March 16, 2012 8:52 pm

David Cameron: the verdict so far

As the midway point of his premiership approaches, the prime minister’s closest allies and staunchest critics speak up
David Cameron taking the Tube©Kalpesh Lathigra

David Cameron is standing on the Jubilee line on a visit to a Tesco supermarket in east London, an imposing figure in the cramped Tube carriage. In trademark blue suit, he is more than 6ft tall. His hair, slightly flecked with grey, is swept back from a face that still has the pink glow of a childhood spent in the quiet, rural prosperity of England’s home counties; it is as if a gust of Chiltern air has blasted into the Tube network. After a cursory run through a briefing note, he turns to his iPhone and a beam breaks across his face. Johnny Marr, guitarist of The Smiths, has just promised to reunite the legendary indie band if Cameron leaves Number 10. “I love The Smiths but there are limits,” he says. The conversation flits from matters of state to the music being played in Downing Street, a combination of Lana Del Rey (he was introduced to the US singer by his wife, Samantha) and the cheesy pop of JLS and Justin Bieber favoured by his kids.

Commuters in this multi-ethnic, working-class part of London do double takes; a few ask for autographs and pictures, but there is no abuse. “That’s another vote in Tel Aviv north,” says Cameron after posing with an Israeli student. Vernon Bogdanor, his old Oxford tutor, says Cameron has always “created a good feeling” around him. Cameron seems at ease in modern Britain but this is just one aspect of his personality that makes him difficult to define. Many voters (and some Conservative MPs) have him mentally fixed astride a horse or in Hunter wellies striding around with his posh friends in the countryside west of London, where he was raised and educated.

At weekends Cameron tries to alternate between his constituency home in Dean, Oxfordshire, and Chequers, the Elizabethan grace-and-favour mansion that shelters under the chalky ridge of the Chiltern Hills. It is here that he entertains friends at weekends, mixes the drinks and gossips in front of the open fire. Angela Merkel, German chancellor, has taken a break from the euro crisis here, watching DVDs of her favourite television series – the bucolic Midsomer Murders – while Cameron sips on a whisky and deploys his easy charm.

Cameron looks the part as prime minister, not least because he plainly enjoys the job. After lunch he likes to walk with guests up along the crest of Coombe Hill with its panorama across southern England. “As I said to Angela, if things had been different all this could have been yours,” he jokes to his visitors. Instead, it belongs to Cameron.

. . .

“He feels a sense of duty and public service and he’s absolutely plumb mainstream in his Conservative views”

Michael Gove

Michael Gove, Education secretary

Almost two years into his premiership, polls suggest many British people have decided that the man leading the country through one of the largest austerity drives in any major economy is cut out for the job. Brought up in Berkshire and educated within a 30-mile radius at Eton and Oxford, Cameron’s journey to Chequers has been smooth and short.

“There’s something in the way he occupies the post that is absolutely natural, he loves being prime minister,” says one Downing Street official. “For him, adjusting to life before becoming prime minister, that was the difficult bit.” Polls put him ahead of Ed Miliband, his Labour rival, on measures such as strength and decisiveness.

He may look like a leader, but who is David Cameron and where is he leading? The British public did not entirely trust him at the last election – his expected outright victory did not materialise – and it is not clear they trust him now. He is too hard to pin down. Cameron calls himself a “liberal Conservative” and says he is “practical and reasonable and radical when necessary”. One cabinet minister says: “Someone once said he was Alec Douglas-Home at Glastonbury: it’s not quite right but you can see what I mean.” The image of Cameron as a tweedy traditionalist prime minister raving at Britain’s biggest festival sums up the apparent contradictions.

Approaching the midway point of his tenure, it is time to take stock. His coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats has enacted most of the major legislation it announced after the 2010 election; the tough economic path has been set. What happens next?

