Matthew d’Ancona reflects on the death of Ivan Cameron and the transformative impact this little boy had upon the man who will probably be our next Prime Minister
When people ask me about David Cameron’s character, and what sort of man he is, I always cite a very clear memory I have of sitting in the Commons with him in late 2003. He had been tasked by the then Tory leader, Michael Howard, to prepare the opposition’s response to the Hutton Report on the death of Dr David Kelly — a massive forensic undertaking, as well as a thorny political challenge. It was a mark of Howard’s confidence in the young man who was to be his successor that he assigned this task to him, and not to a Commons veteran.
As we chatted about the Iraq dossier and the Kelly affair, Cameron’s phone rang repeatedly. It was his wife, Samantha, at the hospital yet again with their firstborn, Ivan, then little more than a year old. I was touched and impressed by the gentleness in his tone and the strength that it conveyed. One minute we would be discussing the notorious claim that Saddam could launch weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes — the next he would be speaking softly to his understandably anxious wife about who would be staying overnight at the hospital and what arrangements they should make so that both of them could get a hot meal.
What struck me was that, for all his ambition and steely political focus, Cameron revealed himself as a man who understood what truly counted in life. In the two decades in which I have known him, he has always been a political obsessive, cheerfully open about his desire to clamber the greasy pole. Even in his early days as a junior political researcher he was marked out by his peers as a future party leader. Yet that day at the Commons, as he spoke quietly to his wife about their beloved and ailing child, it was clear that his priorities were spot on. Nothing mattered more: not politics, not the media, not his gilded career. He was and is a family man first, last and always: not in the clichéd sense that is part of political posturing, but in the authentic sense that family has truly defined him as a person, shaping his character and his deepest hopes.
At The Spectator, we learned the shocking news of Ivan’s death as we were putting the finishing touches to this issue, and we send our deepest condolences to David and Samantha. The cerebral palsy and severe epilepsy from which their child suffered meant that they had always been conscious of his fragility and mortality. But there is no true readiness for such a loss. To be predeceased by a child is the most ghastly thing that can befall a parent, the gravest disruption of the natural order, and a form of pain that can scarcely be imagined by others.
Some artists and writers have tried, on behalf of the rest of us. In Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time, a mother who has lost her daughter finds herself unable to play the music that has previously been the heart of her being. ‘Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?’ asks the bereaved father in Robert Frost’s ‘Home Burial’. Beside herself with grief, the woman asks him how
You could sit there with the stains on your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your own baby’s grave
And talk about your everyday concerns.
You had stood the spade up against the wall
Outside there in the entry, for I saw it.
These are dark and awful regions of the soul, places that human beings are not meant to go.
It is the bleakest of coincidences that Mr Cameron and Gordon Brown should both have gone through this terrible experience. A close friend of the Prime Minister told me that his underrated book, Courage, was on one level an attempt to cope with the death of his daughter Jennifer Jane in 2002. Certainly, Brown’s chapter on Robert Kennedy, which is about the transformative effect of John F. Kennedy’s assassination upon his younger brother, is all the more moving in the light of his personal experience of bereavement. Nothing — not even religious faith — can act as an analgesic where this sort of pain is concerned. But both Gordon and Sarah Brown, in their charity work and other activities, have sought with great dignity to honour the memory of their beloved daughter. This is how death can indeed be denied dominion: in the way people respond to the loss of those most precious to them and the good which they remain determined to do in memory of the departed.
In most cases, one finds that there is a formative event that moulds a political leader and acts as the fulcrum of his or her life. For Tony Blair, it was the stroke suffered by his father Leo that persuaded him of the precariousness of human life and the vulnerability of individuals, and edged him towards the Labour party. In Mr Cameron’s case, there is no doubt that the birth of Ivan, the challenges that followed, and the deep love he felt for his elder son had a tremendous impact upon his public as well as his private life.
He knew, of course, how fortunate and privileged his upbringing and early career had been — Eton, Oxford, political stardom. But, with Ivan, I think he grasped fully and without bitterness how capricious life could be, and how precious it was. Those who saw him with his elder son were always struck by how tender and tactile was their relationship, how close their bond. ‘I’m not an angel and neither is Samantha,’ he insisted in his book of interviews with Dylan Jones. Of course not: but Ivan deepened in him a sense of broader responsibility to the vulnerable. Cameron had always been a One Nation Tory in the sense that he believed that the NHS and the education system should be world-class public services and not just a safety net. But what blossomed within him was something more: not just noblesse oblige, but a genuine interest in how a Tory prime minister could help the weakest members of society. At the heart of what he now calls ‘progressive Conservatism’ is a profoundly personal and private narrative.
It is much too glib to say that Ivan Reginald Ian Cameron’s indirect legacy will be the things that his father tries to do if he becomes Prime Minister next year. That is not how the world works. But, as shockingly brief as this child’s life was, he brought light to the lives of all those around him, and those who will always remember him: prime amongst them, his father. To see the boy, one need only look at the man.