Politicians

Gordon Brown interview: the election, Blair and family life

The Times April 10, 2010
– Ginny Dougary

Gordon Brown talks candidly to Ginny Dougary
Photo: Mitch Jenkins

Gordon Brown

By our third meeting, the Prime Minister’s skill at the public kiss had improved immeasurably. There was now definite contact between lips and cheek and no head clunking, although he still needs to work on his puckering technique. When I commented on his progress, in the library of 10 Downing Street, he laughed… which is something he does a lot, the more we meet, in-between some rather solemn moments. My teasing had come on the back of seeing his turn on Piers Morgan’s television show, and the clips of him bungling the continental double-kiss with the likes of Carla Bruni (but, really, who can blame him for being a little fazed by that?).

In the run-up to the election, the beauty contest between David Cameron and Gordon Brown is hotting up. After Brown’s hour with Morgan came his opponent’s twirl with Trevor McDonald, featuring the Tory’s “secret weapon” – after Sarah Brown’s endorsement of her husband, at last year’s Labour Party conference, proved such a hit – David’s wife, Samantha. But McDonald’s gentle lack of probing did his subject no favours, and Cameron’s performance – not helped by some rather ludicrous footage of him jogging to a soundtrack of Nina Simone’s Feeling Good – merely reinforced his critics’ complaints that he is a lightweight.

Brown has the opposite problem; where Cameron is accused of “hidden shallows”, the PM is thought to be almost too deep. There were cavils about him looking upset (apparently there is also such a thing as being “too human”) when discussing the death of his baby daughter, Jennifer, with Morgan but, on the whole, the attempt to portray him as less remote and more normal worked. So thus far, in the battle of the populist TV shows, it’s probably 15-love to Brown.

Our first day together started early with a photo opportunity at Euston station, the PM alongside Lord Adonis, to publicise the new high-speed rail link from London to the Midlands and the North. Then on to the train, in first class, where there is the first of several amusing moments. Brown comes over to greet us and blocks the aisle to the disgruntlement of a couple, behind him, who tut-tut and say, “Excuse me”, crossly, and when the PM turns round, the expression on their faces is priceless. Sarah Brown is accompanying her husband and, although we have met socially on a number of occasions, her manner is initially a little strained. This must be “protective wife syndrome”, since there was a similar quality of watchful wariness on Samantha’s face when we met at the Camerons’ home last year.

The main event of the day is at the National Memorial Arboretum, in Staffordshire, a service of rededication of the Basra Memorial Wall. The original wall was built, with local bricks, outside the airport in Basra. It was constructed in the dark, in their own time, after they had finished their day’s work, by Royal Engineers, hanging it with brass plaques as each man or woman was killed.

The Browns are sitting in the middle of the front row, with the Duke of Gloucester and Air Chief Marshall Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff, alongside. At one end, is Cameron, slightly slouched, legs crossed over each other oddly casually, in contrast to Nick Clegg, at the other end, who looks about 12, and Brown, who looks his age (59), who are both sitting bolt upright and staring straight ahead.

After the lighting of the memorial candle by Tracey Hazel, whose son – Corporal Ben Leaning of the Queen’s Royal Lancers – was killed in action at the age of 24, the readings, the playing of the Last Post and the minute of silence, the families line up to place their wreaths.

As they approach the wall, it is hard to witness their faces, convulsed in grief. They are all ages: some will have lost their husbands or wives; some their sons or daughters. Brown and Cameron are seven seats apart but, despite the bigger gulf of their political battle, there must be some communality, at this moment at least, in their thoughts of the loss of their first-born children. In the silence and the chilly air, it is impossible not to empathise with the families’ bereavement. Cameron is stooped forward, deep in thought, with a furrowed brow. Brown’s hound face looks sunken, ashen and grave. Later, he tells me, several times, “War is tragic” in an echo of what his old compadre, Tony Blair, said: “War is horrible.” But all their knockers want to know is, “Could it have been avoided?”

Next on the agenda is a “healthy living centre”. This is a Brown initiative; multipurpose centres to serve the local community, where you can drop your child at the nursery, go to the dentist, and so on, all in one place. In the nursery, Brown drops down on his knees – no hint of creakiness – and chats away to mothers and nursery aides, and their charges.

I would say, having observed both Blair and Cameron in similar circumstances, that Brown, contrary to expectation, has more of a common touch than either of them. Perhaps this is to do with his upbringing – his late father, the Rev John Ebenezer Brown, was a minster of the Church of Scotland, and the family manse in Kirkcaldy, Fife, was something of an open house to the poor and in need. Gordon and his brothers, John and Andrew, were expected to be kind and hospitable to whomsoever arrived at the door.