This week Cameron has been in Washington, discussing the global economic situation and Iran with President Barack Obama; next week George Osborne, his chancellor, will try again to articulate a growth strategy in a budget he hopes will start to shift the British economy out of a four-year trough. Although the next election is not scheduled until 2015, the coalition is likely to start fragmenting well before then: this is David Cameron’s mid-term moment. Is he anything more than a PR man (his career before entering parliament) or is there substance behind the “born-to-rule” demeanour? Is he a rightwing Tory intent on cutting the state and privatising the National Health Service, or the Cameron who promised a “big society”, green politics and compassion for young delinquents? He is the first Tory to occupy Downing Street since 1997, so why does a section of his own party detest him? And if he is such a strong leader, why has Downing Street got itself into a mess on issues such as European relations, City bonuses and health reforms?

“He’s very clever at learning lessons and gradually picking the right people... The U-turns narrative will slow down”

Andrew Feldman

Andrew Feldman, Party co-chair

Unravelling this enigma is not easy, partly because those closest to Cameron rarely speak publicly about what motivates him in politics. But in a series of interviews with some of his closest allies – and some of his staunchest critics – a clearer picture emerges of a man whose most visceral political belief is that he is the best person to run the country. Michael Gove, an old friend and education secretary, puts it: “He feels a sense of duty and public service and he’s absolutely plumb mainstream in his Conservative views.”

The 45-year-old prime minister has been an MP for little more than a decade and his preparation for the job – backroom political aide and PR man for a television company – was hardly a guarantee of success. But William Hague, foreign secretary, says it has come naturally to him: “He’s happy in his own skin – in power – to a remarkable extent.”

The polls bear it out. Last month, Cameron convened his MPs for a pep talk at Westminster, where his rightwing critics were treated to a polling presentation that showed Cameron polled 16 points above the Conservative party. “The message wasn’t very subtle: he’s the best thing they’ve got,” said one ally of the prime minister. Indeed, the Conservative party’s US polling consultants have told Cameron he should “bank” the fact that people have decided that he is “strong and determined” and work on softer aspects of his leadership. His advisers recognise the risk of being seen as a “Flashman” character – a public-school bully – and plead with him not to be too aggressive in his House of Commons encounters with Ed Miliband, the rookie Labour leader; they admit the prime minister usually pays no attention.

He looks strong, but is he? Cameron points to his decision to form a full coalition with the Liberal Democrats – not a minority government as expected – as evidence of his decisiveness. Then there is the decision to go for a bold programme of cuts and tax rises to reduce Britain’s deficit, one of the largest in the western world.

In the Libyan crisis, the main problem was holding Cameron back. A member of the National Security Council says Cameron had to be “hosed down” over his decision to send Libyan bank notes from Britain to rebels in Benghazi – a move that broke UN sanctions. “But he handled the crisis well,” said an NSC member. “He listened to advice and at the end of the discussion he would bring his hands down slowly on to the desk and announce what he had decided. He’s a natural chairman.”

“He’s an instinctive Tory, not ideological: he’s more in the mould of Baldwin, Macmillan and Salisbury”

Vernon Bogdanor

Vernon Bogdanor, Cameron’s Oxford tutor

But then there are the U-turns – Cameron sees them as tactical retreats – on issues such as selling nationalised forests, lighter prison sentencing and on health reforms. Whatever his perceived personal strengths, some Conservative MPs believe he displays an alarming lack of conviction and that the political squalls that have dogged his government are a sign that Cameron is adrift without a political compass. Cameron’s closest friends admit the prime minister does not have a “vision”, rather that he is guided by instinct. As Gove observes, some politicians were brought into politics because they were inspired by the work of Friedrich Hayek or were “radicalised by events” such as Margaret Thatcher’s victory over striking miners or in the Falklands war. “That’s not true with David,” he says.

Vernon Bogdanor agrees: “As a student he was not particularly political. He’s an instinctive Tory, not ideological. He’s more in the mould of Baldwin, Macmillan, Salisbury: that’s what Conservatism is traditionally about. I think that chimes with what the British people think.”

One insider says Cameron’s favourite is liberal philosopher David Hume, whose optimistic outlook on human nature is shared by Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister: “He comes from a background where people are basically good, there’s more to life than money.”

. . .

