The rise and fall of the Cameron Chumocracy

Untangling the intricate web of trusted old pals who surrounded the Prime Minister… and led him to his downfall

Features

22 Sep 2016

All political careers end in failure — it’s the dynastic death throes you want to watch. The leader departs with a wave and a whimper; the acolytes slither in blood and guts and gore. And so it was with David Cameron. While he made a dull speech in the drizzle outside Downing Street and his wife wore a nice dress, the Chumocracy he had presided over for 20 years and more tore itself apart behind the scenes. Gove knifed Boris — and botched it so badly that he died of self-inflicted wounds.Theresa May traipsed over bloodied corpses, defenestrated the rest, and by all accounts relished hacking apart theChancellor of the Exchequer.

The Chum-ocracy was dead… long live the Chum-ocracy! ‘Governments of chums won’t die off,’ onenotorious Westminster insider claims. ‘May has appointed her own in Damian Green and Alan Duncan. But with Cameron it was more extreme — he emerged through all three institutions that breed British prime ministers: Eton, Oxford and CCO [ConservativeCentral Office]. Wheneveranyone new was appointed to his staff, the lobby’d look up his name in the back ofFrancesElliot’s biography and find that whoever it was had been at Dave’s stag party or on one of his villa holidays.

‘There was a very telling archive clip that played on the news when Cameron resigned which showed him out-canvassing for the first time as a parliamentary candidate in Witney: he was accompanied by Ed Llewellyn, who’d been a friend since Eton, and was his chief of staff when he resigned. Cameron has always turned to his friends for help. When he needed money to fund the Conservative party he turned to Andrew Feldman — the same chap who’d raised the money for his college ball. What made Cameron a good friend also made him a bad politician because he never asked if there was anyone better for the job.’

To understand Cameron’s Chumocracy, I started to plot out his relationships on a piece of paper:starting with the friends he made at Eton, then at Oxford, through his PR career and life at CCO, on to Notting Hill, Westminster and No. 10. I started out drawing clear lines linking schoolmates to flatmates, Bullingdon buddies and policy wonks, but pretty soon exactly the same people started popping up in new guises — as fellow MPs, cabinet colleagues, party donors — and the lines started to veer into ever more deranged spirals as everyone turned out to be linked, several times over, to everyone else. Even their pets were connected, most notably in the marriage that took place between the bichon frises of George Osborne and Michael Gove. Snowy and Lola’s union may well have ended — like the friendship between their owners, according to the Sun — in bitterness, recrimination and muchbarking, but once upon a time everything was bliss. ‘I have thepictures,’ Mrs Gove, a.k.a. Daily Mail and Spectator Life columnist Sarah Vine, boasted at the 2014 Westminster Dog of the Year contest. ‘There was a ceremony with flowers.’

Canine union may have been an aberration for the Cameroons, but christenings were common and were used in much the same way as marriage in medieval Europe — to seal nascent political alliances. Rachel Whetstone, long-term partner of Tory strategist Steve Hilton, stood as godmother to David and Samantha’s eldest child, Ivan. At the time Whetstone worked for Michael Howard. Some time later she had an affair with Samantha’s stepfather, leaving an irate Cameron towonder if godmotherhood could, retrospectively, becancelled. Sam Cam is also, by all accounts, on non-speaks with Vine —godmother to her youngest child. Their husbands had once been the closest political chums, so they’d spent New Year and half-terms together. But when Mrs Gove gave herself a makeover as Brexit’s Lady Macbeth, Samantha was furious and Westminster insiders say they’ll never kiss and make up.

Even private moments such as bath time were grist to the Camerons’ social milieu. ‘My wife and I were once invited, with our children, to “dinner à quatre”, at the Camerons’ Oxfordshire home,’ recalls one guest. ‘When we arrived, as an opening salvo, we were asked if our kids would like to share a bath with their kids — who were then in one. It was like that bit in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View when Mr Beebe was highly entertained because Freddy greeted George with, “How d’ye do? How d’ye do? Come and have a bathe.” With Cameron, everything was socialising. It’s a trait of English upper-class life that everyone else finds hard to understand. He wanted to look around him and see all nice people and good eggs.’

Of course, outsiders — oiks and bathtub refuseniks — were rarely permitted a glimpse of the Cameron clique. Occasionally, though, they had to be auditioned, such as when Cameron was searching for a potential chum in a trade too grubby for his natural allies to thrive in — journalism. His media advisers, Andy Coulson and Craig Oliver, were both appointed after passing muster at Sunday lunch. And, as my perfectly placed source points out, such intimate tests did pay off. Unlike the Blairs, about whom each successive home-help — from Alastair Campbell downwards — competed to share details ever more humiliating than the last,Cameron’s employees have kept schtum. Even after going to prison, Coulson has stayed loyal to Cameron, never spilling the braised beans.

Nick Clegg, however, is still smarting from his involvement with the Cameron project. A Westminster old boy, he initially seemed like Dave’s kind of chap, so at their first meeting in Downing Street he was honoured with helping Dave assemble an Ikea cot. Next, Clegg and his wife Miriam were put to the Sunday lunch test, where Mrs Clegg disgraced herself by sneering at Sam Cam’s offer of roast chicken with Hellman’s mayonnaise.Miriam absolutely refused to be drawn into the Cameroon set and her frostiness may or may not have contributed to Cameron’s decision to reallocate the deputy leader’s grace-and-favour home to his long-term and ultimate ally, Chancellor Osborne. ‘This is terribly awkward,’ Clegg recalls Cameron saying, when raising this vexatious issue. ‘The thing is… George has for so long had his eye on Dorneywood… He’s very close to me…’

Yet for all such canny manoeuvring, it was the social niceties that did for Cameron in the end. Just as Boris Johnson’s leadership ambitions failed because he took the weekend off to play cricket with Earl Spencer (incurring the ire of Gove), Cameron’s relaxed approachcompletely ruined him when it came to the Brexit vote. Dave had carefully curated a coterie of yes men ever since he was eight years old (which was the last time anyone told him what to do, according to his late father). He was so cut off from the rest of the populace he could not foresee imminent doom: relying not just on the utterly hopeless pollster Andrew Cooper, but all the smug Remainers to whom he later gave gongs. As bloodymesses go, the Chumocracy’s was not the first, and it certainly won’t be the last — but it is, perhaps, the one that gives rise to the most schadenfreude.


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