Few Tory MPs set off for the summer recess in a confident mood. There is unease about the opinion polls, and the leader. There is also grumbling about IDS’s failure to sharpen up the shadow Cabinet, though it would have been hard for him to do that. The obvious candidates for the sack are Quentin Davies, John Hayes and Bernard Jenkin, the shadow Defence Secretary who makes Geoff Hoon look like Bismarck. But they are also IDS’s closest political allies. So instead, he merely made minor changes to the back row of the front bench.
Yet one of these, even if unlikely to transform the party’s short-term fortunes, has provided Tory MPs with some reason to feel cheerful. Although he arrived in the Commons only two years ago, David Cameron has long been recognised as one of the party’s rising figures. It seemed only natural, therefore, that he should become the deputy to the shadow leader of the House, Eric Forth. Almost immediately, he had to stand in for Mr Forth at the weekly business questions. Mr Cameron gave such a stylish and witty performance that one sketchwriter – not a breed noted for promiscuity in compliments – pronounced it to be the most assured front-bench debut in recent years.
This did not surprise those who had noted Mr Cameron’s progress. Though only 36, he has spent a long time in training for political eminence. After Eton and Oxford, where he enjoyed himself and also got a first, David Cameron joined the Conservative Research Department (curiously enough, that training ground for Tory Cabinet ministers – Macleod, Maudling, Powell, Douglas Hurd, Chris Patten, Michael Portillo and several others – has still to produce its first party leader. David Cameron could rectify that, unless Oliver Letwin does so first).
At CRD, young David was rapidly promoted. Early in 1991, John Major decided that he needed more help for Prime Minister’s Questions. David Cameron provided it. During the 1992 election, in Chris Patten’s words, ‘David did five men’s work.’ He was then 25. He moved on to become Norman Lamont’s political adviser, which provided him with a valuable experience for an apprentice politician: seeing how a senior politician’s career can go pear-shaped.
Despite Mr Lamont’s problems, David Cameron won golden opinions at the Treasury. Michael Portillo described him as ‘simply the best political adviser I have seen’. After the Lamont dégringolade, Mr Cameron moved on to work for Michael Howard, a boss who is no less demanding than stimulating.
But Michael Howard was a pussy-cat compared with David Cameron’s next employer. Around a dinner table, Michael Green of Carlton Communications seems a gentle, humorous, rabbinical fellow. It is not quite like that in his business life. Mr Green is legendary for the speed and vehemence with which he loses his temper. Max Hastings once told Michael Green that he would rather go to bed with him than be employed by him. David Cameron did manage to work for Mr Green and to enjoy it: after all, with Michael in charge, the office would never be dull.
In the 1997 election, Mr Cameron fought a Tory marginal, Stafford. In that annus horribilis, it was swept away with all the other marginals. In 2001, he did reach the Commons as MP for Witney, an Oxfordshire constituency with many miles of alluring landscape and some of the best pubs in England. In his political views, David Cameron is on the real-world Right of the Tory party. A Eurosceptic, he believes in smaller government and personal freedom; he abominates political correctness and the nanny state. But he also understands that most people depend on public services and do not necessarily trust the Tories to look after them. David Cameron is a modern Tory, who sees the need to adapt old principles to new circumstances. Without being a populist, he has a feel for public opinion. He likes pop music as well as opera; football as well as deer-stalking.
Above all, he has a robust and incisive mind. I have rarely met a politician who can expand a complex issue with such clarity while spotting every political nuance. He is also a good speaker, who charms audiences without condescending to them and who makes jokes while remaining serious.
If there is a fault, it is an unconcealed impatience. One or two of David Cameron’s Tory contemporaries, not negligible figures themselves, have complained that he does not take enough trouble with the likes of them. In the febrile world of competitive politics there may be an element of jealousy in that criticism, but it is something which he will have to watch. The day will come when he needs his fellow Tory MPs’ votes.
Along the way, David found time to marry Samantha, who is a formidable political wife and much more. The daughter of Reggie Sheffield, one of the shrewdest private investors around, and Annabel Jones, a successful businesswoman, Sam herself is a director of Smythson’s, the Savile Row of the stationery trade. She set up its New York shop. In one respect, this is a disappointment, because Sam is a good painter. But she has no time to practise her art.
David and Sam had their first-born. Then tragedy struck. They were indulging in the usual parental ambitions when they discovered that their son, Ivan, had a rare, incurable and crippling condition: an intense, life-threatening form of epilepsy, leading to brain damage and constant suffering.
Where there had been hope, there was only heartache. Yet David and Sam were undaunted. Their response was strength and courage. They are determined to ensure that Ivan’s life will be as happy as possible and to wrest joy from the jaws of adversity. Though it was predictable that David and Sam would rise to such a challenge, the grace with which they do so has often moved their friends to tears.
It is a tribute to David Cameron that he has been able to sustain a political life despite the sleepless nights and the hospital vigils. But successful politicians ought to have stamina, as well as intellectual ability, moral depth, commonsense and public-relations flair. It is rare to find an individual who combines so many qualities, yet it may be that Mr Cameron does. They are bound to lead him to high office. In time, they will make him a candidate for the highest office of all.