The son of a stockbroker and a mother who served as a local magistrate, the prime minister has traditional Tory instincts: a distrust of the big state, an enthusiasm for local “small platoons” running services, and a commitment to preserving the union with Scotland, now under threat from an independence referendum north of the border. Gove says this matters to Cameron immensely: “He feels it’s his duty to hand on the country intact.”

Cameron has vowed never to depart the centre ground, but his party has plenty of MPs who were radicalised by Thatcher and believe that the Conservatives would have won the last election outright if only the party adopted more red-blooded policies on issues such as Europe, cutting taxes, lifting regulation and immigration. “The starting point in his relationship with the party is that we did not win the election,” says one senior Tory MP. “His overriding objective is to ensure we have a Conservative administration – it’s not that he has certain key changes that he wants to facilitate.”

“Policy is being run by two public-school boys who don’t know what it’s like [not to afford things in the supermarket]”

Nadine Dorries

Nadine Dorries, Conservative MP

Cameron’s government is doing radical things, but some Tory MPs believe this has not been driven from the top. Individual ministers have been allowed to pursue their own projects: Gove is transforming education by setting many schools free from local authority control; Iain Duncan Smith is overhauling Britain’s welfare system; Andrew Lansley is overseeing unpopular health reforms; and Osborne’s programme of cuts is reshaping the state. Such was his determination to allow ministers to do their own thing that Cameron did not initially even bother to set up a policy unit in Downing Street to watch what ministers were doing. The botched health reforms forced a rethink: Cameron has now brought in a host of new staff to strengthen the centre, vowing to intervene earlier when signs of trouble emerge.

Cameron says his approach is to appoint good people “and give them a good go” in their job. But his friends admit the measures taken collectively do not amount to a compelling political narrative.

According to Andrew Feldman, co-chairman of the Conservative party and Cameron’s oldest political friend, the prime minister deliberately tries to run the government as “an executive chairman, not a chief executive” – rising above the morass of detail that consumed Gordon Brown. George Osborne, chancellor, is often seen as Cameron’s chief executive, but has what many would consider a full-time job running Britain’s stalled economy.

One minister claims the organisation around him is “crap”. Steve Hilton, the prime minister’s bare-footed policy guru, was seen by some Downing Street insiders as running a parallel operation. “When someone told you Number 10 wanted something, the first thing to ask is who in Number 10?” says one cabinet minister.

“For him, adjusting to life before becoming prime minister, that was the difficult bit”

David Cameron with Tesco employees

A Downing Street official

But Feldman says of the prime minister: “I think he’s very clever at learning the lessons and gradually picking the right people. I think you will find the U-turns narrative gradually slowing down because he’s got a better team, more capable of spotting things coming down the track.”

Cameron has so far refused to carry out a sweeping reshuffle of his team, a sign of weakness according to those who believe he should have sacked ineffective ministers such as Andrew Lansley at health. “He dislikes reshuffles and it pains him if he has to administer a rebuke to someone,” says Gove. “He hates it. But he will do what’s right to safeguard the whole.”

However, Cameron has a ruthless streak and a planned reshuffle after the summer holidays could be far-reaching. In 2007, he sacked Hugo Swire, a close friend and fellow Old Etonian, after Swire suggested the Tories might end free admission to museums, a move that caused great distress: Swire’s wife refused to speak to Cameron after that.

After two years of frenetic legislating, Cameron seems to be tiring of radicalism: he talks now of the coalition moving into the “implementation phase”. Hilton, his ideas factory, has headed off for a sabbatical in California. The prime minister has been heard to joke: “How about if we do nothing for a month? Give people a break.”

Does he still have things he wants to achieve? To get an insight into what drives Cameron, it is worth going back to his speech to his party conference in 2005, which helped to secure him the leadership: here he talked broadly of a love of country, freedom and aspiration. The biggest chunk was on education, with sections on reviving inner cities, childcare and social enterprise (which eventually evolved into his vaunted, but little-understood, big society).

“He talks about social mobility but knows nothing about it... that’s a problem with the electorate”

Mark Pritchard

Mark Pritchard, 1922 committee

Today, he talks about wanting to reform social care for the elderly and Britain’s clunky adoption rules alongside trying to revive the economy. Although only a relatively recent convert to gay causes, he plans to legalise gay marriages. Recent “summits” were held on tackling Britain’s “booze culture” and racism in football. It is almost as if Cameron can’t wait to get back to his “compassionate Conservatism” agenda that was so rudely interrupted by the financial crash.

