In December 1824, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, received a decidedly unpromising piece of correspondence. One Joseph Stockdale, pornographer and scandal-maker, informed him that he would shortly be publishing the memoirs of Harriette Wilson, notorious high-class London courtesan. Contained in these memoirs would be:
Various anecdotes of Your Grace which it would be most desirable to withhold, at least such is my opinion. I have stopped the Press for the moment, but as the publication will take place next week, little delay can necessarily take place.
On Stockdale’s part, this was a naked attempt at blackmail. Wellington, national hero (not to mention devoted husband and father) was being asked to pay money to be left out of the sordid publication. His response entered the annals of fame. “Publish and be damned!”
It is unknown whether any such conversations took place between Lord Ashcroft – co-author of Call Me Dave, another explosive book about a Tory prime minister shortly to hit the shelves – and David Cameron, its subject. It must be presumed not. But while Wilson’s memoirs had no effect on Wellington’s reputation or popularity, will the same be true of Cameron?
Thus far, the focus has been on an admittedly amusing but rather grotesque tale involving young David and a pig. And the emphasis here should be on tale, given the spectacular failure of either Ashcroft or Isabel Oakeshott, his co-author, to verify the account. Of itself, it’s a piece of salacious gossip, likely to seriously harm Oakeshott’s hard won reputation. Ashcroft, as we shall see, is rather above such things, however.
The book also highlights Cameron’s use of marijuana at university – no shocks or anything significant there – and his belonging to various private clubs known for their hedonism and excess. Again: what’s the story here? But today’s revelations, which won’t be discussed anything like as much, are actually of considerably more import.
There has always been a question about David Cameron. Namely: does he understand or even care about those less privileged than he is? Somehow, through 10 years as Conservative leader, five as prime minister, nothing has ever stuck to him. Just like his role model, Tony Blair, the public view him as a likeable enough centrist; a safe pair of hands, someone they can trust.
That likeability means Cameron has always been able to obscure the sheer, wanton venality of much of his government: which lays waste to the welfare state; deliberately sets the young against the old; presides over thousands of deaths as a (direct or indirect) result of benefit sanctions so punitive, they’re being investigated by the United Nations; helped precipitate the European refugee crisis by bombing Libya, abandoning it, and turning it into a failed state; unbelievably wanted to bomb the Syrian government, and effectively do something which would help Da’esh, the most evil organisation seen anywhere since the Nazis; deliberately undermines democracy by changing voter registration rules; is very clearly trying to not just defeat, but destroy the Labour Party, with catastrophic consequences for democracy; and above all, never gives the impression of being interested in governing the country. Only for itself and people like it.
People, curiously enough, like the ‘Chipping Snorton set’, serialised in the Daily Mail today. 500 of the UK’s richest, most powerful and best-connected: a veritable British Bilderberg, if Ashcroft and Oakeshott’s description is taken entirely at face value. “Whatever happens in the marquee will stay in the marquee… whenever anyone new is invited to one of these gatherings, their name requires the approval of all”.
Leaving aside the image this unintentionally conjures up of something roughly akin to the mansion scene in Eyes Wide Shut (like the authors of Call Me Dave, I have nothing if not an over-active imagination), this section alludes to the alarming fusion between British politicians and the media. Among the guests at a New Year’s party in 2008 were Cameron (then Leader of the Opposition), George Osborne (then Shadow Chancellor), Andy Coulson, then Tory Director of Communications and former editor of the News of the World; Alan Yentob and Mark Thompson of the BBC; and Rupert Murdoch’s daughter, Elisabeth.
History records the trouble which Coulson, Rebekah Brooks (and for a time, Cameron) later found themselves in. Before the serialisation of this book, we might’ve theorised that relations between certain movers and shakers in the British press were dangerously incestuous (in a strictly metaphorical sense, of course) with some of the country’s leaders. Now we know they were.
More than that: how can someone who continually moves in such high company, is so at ease amid such wealth and excess, possibly have the remotest sense of the impact of his government not only on the poorest, the weakest… but merely on the common man? Plenty of Tory prime ministers came from privileged backgrounds; plenty were patrician in nature. But Cameron? While he speaks of governing as a One Nation Tory, in practice, he governs as a One South-East England Tory, and anecdotes like the above explain why.
Elsewhere, today’s segments in the Mail underscore Cameron’s hopelessly naive, wilfully incompetent approach to both Libya and Syria: with military expertise ignored and sidelined, just as it often was in Iraq during Blair’s time. Lessons have not been learned; so much so that in Libya, as Michael Ancram correctly puts it, Cameron “did an Iraq”. This is not the conduct of a statesman acting in Britain’s best interests; but someone whose calculations are always short term and nakedly political: with far reaching consequences.
