By Andrew Gimson
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Samantha Cameron is at first sight a difficult woman to profile. She has achieved what Andy Coulson, her husband’s former director of communications, calls the “near impossible” task of living in Number Ten for nearly three years while maintaining “a benign and broadly positive press”.
A Conservative peer observes how successfully Mrs Cameron plays what used to be a rather old-fashioned role:
“Samantha Cameron is the perfect modern Tory wife. Just think of the contrast between her and Lady Dorothy Macmillan. She has never been seen in a hat. She understands broken marriages—remaining in close, affectionate accord with both her father and step-father—while enjoying blissful happiness in her own marriage. She balances effortlessly all the competing calls on a modern Tory wife’s time which include substantial business interests of her own without the fuss that so many of her contemporaries make. She has tremendous classless style. While her husband endures brickbats she commands universal admiration and affection.”
Mrs Cameron is visible, but not too visible. She looks pleased to meet people, but not too pleased; self-possessed, without seeming too self-possessed; stylish, without being outré. One never gets the sense that she is determined to hog the limelight, or to throw her weight around. She manages to be open, yet unrevealing.
Which is why writing about her is an awkward task. She has perfected the art of being, in her public appearances, neither dull nor interesting. Her recent visit as an ambassador for Save the Children to Syrian refugees in Lebanon was covered by the release of a video, just over a minute long, in which she was seen talking to people and recounting a meeting with one of them: “It’s so shocking it’s difficult to take in. Her three-year-old son was shot by a sniper at a checkpoint, a sniper aiming at a car full of seven children, I mean it’s just, you know you just can’t imagine why that should happen.”
The more one examines her performance, the more one sees the professionalism which underpins it. Mrs Cameron’s upper-class background in no way debars her from being organised. A woman who knows her well says: “If you ask her, ‘Have you got a Phillips screwdriver?’ she not only knows exactly where it is, but she asks you, ‘What size would you like?’”
Mr Cameron agrees with this. As he said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph in 2008: “Samantha could organise the invasion of Russia: if she had, they’d have made it to Vladivostock.”
The woman quoted above goes on: “You haven’t seen a room tidied until you’ve seen Samantha Cameron tidy it. It’s full of toys. She just goes at it until it’s all been alphabetised. She’s the queen of boxes with labels on them. She cares very much about the home. As soon as she got a little house she set about transforming it into the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen. The rest of us were still living in squats.”
This capacity to organise things is not only of value in the domestic sphere. Mrs Cameron was an art student, but soon decided she was not going to make it as a professional painter. In 1996, at the age of 25, she not only got married to David Cameron, whom she had known since she was 20, but was made creative director of Smythson’s, a posh stationery business in need of modernisation: she had already redesigned the interior of the shop on New Bond Street. A colleague was “flabbergasted” by how much work she actually did at Smythson’s. She was not just providing the odd pretty sketch of a diary or handbag the shop might sell: she was actually getting these things made.
P.G.Wodehouse has encouraged generations of readers to think of the upper classes as a set of amusingly helpless dimwits who need to be looked after by more capable figures such as Jeeves and The Efficient Baxter. This brilliant comic device should not be taken as an account of real life. Much though one may like to think of the upper classes as the amused spectators of their own decline, addicted to crumbling mansions and shabby chic, many of them turn out to be ambitious, entrepreneurial and modern. Mrs Cameron’s own mother, born Annabel Jones, married first Sir Reginald Sheffield, and later one of the Astors, but that did not prevent her from running from an early age a successful jewellery business.
A journalist who knows the Camerons well said of Samantha: “She was influenced by her mother Annabel, who was always a very successful businesswoman. She’s always quite practical about things – much more practical than we bohemian journalist types, paying much more attention to bourgeois detail, making sure everything’s ready for the school run and everyone knows when it’s the nanny’s night off. She’s knowledgeable about her children’s education. She’s studying pattern-cutting: she’s very interested in dress-making and quite often wears things she’s made herself. She’s a doer.”
Mrs Cameron’s friend Helena Bonham-Carter has said of her that she “juggles more balls than a multi-armed Indian goddess”. When Cherie Blair was at Number Ten, she got into difficulties because of her link via Carole Caplin to Peter Foster, a convicted fraudster. Mrs Blair felt obliged to give a rambling statement, part of which read:
“The reality of my daily life is that I am juggling a lot of balls in the air - some of you must have experienced that. Trying to be a good wife and mother, trying to be the prime ministerial consort at home and abroad and being a barrister, a charity worker. And sometimes some of the balls get dropped. There just aren't enough hours in the day. I choose my friends carefully and Carole Caplin has been a trusted friend and support to me as I have tried to adapt to the pressures of my public role and to do Tony and the public proud. When I was just a barrister, I didn't spend much time worrying about how I looked, but I found out quickly when Tony became leader of the Labour Party that I had to get my act together and Carole has been a great help in that. When she told me that she had a new boyfriend and she seemed happy with him and later was expecting his baby, it really didn't cross my mind that he was going to land me in the mess I am in now.”
It is possible that Mrs Cameron may one day get herself into difficulties: which of us doesn’t? But she does seem to have an unusually professional sense of how to reconcile the different demands on her. She knows her husband has a very important job, but also that it is desirable he should remain sane both while doing it and afterwards. Nor does she wish their three surviving children to grow up spoiled. Their oldest child, Ivan, was born severely handicapped on 8 April 2002 and died on 25 February 2009. Looking after him was a team effort.
The preservation of sanity means, among other things, that the Camerons go on reasonably frequent holidays: hard work is not allowed to become continuous, as it tended to do for Gordon Brown. Normal life is also encouraged by keeping up with old friends: something many politicians who reach this level fail to do. Indeed, many Englishmen who have no connection with politics are hopeless at keeping up with old friends. Mr and Mrs Cameron are both from gregarious families in which it is normal to have large numbers of people around. Her parents have eight children between them, who see each other often. In private, she is good at observing people and saying funny things about them. To entertain in a relaxed manner at Chequers is something the Camerons already know how to do: though relaxation of course includes the taking of exercise. One couple described finding themselves still in their pyjamas as the Camerons were saying, “Come on, let’s go and have a walk.”
In his article in the current issue of GQ, Andy Coulson offers some advice which if followed, could wreck this generally happy state of affairs:
“The time has now come for Sam to play a more public role and take some risks. She only joined the 2010 campaign once it formally kicked off. She should now be persuaded that the 2015 campaign is already underway and she’s badly needed in the trenches…Sam might also take a more active part behind the scenes…she is one of the few people able to see straight to the heart of a matter and offer a clear, sensible view. This will naturally steer clear of policy discussion but it shouldn’t stop her joining small select strategy meetings...she could play a key role in the winning back of female voters.”
What reckless advice. The British people would hate any suggestion that Mrs Cameron was getting involved in strategy meetings, no matter how select. One imagines she sometimes says to her spouse, “Don’t be such a damn fool, darling.” That is one of the functions of a husband or a wife: to save their partner from doing something ridiculous. No wonder Mrs Cameron was vexed at a recent party to see her husband having a long conversation with Rebekah Brooks. But it is one thing to offer the occasional hint of that kind: quite another to try to make up for the deficiencies of Mr Cameron’s advisers. We respect Mrs Cameron because she displays such a healthy desire to keep out of politics.