother of John Gummer and president of the Witney Conservative Association, who contributed to Cameron’s leadership bid. The Camerons are, to all intents and purposes, the next generation of the establishment. Version 2.0 has the same intrinsic networking features of the old ruling class: only with cleaner, more contemporary interior design, less Victorian furniture, and more modern views on race and gender.
So is Cameron a traditional shire Tory or a liberal moderniser? He is certainly part of a milieu that is dominated by modernisers: people like Nick Boles, the openly gay prospective parliamentary candidate for the safe seat of Grantham and Stamford and founder director of the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange; Michael Gove, who was Policy Exchange’s first chairman; Ed Vaizey, formerly of the Conservative research department and now shadow arts spokesman; Rachel Whetstone, godmother to Ivan and former political secretary to Michael Howard; and her husband Steve Hilton, Cameron’s chief strategist. This group (many of whom Cameron knows from the Conservative research department) are the core of what Derek Conway MP called the Notting Hill set. They recognised that the country regarded their party “as a flat Earth sect, refugees from modern life” (as Matthew d’Ancona characterised the disconnect), and they wanted to reboot it.
But there isn’t much in Cameron’s early parliamentary career to suggest he was a militant moderniser. He secured a seat on the plum home affairs select committee and continued writing a self deprecatingly, funny and frank(ish) column for the Guardian website that he had begun on the campaign trail in 2001. His conscience flickered a couple of times, but it seems he was careful not to make an issue of it. In a three-line whip ordered by Duncan Smith in 2002, to block legislation to allow homosexual couples to adopt, Cameron abstained.
“The Tory party has been incredibly nice to Cameron from his very first contact with it,” Nick Boles is quoted as saying in Hanning and Elliott’s biography. “It’s given him the best opportunities that anyone of his age could have wished for. And so it took quite a lot for him to be able to admit to himself that the Tory party was in some way the problem.” Cameron worked hard on the party manifesto for the 2005 election. “It was partly the officer in him,” Gove told me, “I think a lot of the time he was defending things he didn’t believe in heart and soul, but he was defending the corporate body.”
The Conservatives made gains in the 2005 election, but a third defeat in a row brought the modernising agenda to the fore. Michael Howard announced that he would step down as leader, but reshuffled his front bench in the interim. Cameron let it be known to Howard that he was not interested in the potentially poisoned chalice of the shadow chancellorship, choosing the more “social” education portfolio instead. The treasury was taken by another bright young man from the 2001 intake, George Osborne. (Cameron and Osborne began to be noticed as an impressive pair from 2005, often compared with the young Blair and Brown.)
Cameron must have been thinking about making a leadership run because it was mentioned between friends and colleagues throughout the summer. It is less clear what he thought his chances were. He can be cunning, but does not appear Machiavellian. “There’s no trail of bodies,” said Hanning, “I don’t think he’s knifed anyone in the back.” Cameron’s campaign was run by Osborne, also part of the Notting Hill set and godfather to Cameron’s son Arthur. It was slow to ignite. Howard was sceptical about David Davis, the front-runner, and wanted the younger generation to take over but, as Vaizey remembered, “Davis was ahead by a country mile going into the party conference.” Famously, Cameron addressed the conference without notes, standing in front of a dispirited party and offering himself as its saviour. Davis, by contrast, gave what was probably the worst speech of his life. Was it luck, fate or a winning gamble of sheer nerve?
“The success of the campaign surprised me,” Vaizey admitted, looking back, along with “David’s ability to raise his game.” After two ballots of MPs and then a vote of party members, Cameron became leader on 6th December 2005.
“The party voted for Cameron because he seemed electable,” one backbencher told me plainly. Cameron recognised that too much of the Tory rhetoric was off-putting, and “detoxification” became a byword. Kruger said that it was an uncynical rebranding. “He just thought: we’re saying all this stuff which is so obviously out of step with the modern population. Let’s just change it.” The party’s old blue torch symbol was replaced by an impressionistically scribbled green tree and Tories began appearing in front of blue-sky backdrops. Cameron was the perfect person to bring about this change.
The Tory party has always moved with the times, and needs leaders who can do the same. In the 19th century it was the party of the aristocracy that extended the vote; in the 20th it was the party of empire that dismantled it. This is a Cameron strength—he’s one of them and they trust him to do the right thing, even if it’s not quite what the activists want.