On the train back, Brown and I are left to talk, in rather trying circumstances, knees to knees, juddering china, hovering rail staff with loudspeaker voices. His voice is low and soothing but his manner is more hesitant, particularly at first, than in subsequent meetings.

It’s intriguing to hear the private reflections and anxieties of our public figures behind their impassive façades. He was worried at the service, for instance, about how much eye contact he should make: “It was very emotional. I found it difficult because I wanted to look at everybody but not in a prying way. I wanted them to know that I wasn’t trying to avoid their… so I looked at them and sort of nodded.” Afterwards, he met the families. Did they express their anger to you? “That has happened but not today… Look, war is always tragic, that’s what I wanted to say at the Iraq inquiry.”

So why didn’t you say it? “I did say it but that’s not what was reported. Tragedies happen during a period of war or conflict and you’ve got to keep asking yourself, ‘Is this the right thing to do? Can you justify this? What is happening to these young people?’?”

Do you sometimes feel like weeping, yourself, in a public event like this one? “Of course, of course.” I ask him, then, about his emotionalism when talking about the death of his daughter on the Piers Morgan show. Was he surprised when his feelings overtook him?

“Well, we… I hadn’t really talked about it much in public and I just… um… I mean, that’s just the way it happened. I wanted to explain what had happened because these were ten…the ten most important days of my life and I can remember almost every minute of them. And, yes, you do cherish them.”

Who can forget those pictures and footage of Brown, happier than anyone had ever seen him, as he held his new baby girl in his arms? He came to fatherhood relatively late in life, and looked like a man who could hardly believe his good fortune. And then those grief-stricken, shell-shocked photos, ten days later.

Does that personal experience connect him to the people whose own children have died, and does it also reconnect him to his own feelings of loss? “Yes, it does, because a loss is not something you get over. You just adjust to it. It’s very, very difficult, particularly when people have built their whole lives around either a partnership with someone or their expectations that they will see their teenage son prosper and then, suddenly, they’re dead, and it’s very, very sad. It is a terrible thing to lose your child.”

Moving on, I ask Brown whether he has enjoyed being Prime Minister, which startles him. “Enjoyment! It’s not the first word that you’d use,” a big laugh. “I do enjoy being in politics and, I mean, if I thought that I wasn’t being able to do anything that was of any use, I’d get out immediately. I’m not really wanting to be there if I can’t do anything. So as long as I feel there are more things to do… Yes, it is enjoyable.”

Can you give an example of something you set out to do and have achieved; something which makes you feel proud? “I think we have probably created a fairer society and rebuilt our public services. These Sure Start Children’s Centres, for instance, like the one we were at today… There’s now 3,500 around the country and there were none in 1997.”

He talks about the new challenges each day brings, and meetings with Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the internet, and Martha Lane Fox: “We’re trying to work out how we can move to the next stage of the internet in Britain and how Britain can lead in that.”

How good are you at the new technology? “I’m not that great.” Do you tweet? “Well, I give people messages but we’ve got 1.5 million people on it!” How are you at e-mail? “I do e-mail and you can tell it’s me, I never correct the spelling. I can’t be bothered doing spellcheck.

“My father had a typewriter and when I was very young, we [he and his brothers] all learnt to type with two fingers. That’s never changed,” he demonstrates, looking like an old-time reporter in The Front Page.

Brown went to Edinburgh University to read history at the age of 16, having been fast-tracked in an experimental educational programme, selected at Kirkcaldy West primary school, and taught in a separate class – with the other hot-housed children – at Kirkcaldy High School.

As a teenager, he wrote about how much he hated the experiment and he still clearly believes it was a bad idea: “My school life and everybody else’s was determined by this narrow, narrow measure of IQ. The kids I was in a class with, with very high IQs, were being trained to do better at university, assuming they would go to university. And, actually, most of them didn’t go because the pressures were very high on them, and a lot of them just gave up on the way.

“The idea that you can narrow intelligence down to one measurement of IQ… when what we’ve got to have is both an education system and a society that recognises that people’s talents flourish in different ways. You cannot standardise a measure of talent.”

Deyan Sudjic, the director of the Design Museum, was a contemporary of the PM’s at Edinburgh and recalls Brown’s successful campaign to become rector in 1972, at the age of 21, following in the footsteps of such towering political figures as William Gladstone, Thomas Carlyle, Stanley Baldwin and Winston Churchill.