In office, Cameron has been defined by issues he barely mentioned in 2005, when he set out his plan to “decontaminate” the Tory party’s tarnished image: no wonder commentators and some in his party are confused. He has introduced a major health reorganisation (which he promised not to do), fought a battle with European partners in Brussels (he tells colleagues that anyone who wants to talk to him about the EU is “swivel-eyed”) and embarked on the largest round of cuts in a generation, in spite of a pre-crash vow to match Labour’s spending plans

Cameron’s determination to stick to his economic course – even when growth is faltering – is the most remarkable feature of his leadership. But Feldman says: “Does he get a kick out of cost reduction processes? No. It’s intellectual, not emotional.” Another colleague says that in economic terms, Cameron is “a peacetime prime minister in a time of war”.

Nick Clegg is also confused about Cameron’s apparent lack of interest in new policy. He has been overheard to say to colleagues: “As a Liberal I want to do things in government” adding that Cameron seems to think it was enough that “chaps like him” are in charge. For his part, Cameron thinks his deputy is barmy getting enthused about House of Lords reform, regarded as arcane by most voters.

The prime minister’s pragmatism is one of the contributing factors to a poisonous relationship that has grown up with some Tory MPs on the right, who feel Cameron has ignored their views, refused to promote them and is generally an arrogant Old Etonian. A number speak of being “blanked” by the PM. Especially among some state-educated Tory MPs, there is a feeling that Cameron is “out of touch” – a view reflected by public opinion polls.

“People seem to think you have to look wrecked and fall apart to be doing your job properly”

David Cameron jogging in Blackpool

David Cameron, to friends

“He talks a lot about social mobility but in reality he knows nothing about it,” says Mark Pritchard, a Tory MP and secretary of the 1922 committee of backbench MPs. “It is impossible for him to empathise with people struggling to pay their gas bill. He has never wanted for anything and that is a problem with the electorate.” Aware of this weakness, Cameron is now desperately trying to water down his government’s policy to remove child benefits from many middle-income families, but tellingly he has also been resisting Treasury plans to increase taxes on the wealthy.

“The problem is policy is being run by two public school boys [Cameron and Osborne] who don’t know what it’s like to go to the supermarket and have to put things back on the shelves because they can’t afford it for their children’s lunchboxes,” says Nadine Dorries, another Conservative MP. “What’s worse, they don’t care either.”

Cameron’s attempts to woo his Tory critics with whisky at Number 10 or Chequers does not seem to have improved things: “We want him to listen to us, not give us tours of historic buildings,” says one long-serving MP. Some believe he is using the coalition with the Lib Dems as an excuse for not adopting a tougher Tory line. “He’s taking us into a risk-free zone, dumbing down the political discourse,” says another.

Tim Montgomerie, editor of the influential ConservativeHome website, is one of a number who say Cameron’s cheery public image and easy manner with world leaders does not translate into his dealings with the party. “Osborne is often seen as the cold one, but in private he’s the much warmer of the two,” he says. Moderate MPs are mobilising to support Cameron’s position, but rightwing MPs say he neglects them at their peril. “He’s a crap man manager,” says another MP, claiming that Osborne has “agents everywhere”, spying for enemies of a Tory modernising project, which he eventually hopes to lead himself.

“Osborne is often seen as the cold one, but in private he’s the much warmer of the two”

Tim Montgomerie

Tim Montgomerie, ConservativeHome

It is on the question of Europe that Cameron’s vulnerabilities as prime minister have been most exposed, culminating in a bruising European Union summit in Brussels last December that saw the British prime minister isolated 26-1 as leaders negotiated a treaty to stabilise the euro. The incident heightened the perception of Cameron in Berlin and Paris as a leader with a solid economic policy but one held prisoner by his party’s Eurosceptic wing. Nicolas Sarkozy has warmer relations with Cameron in private than the public bickering would suggest – in 2010 Sarkozy provided the British prime minister with a helicopter to rush him to the bedside of his dying father in the south of France – but their bond does not match the one that existed between the French president and the pro-European Tony Blair.