“Only Nixon could go to China,” observed a think tanker who knows Cameron well. The party would take a bit of modernising from someone who was clearly deeply culturally Tory. “Only De Gaulle could withdraw from Algeria.” So there you have it—he was an old fashioned Tory and a moderniser.
The new Tory identity
In late March I went to Cameron’s first election rally, held in a brick-and-iron industrial space in Shoreditch, to the east of the City of London. The sea of faces was young and female and brown and black; I spotted a turban. Slices of “Gordon Brown’s porky pies” were handed out. After pumping music, Dave finally bounded in like a rock star and the crowd went wild. “It’s like the Hacienda!” said the activist next to me.
But despite all the new images—Cameron on his bike, posing with huskies in the Arctic, with his kids in their pushchairs on the Portobello Road—it is still unclear how deeply the changes have penetrated. Cameron looks and talks different: “vote blue: go green,” “there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state.” There is a sense that old Tory bugbears like Europe and crime have fallen off the speech card, but are lingering in the wings—Cameron’s rhetoric remains way to the left of his party and most of his MPs.
Liam Fox first coined the phrase “broken society” during his leadership campaign in 2005, and Iain Duncan Smith took it up subsequently in a speech to the 2007 party conference. It has since become one of the central planks of Cameron’s new Tory identity. “As much as Thatcher changed the economy,” Duncan Smith told the assembled faithful, “our duty is now to change society for the better.” The idea of a broken society that had to be mended by old-fashioned Conservative values of community and responsibility was a way to shift the perception of the party away from the folk memory of Thatcherite milk snatching. Cameron had joined the party in the heyday of Thatcherism and he must have subscribed to the free market ideas to some degree. “But not the whole way,” suspected Danny Kruger, who added, more tellingly, “he never goes the whole way on anything.”
Not being an ideologue, however, is not the same as not having ideals. Cameron is a fan of Lark Rise to Candleford, the BBC costume drama set in 19th-century Oxfordshire, and there’s a certain nostalgia wrapped up in the type of One Nation Toryism that he embodies. One right-wing commentator confused me by continually referring to Cameron as “the most English party leader we’ve had for a long time,” until I realised I knew exactly what he meant. At best, it is about duty, responsibility and an indefinable sense of decency—you can feel it in Cameron’s complaints about chain stores selling risqué clothing ranges for girls under ten, chocolate oranges “instead of real oranges” being placed too temptingly at point of sale in WH Smith, out-of-town superstores destroying the fabric of the high street. At worst, it is anachronistic paternalism.
In 2006, Cameron articulated the new spirit of the Tories in his hug-a-hoodie speech, in which he didn’t actually recommend hugging a hoodie, but instead said he thought they needed more love in their lives. A year later Garry Newlove, a father of three, was beaten to death after confronting the drunk teenagers who were vandalising his wife’s car. Perhaps to pander to the Daily Mail or to segue the headlines into his family-first doctrine, Cameron gave a press conference with Newlove’s widow. He stood in front of two slogans: “Strengthening Families” and “How to Mend Broken Britain,” and described the boys as “thugs who just couldn’t give a damn.”
It’s tempting to see these two positions as political shape-shifting. But most of us agree to some extent with both sides of the argument; violent teenagers do often come from dysfunctional backgrounds, yet while we sympathise we also feel threatened by them. Ironically, this is summed up by Blair’s battle cry: “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.”
Cameron truly believes that the family and the institution of marriage are the bedrock of society. Some Tories I spoke to rolled their eyes at the vagueness of it all. How can you legislate for what goes on inside people’s homes? How do you impose social responsibility? How will this “big society” idea of community and volunteerism be implemented?
The Shepley playgroup committee speaks
Eighteen months ago, Cameron and his team might have thought they only needed to keep their heads down and their message upbeat, and the tide would turn after 13 years of Labour; three of them under an opaque, awkward PM who is better at spouting figures than connecting with the electorate. But the global crisis, which once seemed to have sealed Brown’s fate, flattened out at the end of 2009. People began to breathe more easily, the polls narrowed, and then the campaign success of the Liberal Democrats further confused the picture.
