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April 03, 2007

The rise of an optimistic politician? Cameron: The Rise of the New Conservative - Francis Elliot and James Hanning

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Cameron: The Rise of the New Conservative
by Francis Elliot and James Hanning
London: 4th Estate, 2007
Hardback, 18.99

This is the book responsible for unearthing the Bullingdon Club photograph of David Cameron in full rig and outing him for smoking pot at Eton. So while it can't actually be described as a helpful book to the Tory leader, it is actually rather a friendly account.

One of the authors, James Hanning, is an Old Etonian (who I used to work alongside when he was the sub on the Evening Standard's Londoner's Diary.) So Hanning doubtless wrote the Eton chapter complete with well informed references to pop, the different houses and societies and so on.

The co-author Francis Elliot (who was not an Eton but at Pimlico Comprehensive with me) was at Oxford and so we can imagine was responsible for the chapter on the book covering that passage of Cameron's life.

The chapters on the early Cameron are highly readable but of questionable political relevance. As Tory leader Cameron famously warned against childhood obesity when he attacked WH Smith for selling Chocolate Oranges with undue prominence. But as a boarder at his prep school Heatherdown there appears to have been the opposite problem. According to the authors:

The last meal, a light supper, could be light indeed. On Thursdays it consisted of a single brick of Weetabix. At one point a looming revolt by parents was bought off by the introduction of chocolate and biscuits to fill the gap between early supper and bedtime.
There is some reassurance for Eurosceptics from Cameron's time at Eton. The issue was his first political cause he took up. The book claims:
His associates recall that his real passion was reserved for railing against the iniquitous of the "Common Market". Brussels, it seems, has been a Cameron target from the moment he started taking politics seriously.
This biography concerns the personal more than the political. It does however confirms Cameron's Thatcherite background but endorses the view that he has shifted the Party to the Left. In terms of substance it seems to me to be too early to say. In terms of tone often people mean by a "shift the Left" a greater sensitivity about minorities, a desire to be positive and constructive, a general sense of decency, and a concern to improve the lives for ordinary people.

Of course it is not a shift to the Left at all but many non Conservatives, including non Conservatives in the media, genuinely believed that before Cameron's leadership the Tories did not want to improve the lives of those whose votes they were seeking. The voters have now changed this astonishing assessment and now at least believe that Cameron wants to make their lives better. They will now be willing to look at whatever policies he offers with this perspective.

Ironically while the public sense that Cameron is warm and open and don't mind that he went to Eton, some in the Conservative Party are more concerned that he is aloof, and part of a cliquey Old Etonian Notting Hill set.

The suggestion that good fortune for Cameron in having had success come easy have given him a tendency to become arrogant, pompous or complacent, are countered by other experiences which will keep these in check.

Most obviously nobody can suggest Cameron has had that easy a time of things given the challenge of caring for their disabled son Ivan. In the book's hardest chapter they describe what it is like:

Soon after the birth of the Camerons' first child, Ivan, in April 2002, it was clear that something was wrong. The baby had occasional spasms and seemed sleepy. After extensive tests, David and Samantha were told Ivan had Ohtahara syndrome, a neurological disorder characterised by seizures which would cause him "very serious difficulties".

Cameron asked a paediatrician: "Does that mean he's going to have trouble doing his maths, or does that mean he's never going to be able to walk and talk?"

The doctor replied: "I'm afraid it means he probably won't walk or talk."

A friend observes that David and Samantha entered "a grim and difficult period" and were given a brutal lesson in the reality of life as the parents of a profoundly disabled child.

All that put politics in perspective. But in any case politically there was also the chastening experience of losing the Stafford constituency in the 1997 election.

Probably more than anything else what keeps him down to earth is his wife. Sam stops him being pompous by using the straightforward technique of saying to him:

Stop being pompous.
The following passage gives a taste of both experiences:
Cameron eventually landed the nomination for Stafford in January 1996. Samantha is said to have disliked the trips north but worked hard on his behalf nevertheless.

"We banned her from smoking in the headquarters - I think she used to roll her own cigarettes at the time," says Joy Richardson, a Stafford Tory who greatly warmed to the young couple."

Cameron became selected as a candidate for Witney by referencing the personal, local and national, in that order, at his interview, in answer to each question. His wife suggested the technique.

Once elected as an MP for Witney, Cameron put to use his PR skills in using the media. Here is his account in his column for The Guardian website on taking part in BBC Radio 4's Any Questions:

My tips are: don't drink anything at the dinner with Jonathan Dimbleby before the show; don't worry about the audience in the hall baying for your blood - concentrate on the folks at home. And try to sound reasonable.

Michael Portillo once told me a tip he had been given: by being thoroughly rude and aggressive to the other panellists at the dinner you can wind them up in to fits of indignation. They will then rant and rave on air and you will come over cool as the proverbial cucumber.

The biography concludes by noting Cameron's optimism. This is an invaluable quality and is key to his politics and his character. I hope it sustains in the travails sure to lie ahead.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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re your third paragraph

The real story looks like the emergence of a Pimlico Comprehensive cabal at the heart of the British Establishment - when is the Torygraph going to pick up on this?

PS - I like the Micheal Portillo tip at the end - it shows how 'school playground' politics and government still is.

Posted by: Mark at December 22, 2010 04:34 PM
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