“He wasn’t the first [student rector] – he was the second – but he was the one who made the most of it,” Sudjic remembers. “Here was someone who was quite cerebral about politics but who also managed a very populist campaign [a posse of miniskirted cuties, who called themselves the Brown Sugars, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Brown’s face and the slogan, “Gordon for me”]. It was a time when students were more interested in sit-ins and were quite snooty about that kind of thing, but he had a gift for touching different sorts of people.”

Even then, Sudjic says, “Brown had a glow, which is nothing to do with hindsight – a charisma that this was someone who was going to do something.” They worked together on the student newspaper, where Sudjic was editor and Brown was the unofficial news editor who could be relied on to come up with cracking headlines, and quickly: “He was always the centre of a group of people who wanted to be around him, and popular – of course – with women. [His girlfriend, for five years, was Princess Margarita, the eldest daughter of the exiled King of Romania.] We’d all go to a pub – the Meadows Bar – which was a notorious dive.”

When Brown left university, staying on as rector until 1975, fighting and triumphing in various thorny political battles, his plan was to be an academic. He lectured in politics in Glasgow and Edinburgh, “and I was going down that sort of road, but after I had my series of eye operations, I decided to do something a bit more useful”.

As is well known, Brown lost his sight in one eye in an accident when he was playing rugby in his final year at school. Up to that point, he was a gifted and keen sportsman. I’d read somewhere that he’d even thought of turning professional, but when I ask him, he says “No! But I was very fit and I was very fast. I was a runner, you know, so whether you’re playing football or rugby or athletics, if you’re fast, you’ve got something to offer.”

But then there were complications in his other eye and he had to spend long weeks, with operation after operation, lying on his bed in the dark with nothing to do but think: “I decided I had to do something a bit more useful, so that’s when I got more involved in politics.” But what could be more useful than teaching?

“That’s true, but I thought I was doing it just for myself.” In-between being a university lecturer and an MP, Brown had a stint as a broadcast journalist on Scottish Television. How did you find that? “I thought it was fascinating because it taught me how – well, it should have taught me how – to present a case, and it should have taught me how to say things more succinctly!”

For the rest of the journey we talked about books and poetry. Brown knew that this interested me, for several reasons, and I had the impression that he had prepared himself. We had met years ago when he threw a drinks party for Women in Journalism, in a gracious reception room on the top floor of 11 Downing Street. He may have had, even then, a slight reputation for dourness – which was nothing compared to what it became – but he was incredibly charming and seemed totally at ease surrounded by legions of spike-heeled feministas who all wanted to get close to him. His chief memory of the occasion, rather disappointingly, was the enthusiastic smoking on the balconies.

Then, more recently, as Brown’s reputation hardened – and he was portrayed, in some places, as a moody, paranoid, bitter, neurotic, socially dysfunctional, obsessive, workaholic weirdo – it struck me how distinctly at odds this was with the impression of him conveyed by other people I interviewed. Talking to them revealed glimpses of a Brown that we rarely see, and I wanted to dig deeper into this hinterland.

Terence Conran, for instance, spoke about his passion for modernist architecture and how – before the big modernism exhibition at the V&A in 2006 – Brown had asked if Conran would give him a tour of the show one evening. What impressed him was the knowledge of the Chancellor, as he was then, but also his curiosity and desire to learn more.

Antonia Fraser was struck by Brown’s cleverness but also his passionate interest and knowledge of poetry. Brown remembers being invited to a reception for Fraser’s anthology of Scottish love poetry when he was a student: “This was very funny because Hugh MacDiarmid was there [the nom de plume of the communist poet Christopher Murray Grieve, who created a Scottish version of modernism] and he was just swearing at everything. This man who had this great talent with words was reduced to the adjective, the verb and the noun of swear words. It was incredible.” But why was he swearing? “Well, I was the rector of the university, and I was a student, and the establishment was not very pleased with me [Brown had taken the university to court over its investments in South Africa, and won] and so Hugh was siding with me.”

He still reads poetry, which surprises and delights me, and he really knows his stuff. Every time I make a reference, he joins me, and so we make a bit of spectacle of ourselves, yelling, “My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains my sense” over the rattle of the train. (The only other politician, in my experience, who has a similar love and appreciation of language is Boris Johnson.)