In Britain the UK’s isolation in Europe was portrayed as Cameron playing “a veto” and his poll ratings lifted as a result. “People don’t know what he vetoed, but they liked the idea of him standing up for Britain and doing what he said he was going to do,” says one adviser. The move also briefly lifted his standing among rightwing Tory MPs. But that sheen has worn off, not least as Cameron has spent the intervening few months trying to rebuild bridges in Brussels – a move seen as yet another concession to the Lib Dems. “One of the reasons we got the veto was because the work wasn’t done,” says one experienced Tory MP. “It wasn’t a veto – it was simply that nobody was with us.”

Why did this happen? A view has taken hold among some of Cameron’s parliamentary colleagues – and some officials – that on some matters of national importance, the prime minister simply does not put in the hours. The accusations were flying at the time of a sensitive defence review in 2010, more recently over Europe. Cameron’s view was that before the Brussels summit he spoke to the main leaders and did all he could, but Britain never had a strong negotiating hand. To one Tory MP, his approach was “slapdash”. Another says: “The most obvious issue is his workrate. There’s obviously a problem: the government makes a lot of mistakes. Frankly, he is putting the school run ahead of the national interest.”

When a prime minister’s devotion to his family becomes a point of attack for critics in his own party, there is clearly a party management issue. But do his critics have a point? Should Cameron have been holding last-minute talks with Merkel and Sarkozy on the morning of the summit instead of attending the school nativity play of his six-year-old son, Elwen? Cameron’s supporters say the claim is preposterous. William Hague says the prime minister is only criticised by people who cannot imagine combining the job with family life. “He’s a very clever person: there’s nothing slapdash about it.”

“People don’t know what he vetoed, but they liked the idea of him standing up for Britain”

David Cameron with Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy at the G20 summit in France

A government adviser

The prime minister’s friends say he has made a conscious decision to try to lead as normal a life as possible and not to get worn down by long hours and too much detail; in contrast with his predecessor, Gordon Brown. “Some people seem to think you have to look wrecked and fall apart to be doing your job properly,” Cameron once told friends. Aboard the Jubilee line train on his trip to Leytonstone Tesco (a chance for him to show he is “in touch” and to celebrate Tesco’s creation of 20,000 jobs nationwide) Cameron looks noticeably healthier than most of the people around him.

He says his day begins at 5.45am when he starts ploughing through official work in his “red box”. “I’m a morning person,” he says. “I get it done in time to have breakfast with the kids.” Officials say he reads the papers and annotates them, but one complains: “He doesn’t have an inquiring mind – he never asks for more.” But Feldman insists: “He’s the best-prepared person in every meeting. He works really hard actually. One thing I’ve noticed about him is he looks a little tired: I mean it’s ageing – the process of being prime minister.”

. . .

After breakfast Cameron chairs the 8.30am morning meeting in his Number 10 office, an informal gathering of ministers and aides, to pore over the media and the day’s agenda. It is an informal gathering of up to 15 people, usually including Osborne (Cameron’s chief political strategist as well as his chancellor), Hague, his chief of staff Ed Llewellyn, cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, and Craig Oliver and Gabby Bertin from his press team.

“There usually aren’t enough seats – people are standing up and leaning on window sills. With Cameron in the room with George and William there’s usually quite a lot of laughter,” says one regular attendee. “Cameron will never put people down at that meeting but can be a bit sharp; Osborne is much more in your face.”

“He is happy in his own skin – in power – to a remarkable extent”

William Hague

William Hague, Foreign secretary

At lunchtime Cameron tries to slip up to the flat (he actually lives in the larger apartment above Number 11) for a sandwich, to put his feet up on the sofa and to see his wife Samantha and baby Florence. The other fixed point in the day is the 4pm Downing Street meeting – a more strategic gathering of ministers and advisers. On those evenings when he is not attending official functions, Cameron’s life is often – in the words of Gove – “staggeringly normal”. Some Whitehall mandarins lament the fact that the prime minister prefers to spend his evenings dining with friends and watching DVD sets of Wallander, 24 or The Killing than reading a new foreign policy tract. They would probably be alarmed therefore by Feldman’s account that the prime minister is “fascinated by Strictly Come Dancing”.

