DAVE and I were sitting on the sofa in his Oxfordshire house, watching a news clip of him on TV as Leader of the Opposition. ‘You’ve just said “actually” three or four times,’ I pointed out. ‘It’s not a great word.’ A thoughtful pause. ‘Yes, you’re probably right. My team tell me I’m good on telly because of the broad shape of my face, it’s a happy-clown face.’
Affability is sometimes dismissed as an irrelevant attribute in high politics, but imagine having to spend a whole weekend with Ted Heath, Gordon Brown or Theresa May.
Dave and Sam Cameron, by contrast, were always delightful company: cosy, intensely family-minded and with a taste for a giggly, risque joke over a glass of wine, or three. Despite not having seen them properly since a lunch at Chequers in the summer of 2010 – the tides of life, nothing else – I have only happy memories of our times together and warm personal feelings towards both of them.
The David I first got to know in the 90s was a decent person, a disciplined decision-maker who didn’t unnecessarily lose sleep and with a hinterland outside politics. Enchanting Sam, the discreet iron fist in the oh-so-stylish velvet glove, always the first to take up cudgels on her husband’s behalf.
When my then wife (now ex) became one of his closest aides – for the record, she has had no input whatsoever into this piece – I went from relaxed second-order friend to courtier’s consort, a role that did not come naturally to me. Occasionally I had to bite my tongue, for instance when I knew that an already-announced party treasurer was guaranteed to be a train crash. Interestingly, he doesn’t make the Cameron memoir, For The Record, published yesterday.
My insider-outsider’s view taught me that this political lark isn’t as easy as it seems, especially when often it’s not the most desirable individuals pressing their claims, while decent folk hold back.
And a lot of politics comes down to reading people. Judging people and assessing character is crucial. As recounted in his memoirs, Cameron wasn’t always good at it. He misread the characters of quite a few key members of his entourage, most notably when they hailed from different backgrounds to his own, for example the adopted son of an Aberdonian, Michael Gove. And he was probably not at ease with foreigners, especially Europeans. Such limited social confidence is not the best base for a politician, let alone a Prime Minister.
From the very outset the Camerons’ friendship with Michael Gove and Sarah Vine was destined to end in tears. I first met Gove a quarter of a century ago and I believe he is too profoundly unhappy and insecure in his own skin to be trustworthy. That such an able orator and administrator could be both unctuous and overwrought I found surprising while I felt Vine was propelling herself forward as a ‘lady in waiting’ to Sam. I made every effort to avoid them since biting my tongue didn’t always work.
A particular problem in a political leader is that while Cameron is bright and quick on his feet, he is remarkably incurious. His instinct is not to challenge or interrogate but to accept the Establishment view: the permanent secretary, ambassador or general says this, so it must be true. Mention legitimate concerns about uncontrolled mass immigration, and you’d be met with a slightly disapproving harrumph and then the inevitable metropolitan liberal ‘line to take’.
In fairness perhaps Cameron, like many other modern political leaders, bagged the top job too young, before his views had fully matured. When I met him he was an archetypal, slick Thatcherite ‘Tory Boy’, then he morphed into a ‘hug-a-hoodie/husky’ and finally Mr Austerity.
The only conversation I ever had with him on the issue which was to prove his Calvary took place just before the Tories pulled out of the European People’s Party grouping. He couldn’t have sounded more fed up or more Eurosceptic. But I wouldn’t go so far as Steve Hilton in saying that made him at heart a Leaver.
I regret two things on Europe. The first that Cameron didn’t take a leaf out of the playbook of that other clever, non-ideological PPEist Harold Wilson and say, ‘Here is my renegotiation: unfortunately it’s not as good as I had hoped. Consequently I shall be neutral in the referendum and shall personally implement whatever you decide.’ This would at least have spared us three excruciating years of the over-promoted Theresa May’s mendacious mediocrity.
I still believe him to be an honourable man. However, at the time of the referendum he guaranteed our decision would be carried out and we trusted him. He has now resiled from that. Regrettably, an unappealing strand of our Establishment has ‘form’ for not honouring public promises, as unlucky Zimbabweans, Hong Kongers and foreign interpreters for the British Army have discovered at high cost. With many others, at the moment I feel like one of them: forgotten and disenfranchised. Please, David, perform one final public service, perhaps even a personal act of redemption. Step up to the plate and insist that the referendum decision is carried out, as you publicly promised it would be.