In late March I drove up to Holmfirth in the Colne Valley, south of Huddersfield, to see Cameron give his 68th Cameron Direct, a town hall meeting where he answers questions from the floor. The area is relatively prosperous, with people commuting from its pretty old mill towns as far as Manchester. Last of the Summer Wine is filmed around here. With a 1,500 Labour majority, it is the kind of marginal constituency that the Conservatives have to win. The crowd that gathered in the auditorium of the Holmfirth High School was mostly grey haired and many men wore ties beneath their jumpers. “It’s a bit like the Rotary Club,” joked the nice man I sat next to, who has his own company providing forestry training. He said that business is “embarrassingly good” on the back of the new health and safety regulations, but still complained that “the majority of the money is being taken by the bureaucrats.”
The local conservative candidate, Jason McCartney, did the warm-up and then Cameron, slightly out of breath, as if he’d just run all the way up from London, bounded onto a small stage. He wore a suit without a tie and took his jacket off and hung it on the back of a chair next to a small table on which his customary two glasses of water had been set out.
Audience members had written out their questions and read them with clear, earnest Question Time voices. They wanted to know about the price of the pound, what he was going to do about welfare dependents, post office closures, too many foreign cars, a referendum on EU membership, police on the beat, the high-speed rail link to the north, and Britain’s relationship with the US. He was asked why he did the Trevor McDonald special, if he is opposed to single-parent families and if he will send his kids to private school. A retired engineer bemoaned the decline of manufacturing, the wife of a pensioner in a wheelchair wanted to know why people who become disabled after 65 don’t receive mobility allowance, a magistrate worried about crime and disorder in city centres.
Cameron answered each question with a tone of frank certainty. He galloped smoothly through his soundbites, ad-libbing easily, fashioning honesty out of necessity: “I’m afraid I’m not going to give you the answer you may be hoping for—” He kept up a patter of jocular friendliness, working the crowd like a popular professor in a Hollywood movie. The audience laughed; many of them called him David.
“He prowls the stage like an alpha-grade modern political performer,” said Matthew d’Ancona. “Like Björn Borg he rarely messes up the big shots; there are no unforced errors.” That’s his job after all. An opposition leader talks and, five years into it, he’s well practised.
But Cameron’s clean unhesitating delivery can be a little slick—as Samantha complained—and he can seem to coat every sentence with Teflon. The week before, a few days after the polls had started narrowing and most of central office were panicking (one Tory texted me a single word: “fraught”), I watched him present his economic policy, accompanied by George Osborne and Ken Clarke, at Thomson Reuters in Canary Wharf. It had just been made public, after months of stonewalling, that the deputy chairman of the party, Lord Ashcroft, is (as everyone had already deduced) registered as a non-dom and does not pay tax on money he earns outside Britain. After the presentation Cameron was asked about Ashcroft. He batted the question away, as if it were a mild irritant. “I’m sorry for spoiling all the fun,” he said, alluding to the pantomime of you-have-to-ask-but-I-couldn’t-be-expected-to-answer and goes on to say that he is pleased that this question has now been answered. And that, his voice firmly authoritative and final, is that. I’ve noticed, watching him in action, that his cadence is often enough to close the issue; if not, he resorts to manfully conceding, “I accept that… but—.” After the flip-flop over married couples tax allowances, he said publicly, “I made a mess of it,” thus defusing the whole kerfuffle. Appealingly, he almost always refuses to play the part of the beleaguered politician in an interview.
His quick reaction to the expenses scandal saw him at his surefooted best. He went on television and strongly denounced the MPs—including many from his own party—who had taken liberties. But he subsequently backed Osborne and Gove when they were accused of house flipping, and his own claim for £680 for wisteria pruning hasn’t stuck in the popular imagination. Ashcroft, however, is a nettle he failed to grasp. Several Tories I spoke to say they cannot understand why he didn’t do anything sooner. Some worried that it was indicative of a tendency to let things slip. “My greatest misgiving is that when he’s not under pressure nothing much gets done,” one right-wing observer told me. “Three times he’s had to save his political life with a speech and each time he’s done it, 2005, [to become leader] 2007 [when Brown nearly called an election and there were leadership mutterings in the party] and last week [his performance at the spring conference in the wake of poll slump headlines]. It’s…