I had asked Brown to cite his favourite love poem and he’s a bit stumped. About a week after our last meeting, I have the faintly surreal experience of the Prime Minister calling me at home, on a Sunday, and quoting the lines of various poems that do it for him. Clearly, he was speaking from memory, because he is unable to tell me the titles, apart from Robbie Burns’s A Red Red Rose. He also likes this one by Erich Fried and recites it:

“It is nonsense/ says reason/ It is what it is/says love

It is calamity/ says calculation/ It is nothing but pain/ says fear

It is hopeless/ says insight/ It is what it is/ says love

It is ludicrous/ says pride/ It is foolish/ says caution/ It is impossible/ says experience/ It is what it is/ says love.”

Towards the end of our train journey, Sarah came and joined us. Her husband had been talking about his book of the moment, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

What I want to know is whether the Browns swap books at bedtime. Sarah says in her dry way: “I read a lot of chick lit… and Gordon, not so much.” Really, how can you fail to like her? “Well, Sarah reads a lot more than I do,” says Gordon. “I’m less interested in reading political biographies but I do find biographies interesting; the way they try to get at the heart of people.”

We’ve arrived at Euston. Brown ushers me into his car, en route for Downing Street, where he and Sarah are hosting a reception for the heroes of different communities, and talks in an unbridled way about himself.

There is a bit of a whiff of that “They’re out to get me” paranoia when he refers to certain newspapers, but then you could say it’s justifiable paranoia because they are. More interestingly, he says that for some years he had felt restricted by a kind of image-problem straitjacket but now he’s shrugged it off and can be himself. He talks about it as though it were a liberation.

Other people have witnessed this new lightness in the PM’s step, although they say the straitjacket was of Brown’s own making. One political commentator first noticed what a good mood Brown was in on the plane to Trinidad, last November, for the Commonwealth summit. “I kept saying, ‘Why is Gordon so relaxed? Is it because he can see the finishing line?’ He’s seen off the coups, and he’s got the polls in a good position and he’s been thrown a lifeline that wasn’t there – because the public has taken a good look at Cameron and they’re not quite sure about him… So Brown’s in with a chance.”

The accusations sparked by Andrew Rawnsley’s book that Brown has “anger issues” have tended to make the PM more popular. “The country was not shocked by suggestions that the PM loses his temper, and his staff don’t regard him as a bully,” the commentator continues. “He’s not a cruel guy – he doesn’t get any pleasure by being hard on people – but he is extremely demanding. I’ve had texts from people in No 10 saying, ‘God, he’s in a bad mood today,’ and there’s no doubt that he’s really, really moody. But now that it’s been seen that he can shed a tear as well as sock people,” he jokes, “Brown’s far more interesting to the public.”

I spoke to someone close to Blair who had witnessed the two of them during some of the more tense periods. “I’ve never seen anything like bullying,” he says. “I’ve heard horrible tempers but the most difficult thing with Gordon was his withdrawal or sulkiness which was much more tedious. His main problems were shooting the messenger and sulking when he didn’t get his own way, but my impression is that all that is better now and his team seems to be working better.”

It’s possible, of course, with the election only weeks away, that no one from Labour’s inner circle, past or present, is going to put the boot into Brown since there’s no shortage of people who will be doing that for them.

Our next meeting takes place, on Sunday afternoon, in the kitchen of No 10. It’s rather pokey and old-fashioned and to get there, you go up in a lift the size of one of those saw-the-lady-in-half magician’s boxes. The Browns’ sons are nowhere to be seen but I pass their brightly coloured wellingtons lined up, regimentally, in another tiny nook at the entrance of the flat. Sarah organises coffee in a cafetiere and, again, Brown and I are left alone, to talk around the kitchen table.

This lack of control-freakery is highly unusual with senior politicians. Brown’s press person leaves a tape recorder on the table but never sits in on the interviews. When I interviewed Tony Blair a number of times last year, again with no aide present, he said that when he was Prime Minister that would never have happened. I wasn’t allowed to be on my own with David Cameron in our time together, again last year, without his press officer glued to our side. Cameron’s people were also much more anxious about what I was going to write, while Brown’s lot are almost peculiarly chilled. It’s hard to know whether this is an extremely clever ploy – see how relaxed and confident the PM is! Gordon Brown has nothing to fear! – or a bit naive and unprofessional.

I ask Brown, after all the recent focus on his personality, how he would describe his temperament. “Determined, strong-willed, impatient, wanting to do things.” Are you moody? “Yes, but, look, every day you get up with a determination to do certain things, and you can get very frustrated if you haven’t done them by the end of the day. But every morning, I’m very positive about what you can do.”

There’s been no hint of brusqueness in our time together but I wouldn’t see that, would I, since we are both sort of wooing one another for our own reasons, aren’t we? He laughs: “I don’t think I’m naturally surly but I am very strong-willed.”