“Part of his charm is he’s very engaged,” says Feldman, who has known Cameron since their days together at Oxford. “You have to have a feeling of what people care about and what they’re watching and listening to. It’s not as artificial as that, but if you sit in an ivory tower you become remote.”

Feldman says that Cameron plays tennis and runs at weekends – his New Year’s resolution was to lose weight – and he remains proud of his old vegetable patch at his constituency home. He also loves to cook: on the morning of a crucial New Year’s BBC interview, Cameron’s aides assembled at 7.30am at Number 10 to find the prime minister putting vegetables and lamb into a roasting tin.

“To really understand Cameron, it is not enough to focus on his education and background”

David Cameron getting into a car

Andrew Feldman, Party co-chairman

Cameron recently revealed he tries to set aside a “date night” each week with Samantha and they make time for occasional forays to the cinema. He says last weekend he tried to teach Elwen to ride his bicycle, went to a skate park and helped his eight-year-old daughter Nancy build a fruit cage. Feldman says his family are by far the most important factor in his life. Friends say Cameron texts his wife prodigiously when he is away, including once giving her updates of how boring he was finding an international summit. But he also knows the political potency of family.

Cameron once told colleagues that visitors to Number 10 normally got only to level one: seeing him. Level two involved a much sought after meeting with Samantha, willowy, aristocratic and the former creative director of Smythson, the upmarket stationery firm. Sepp Blatter, head of Fifa, got to level three – holding baby Florence. “A lot of good that did us,” he jokes of England’s failed bid to host the World Cup.

While Cameron’s love of The Smiths and Strictly Come Dancing is genuine, so too is his love of pursuits associated with the rich and landed. His recent excruciating admission that he had ridden a retired Metropolitan Police horse – loaned to Rebekah Brooks, an Oxfordshire neighbour and former Sun editor – lifted the lid on a network of power Cameron would rather keep secret.

The “horsegate” incident encapsulated the confusion in the public mind about Cameron. He is entirely at ease bantering with staff in the Tesco canteen but when nobody is looking he spends his leisure time on horseback with the editor of a tabloid newspaper. He says he is liberal and conservative, pragmatic and radical, traditional but in love with modern Britain: he defies definition. “You might say they are contradictions but isn’t he just like all of us?” says a friend. “We all have a bit of everything in us.”

“The issue’s his workrate: the government makes a lot of mistakes”... “He’s dumbing down the political discourse”

Cameron critic illustration

Cameron critics

But people like to put their leaders into boxes: which prime minister most resembles Cameron? “He’s a natural Conservative in the way Macmillan was,” says Vernon Bogdanor. “He’s not doctrinal like Margaret Thatcher.” But Cameron believes that Thatcher was more pragmatic than many people remember and Feldman says the Iron Lady is his favourite Tory leader. Certainly, Cameron’s determination to stick to his economic course has a steely Thatcherite quality. Then again, the Camerons regard Tony Blair as “the master” because of his strategic genius and the way he won three elections in a row from the centre ground.

Cameron’s admiration of the ideology-light Tony Blair confirms the views of critical commentators. Christopher Hitchens, the journalist and polemicist who died in December, replied when asked what he thought of Cameron: “He doesn’t make me think.”

But his supporters believe trying to define Cameron is an obsession of “columnists and political train-spotters” and strong leadership is what voters really want. In office he has been defined by events; even his critics admit he is perfectly capable of reinventing himself again. Cameron’s “executive chairman” approach and his determination to have a life outside politics appear to have kept him sane in the job – so far at least. It is hard to find anyone who has seen Cameron lose control since arriving in Number 10. Colleagues say he can get snappy on small matters, but on the big issues he remains calm and courteous.

