I was slightly sceptical of Team Cameron’s decision to unveil their ‘secret weapon’ last Sunday — namely, Dave’s wife Samantha. Not that she isn’t luminously beautiful. And her ability to juggle motherhood with a high-flying career will undoubtedly appeal to many professional women. Rather, it’s her social provenance that concerned me. Wouldn’t her transparently upper-class persona upset what the American journalist Michael Wolff has called the ‘careful tonal balance’ of Cameron’s ‘postmodern transmutation of the class issue’?
But, oh, how wrong I was. A couple of days later, the papers were full of stories about the ‘Sam Cam bounce’. According to one opinion poll, her appearance on television had boosted the Conservatives’ lead to 11 points.
The conventional wisdom among the commentariat is that Dave’s privileged background is a non-issue in the campaign. It’s just chippy journalists like me that are obsessed with it. ‘The British public are more fair-minded than one would think from reading the British press,’ claims Andrew Gimson, the Telegraph’s parliamentary sketch writer. ‘The idea of Eton irritates commentators, many of whom went to less grand fee-paying schools, more than it annoys the man or woman on the Clapham omnibus.’
But is this really true? Is it not conceivable that, actually, the reason Sam Cam has given the Tories a bounce is because, deep down, the great British public is still quite impressed by posh people? Deference is supposed to have been in terminal decline since the Swinging Sixties and, certainly, no one under 50 would ever feel tempted to tug his forelock on being confronted with a toff. But I suspect it is still there, swirling around in the collective unconscious. The fact that David Cameron is so at ease with himself, has such clear skin, can draw on a bottomless well of self-confidence — all these hallmarks of good breeding may still strike a deep chord with the electorate.
In this light, Dave’s skilful sidestepping of the class issue — ‘It’s where you’re going that matters, not where you’re from’ — has not eliminated the problem, so much as turned it to his advantage. By playing down his poshness, he has given ordinary people permission to be seduced by his upper-class charm. It’s what psychoanalysts call a ‘cloaking device’, a convenient way for people to conceal their true feelings from themselves. In reality, the warm, fuzzy sensation they get when they see Dave and Sam playing with their children in their Notting Hill house is a primordial response, the natural affection that, for 1,000 years, ordinary Britons have felt towards their aristocratic masters.
This would explain why Cameron has proved a more popular Tory leader than his three predecessors. There was a pivotal moment during the Conservative leadership campaign when Frank Luntz conducted a focus group for Newsnight which road-tested the various front-runners. Liam Fox and David Davis did respectably, but Cameron scored off the charts. ‘That is the best segment I have ever tested in politics,’ declared an awe-struck Luntz.
Something similar may have been at work in the 2008 mayoral election. Why did the people of London choose Boris Johnson over Ken Livingstone? Was it in spite of his pantomime toff routine — or because of it? Boris’s way of giving people permission to be impressed by his poshness is to treat it as a huge joke. Following him on the campaign, I noticed that even the most class-conscious, left-wing people were disarmed by his self-deprecating schtick. They would stand there, cudgels at the ready, only to find themselves laughing along with him as he dropped his speech on the floor and couldn’t remember the name of the dignitary who’d introduced him. Once he’d revealed himself as completely harmless, their natural feelings of deference would come to the fore.
Theories like this are impossible to corroborate. Pollsters like Frank Luntz can only record the reasons people volunteer for preferring one candidate over another, not their unconscious motives. When he asked one woman on Newsnight why she was impressed by Cameron, she described him as ‘someone you can be proud of’. Did she mean she liked the idea of Britain being led by a toff? I wonder. My hunch is that David Cameron’s real ‘secret weapon’ is his upper-class manner.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 20, 2010