Cameron, of course, been been marked by personal tragedy. The book also movingly outlines the torment and heartbreak which Cameron and his wife, Samantha, experienced over the death of their son, Ivan. In April, Samantha spoke at length to the Mail on Sunday about that awful time, revealing how hard they had fought to get Ivan into the special needs daycare centre he desperately needed; and were able to afford night care, which eased the horrendous strain on their marriage:
Looking after a disabled child pushes you to the limits of what you can cope with…physically, emotionally… By the end of the first year we’d both been working and Ivan needed 24-hour care. We were totally shattered and pretty much at breaking point.
Cameron frequently references this tragedy in his speeches, often to reassure the public of his commitment to the NHS. Yet in light of his family’s experience, it is extraordinary how savagely carers have been hit by austerity; and that the very respite care which the Camerons depended upon is being cut by local authorities.
Changes were made to the Disability Living Allowance under the coalition; and catastrophically, the Independent Living Fund has been axed: removing at a stroke the chance for severely disabled people to lead more independent lives. To live with dignity. Restrictions and cuts to the Employment Support Allowance would simply be the icing on a quite despicable cake.
Ask yourself: how can someone who knows how demanding it is to raise a disabled child, who knows how incredibly important high quality care for that child was, possibly oversee such abhorrent cuts? The answer could only be that David Cameron does not understand what life is like for those without the wealth he and his family enjoy; nor, it must be concluded, does he care either.
Today, The Sun is leading with news of a party in 2011, attended by the prime minister and his wife, where guests were openly “snorting cocaine in various rooms and in the toilets… the extraordinary thing is the guests didn’t feel they were doing anything wrong by taking drugs around the PM”. Yet also in 2011, by express order of the government, posting stupid messages on Facebook was punished with four years in jail; and a student with no previous convictions was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for stealing bottled water worth £3.50. There were many other such cases too. One rule for the rich, another for the poor: that is the story of Cameron’s time in charge of this country.
Will any or all of the examples set out by Ashcroft and Oakeshott bring the PM down? No. It’s the narrative they speak to which is so troubling, however – and with the revelations set to keep coming for several days yet, will have a drip-drip effect, embarrassing Cameron and weakening his authority bit by bit.
Much more serious for him, though – and more than that, for British democracy – are the enemies he has made during his premiership. Two in particular: Rupert Murdoch, and that man Ashcroft. As the only thing which ever concerns Cameron are the opinion polls, he was mightily quick to distance himself from Brooks and Coulson following their arrests for suspected phone-hacking; while Murdoch was found by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee to be “not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company”. The protection which The Digger had so long enjoyed from British governments of all hues was at last denied him.
In May, in a piece for Open Democracy, I noted Murdoch’s subsequent support for the SNP and the instrumental role of an opinion poll commissioned for the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times, published 12 days before the Scottish independence referendum. This was the only poll with a sample size of more than 1000 in the entire campaign to favour ‘Yes’; yet the panic it triggered across the British establishment resulted in The Vow, and Labour’s eventual meltdown across Scotland.
I also noted Ashcroft’s extraordinarily rapid rise to prominence as polling guru (despite not being a pollster himself, nor revealing where his company buys its data from) and “friend of the political process” – as well as how, after a general election campaign in which the polls were completely wrong throughout, the result could, only as the happiest of coincidences of course, hardly have been better for someone who (a) had long since fallen out with Cameron; but (b) certainly didn’t want a Labour government either. A tiny Tory majority, boxing Cameron in and making his life impossible, bringing his exit closer and ensuring a quick transition to someone more amenable; someone by the name of ‘Boris’? Perfect. Yet uncannily how things turned out.
On the BBC yesterday, Oakeshott protested that if the book “was just a revenge job, then Lord Ashcroft and I could have published it before the election”. As she well knows, this is nonsense: Ashcroft may hate Cameron, but he doesn’t hate the Tories, and was hardly going to cut his nose off to spite his face. This book is about reminding the Conservative Party where the true power really lies; and disturbingly for Cameron, it isn’t with him at all.
Ashcroft, indeed, has been quite open about his motivations. A “not insignificant job” was promised in the build-up to the 2010 election, only for him to be offered the trifle of junior whip in the Foreign Office:
After putting my neck on the line for nearly ten years – both as party treasurer under William Hague and as deputy chairman – and after ploughing some £8m into the party, I regarded this as a declinable offer. It would have been better had Cameron offered me nothing at all.
