While I was reading Francis Elliott & James Hanning’s new book on David Cameron “The Rise of the New Conservative”, my wife was watching Channel 4’s Despatches Programme on the same subject. Peter Hitchens was incandescent with rage at what he believed David was doing to the party – even dressing up in full Bullingdon kit to give added effect to his oratory. It was an awful programme, setting out to prove, through selective quotations and unsympathetic commentators, Hitchen’s view that David Cameron is a light-weight traitor.
The book is a much more balanced and sensitive interpretation of the subject. Its length is attributable in part to the fact that many of the characters in the earlier biographical chapters have long titles and double-barrelled names. We are left in no doubt as to the subject’s good pedigree.
We learn much about his parents – thoroughly decent people. I think David would have had a happy and stable childhood even if his father had not had shedloads of money. Some put his calm self-assurance down to Eton, but I suspect his family had as much to do with it.
Packed off to boarding school at the age of seven, his days at Heatherdown Preparatory School, outside Ascot were very traditional – we half expect Alastair Sim, Margaret Rutherford and Joyce Grenfell to appear in the photographs.
At Eton, we begin to see the traits in the mature Cameron. “He has a facility” as one of the masters at Eton put it “for putting people at their ease.” A string of adjectives leap from the pages to describe him, “easy, civil, courteous, intelligent and vigilant”
And that was just his History master.
One is struck by the absence of political activity at either Eton or at Oxford,, where he was a less than enthusiastic member of the Bullingdon Club.
“David would think twice before throwing a bottle at a policeman” we read. And “If he was in company when people were doing that sort of thing, he’d worry and say ‘Oh, don’t do that’ ”
But he had one quality one does not normally associate with undergraduates. “Cameron managed his time as a student with the sort of ruthless efficiency that most people never manage in their careers.” For me, my three years at University were the last time in my life when I didn’t have to worry about time. But David needs those skills now – and will need them more in the future.
Dotted throughout the book are a number of sentences that will re-assure passengers on board the Cameron journey. Some long-standing members of the Party believe it has been hijacked but, unlike the majority of hijackers, they fear this hijacker doesn’t know where he wants to go. Some fear he is not really a Conservative.
The authors believe otherwise “Although Cameron was always going to be a Conservative…” we are told on one page. On another, there was “Never any doubt of his allegiance to Margaret Thatcher.”
Nicholas Boles puts it best in the book. “The fundamental difference between David and Tony Blair is that David is absolutely, cut right through him, a total Conservative. He was born into it, he loves it, it’s embraced him, he’s not the outsider. There is a neat metaphor that sums up the difference. Blair scaled up the Labour building from the outside and took it over at the top. That’s absolutely not the case with David – he worked his way up on the inside floor by floor.”
The sections on his time with Carlton, I confess, I skipped through. Working for Michael Green looked difficult and character-forming.
Perhaps the best and most sensitively written chapter in the book is the one about Ivan, their oldest son, severely disabled by Ohtahara’s syndrome. To understand David – and indeed his very supportive wife – one has to understand what they have been and continue to go through in looking after Ivan. As David says “Ivan is part of who I am.”
The book demolishes two myths which his political opponents are busy trying to promote.
1. David Cameron was responsible for our undignified departure from the ERM and
2. David Cameron was responsible for the 2005 Election Manifesto.
On the first, David’s role was to whisper encouragement to Norman Lamont and to flap a towel in his face before Norman climbed back into the ring for another bruising round with the currency speculators on September 16th 1992. On the second, he was charged, as a relatively junior member of the Shadow Cabinet, with writing the Manifesto, but not with deciding what the policies were.
One question I found left hanging in the air; it was not quite clear why David supported IDS rather than Ken Clarke for leader – given David’s general positioning on the political spectrum; nor why, when the game was obviously up for IDS, David voted for him to stay on.
It is quite clear from chapter after chapter that David has a number of close friends whom he looks to for advice, whose company he enjoys , whose vision of the Party he shares and whom he has known for a very long time. Excellent – particularly as many are thoroughly good folk now in the House of Commons. But it leads to the first of two questions that remained unanswered, as I put the book down. What does it tell us about how he will run a Government? One of the mistakes made by Tony Blair was to run the government like he ran the Opposition. While David will want the support of his close friends, hopefully his experience of Whitehall will tell him he needs a different and more broad-based style, once he is in No 10.
The second question is an odd one. I found myself saying “But what is he really like?” Despite the research, the quotes from family and friends, David remains something of an enigma at the end. Maybe because it is an unauthorised biography, the authors couldn’t get close enough for the insight into the inner man that is needed. Perhaps that is the subject for the next book.