Feldman says a sense of proportion is one of Cameron’s greatest strengths, founded in the greatest tragedy in his life: the death of his eldest son Ivan, born with cerebral palsy and severe epilepsy, who died in 2009 aged six. “I think to really understand Cameron, it is not enough to focus on his education and background,” he says. “That only partly explains why he is cool under pressure, always has good manners and is courteous to people. You have to consider the tragedy of Ivan and his illness, and the loss of Ivan had a huge impact on him.

“I think he has, deep in his heart, a sense that however bad things are, they’re never as bad as that. Nothing will cause him that much pain, or that much sadness, ever in his life. That is his bottom line. The pain from that means whatever happens, he will survive.” Feldman says Cameron did not seriously think about walking away from politics at the time of Ivan’s death. His colleagues say he enjoys the game too much, but more than that, he believes that he has a duty to lead the country.

Cameron’s determination to win the next election is not in doubt. Cameron’s advisers sometimes wince as he lays into his Labour opponents during prime minister’s questions. It is just as evident on the tennis court, where he has twice beaten Nick Clegg including a 7-6 victory at Chequers. “He took it unbelievably seriously,” a bewildered Clegg told colleagues later. Feldman adds: “He wins by perseverance and tactics. He’s very competitive. He likes to win.”

George Parker is the FT’s political editor

.......................................................................

Cameron’s gang

Samantha Cameron, wife

Daughter of a baronet, Sam Cam’s links with fashion (she is a former creative director of Smythson) and a hedonistic crowd in Bristol in her student days are a counterpoint to Cameron’s rural traditionalism.

She is mother of his four children (Nancy, Elwen, Florence and Ivan who died aged six) and a significant political influence. Lib Dems see her as an ally, pushing Cameron towards a socially liberal agenda. Feldman says: “She provides a grounding. ‘You’re PM out there, but when you’re at home please cook dinner and deal with the kids.’”

Andrew Feldman, Party co-chair

Cameron’s oldest friend in politics, Feldman is a confidant and crucial link between the PM and the party on the ground. He says that he is one of a number of people in Cameron’s circle who were not born with a silver spoon. “I went to public school because my dad worked 70 hours a week.”

Ed Llewellyn, chief of staff

Highly experienced fixer, hired by Cameron as opposition leader in 2005. Llewellyn’s career has been largely built overseas, giving him a world view. Llewellyn is suspected on the Tory right of softening Cameron’s policy towards Europe. He worked for the moderate Tory Chris Patten and for the equally pro-European Lib Dem Paddy Ashdown during his spell running Bosnia. His contacts with the Lib Dems have proved invaluable.

Kate Fall, deputy chief of staff

Both gatekeeper and a key figure in maintaining good relations with MPs and party donors. A friend of Cameron since Oxford days, Feldman says she has “great emotional intelligence”. Daughter of Sir Brian Fall – the former UK ambassador to Moscow – she is well-connected, low profile but very influential. “She can say to Cameron: ‘you’ve upset so-and-so: do you understand the consequences?’” says Feldman.

Steve Hilton, director of strategy

Policy guru, former advertising exec. Charged with “blue-sky thinking”, which included a plan to hire cloud-bursting technology to make Britain sunnier. Hilton is on a sabbatical at Stanford University, California. Feldman says: “He might have 50 ideas a day and three will be good. But he’s... challenging assumptions. He briefly was doing implementation: not his strongest suit.”

Gabby Bertin, press secretary

The stylish media adviser has been by Cameron’s side since the dark days when he was struggling as Tory opposition leader and is liked and respected by the Westminster press pack. Bertin, posh and prepared to speak her mind, is Cameron’s kind of woman.

Oliver Letwin, cabinet office minister

When Tony Blair became prime minister, he put Peter Mandelson – the arch political fixer – into the key role of pulling the strings in Whitehall. “Cameron decided to give the job to a wonk,” says one Number 10 insider. Letwin, once a visiting fellow at Princeton, was charged by Cameron with drawing up the Tory election manifesto and today has the task of “policy-proofing” ideas. His endearing giggle belies a sharp policy brain and Cameron relies on him to do a lot of the detail. Lib Dems admire him for his liberal instincts; the only problem is that his political antennae often appear non-existent.

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