Imagine just how untouched by the vicissitudes of public opinion and colossally removed from everyday life someone must be to openly acknowledge being motivated by bitterness against the prime minister because of failure to buy a prestigious post in the government. Imagine, too, how this bitterness can actually include said prime minister’s handling of his then non-domiciled tax status. Ashcroft, while paying no tax in Britain, was nonetheless able to make an enormous financial difference to its most successful political party; and indeed, practically rescue it from bankruptcy in the dark days of the late 1990s.
News of his tax status finally emerged in March 2010, the worst possible moment for the Tories. Ashcroft’s name became mud throughout the election campaign, undermining Conservative hopes. In light of that, Cameron would’ve had to have been mad to have given the noble Lord a big job afterwards: but in twenty-first century Britain, the politics of patronage are still alarmingly pre-eminent, as Cameron’s recent stuffing of the Lords with Tory placemen demonstrated.
The problem is this. In this so-called ‘democracy’, money – lots of it – buys influence and it buys power. When, as in Murdoch or Ashcroft’s cases, it fails for any reason to do so, whoever incurs their wrath – including a prime minister who is himself the beneficiary of colossal privilege – had better watch out. The people? Their needs? They come way, way, way down the list.
Consider for a moment the curious case of former Tory MP, Louise Mensch. Once considered a rising star at Westminster, Mensch enjoyed her finest moment in July 2011, when questioning Murdoch and his son James while on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Her questions were “sharp, precise and coolly scornful”; she even asked one of the most powerful men in the world whether he had considered resigning.
Three days later, she received an email from an ‘investigative journalist’ named ‘David Jones’ alleging that she had taken drugs with Nigel Kennedy while working at EMI records during the 1990s. Her wonderfully brassy response – “Although I do not remember the specific incident, this sounds highly probable… I am not a very good dancer and must apologise to any and all journalists who were forced to watch me dance that night at Ronnie Scott’s” – endeared her to many new admirers and appeared to have nipped matters in the bud. Appeared.
In April 2012, contrary to her severe questioning of the Murdochs during the inquiry, Mensch disagreed publicly with Tom Watson and Paul Farrelly over whether the Committee’s conclusion of Murdoch’s unfitness had been discussed prior to Watson’s tabling of a Commons amendment. She described the report as “partisan”; while Watson went on to accuse her of tabling pro-Murdoch amendments which would’ve “exonerated” James, and allege that private conversations had been leaked to News Corp.
In August, citing family reasons, Mensch unexpectedly stood down as an MP. In January 2013, she became a columnist… for Murdoch’s Sun on Sunday. Thus had the woman who made her name speaking truth to power abruptly jumped ship and started working for that very power. I leave it to readers to join the dots.
Almost comically, Mensch can now be found on Twitter excoriating Oakeshott; but not her co-author, Ashcroft. Within the space of a few tweets, she derides Oakeshott as a “former journalist” and a “novelist”, and states she has “nothing but contempt for her”; yet she “remains a big fan of Lord Ashcroft”. Consider the utter absurdity of that position (not least from a self-proclaimed feminist): she attacks the monkey relentlessly, yet continues to indulge the organ grinder.
Like David Cameron, Louise Mensch is a very wealthy, successful, even – in relative terms – powerful individual. But that wealth and power are nothing when set against that of Ashcroft or Murdoch… and she knows which side her bread’s buttered on. She now faces the rather invidious prospect of working for someone, Murdoch, who may well – especially with Brooks ominously restored at The Sun – be about to commence a campaign to bring down her other boss, Cameron. If he does, she can only watch on helplessly from the sidelines.
One final point. As well as personal spite and fury, what is the motive on the part of these two colossally powerful men? The EU referendum. Both favour British withdrawal; both will have been left aghast by Cameron’s efforts at manning the big battalions in support of the UK remaining. Forcing him out before the campaign really begins in earnest must be the goal: but if so, the PM’s only option is to bunker down and hang on for grim death.
It’s not the stories by themselves which will bring Cameron down. It’s the men behind those stories. Some enemies are just too big to make; and since his as dubious as it gets purchase of The Times and Sunday Times in 1981, no British political leader has managed to get on Murdoch’s bad side and survive to tell the tale. In the bitterest of ironies, the Old Etonian prime minister may himself be about to discover that in British politics, money doesn’t talk. It swears.