When I repeat what the political pundit had said about the public being more interested in him, now, because of the tears and him packing a punch, Brown says, “But I don’t pack a punch!” He talks about his father, to whom he often refers, with a rather touching admiration: “He was a man who I never heard raise his voice once. You always knew when he was disappointed by the expression on his face but he would not get angry. And every time I get impatient or angry around others, I remember my father was not prepared to lose his temper.”

Does Sarah ever tell you to calm down? “Not those words, no.” What does she say? “Move on to the next issue.’” Do you brood? “I think about a lot of things. But ‘brood’ is not the word. ‘Brood’ is your poets we were discussing the other day.”

I ask him whether this new lightness of being – he says that it’s a consequence of him not caring any more about what people write about him – means that he is philosophical about his future.

“I’m not philosophical in the sense that people might understand it – that I’m just letting events take their course. I’m fighting as we’ve never fought before to win,” he says.

Some commentators are saying that the danger is that you underestimate Cameron. “I don’t underestimate anybody,” Brown says steelily. “And I certainly don’t underestimate the Conservatives. I mean, they’re putting huge amounts of money and huge amounts of effort and huge amounts of personal… You know, sort of ‘Brown is the problem’, ‘Another five years of Brown’. I don’t underestimate them at all.”

Does he fear rejection, I wonder. Could this be the reason that he put off the election, the first time round, when he seemed to be in a much stronger position to win, even though the initial honeymoon period was over. “That wasn’t about a fear of rejection, it was about the right time for doing the right things,” he says. “And I’m not going into this election fearing rejection. I mean, if people decide not to vote for us, I’ll accept that. I have to accept it so I will accept it. I don’t think I’m motivated by the fear of rejection.”

So why didn’t you call an election at that time? “Because I’d just started the job… We’d gone through the summer with floods and terrorism, and foot-and-mouth, and I thought about it and then decided not to do it because I thought we would give people more time to see what we’re capable of doing.”

Hmmm, how very generous-spirited of you, I say. Do you despair of the fickleness of the public; the way when Blair had gone, it was all, “Thank God, no more of that dreadful showbiz and glamour – Gordon Brown is so solid and no frills,” and, pretty soon, it was you who could do nothing right?

Another big laugh. “Well, look around the world at every political leader and for most of the time that they’re in office, it’s a referendum on them. So – make a mistake [which his people admit he did on pensions, for instance], make a bad judgment, do something sort of idiosyncratic or do something a bit strange or odd or stupid, and – you know – people will mark you down.

“So most of the time, it’s a referendum and it’s only when it comes to an election – and, actually, it’s only in the few weeks before an election – that it becomes a choice. So if you’re asking people, most of the time, ‘What’s your view of the Government?’ they’ll say, ‘The Government’s done something wrong.’ If you ask them nearer an election, then they know they’ve got to choose between these two parties.

“And if I seem happy it’s because I believe that we can show people, against the odds, and the odds have been against us, that we can come through.”

I ask him what he’s learnt about people from his time in politics. Any surprises? “I think that in the job that I’m in there are lots of things that shock you!” Any examples? “I’d better not! I’m still shocked by some of these parliamentary expenses problems that I never knew about. There was a system that was wrong, but it does shock me how bad some of the experiences we had to deal with were.”

Are you a bit of an innocent then? “Maybe I am.” A huge laugh. “No, I think most people would be shocked by this. And when you see people abusing any system, you get angry and it made me very angry indeed.” He goes on: “I didn’t have any particular problem with my expenses but everybody suffered and it’s bound to affect the government of the day. In the last two years, we’ve had two of the biggest problems that British politics has had to face since the war. One is the trust in politics that has been damaged in a way that it’s never been hurt before by a sort of cumulative weight of public opinion against MPs – because of the expenses – which is justifiable.

“And the second is the global financial crisis – and when you ask me about why we didn’t choose to go for the election…” Do you regret that you didn’t? “No.” Why? “Because I think it was better for me to see through the global recession. And let’s see what happens in the next few months. I mean, there’s still a long way to go.”

He talks about “the tragedy of British politics”, when there are big moral questions that should be debated – such as the right to assisted suicide, genetic research, discrimination laws – that are “about the future of our culture, in some cases, as well as the future of our country”, and yet, “All you see is a sort of divisive, confrontational opposition versus government bun fight that is more reminiscent of a public-school debating society than it is of a serious chamber looking at serious issues.”

He continues: “We’ve got to do better than this confrontational point-scoring and legalistic cleverness because, that’s what it is, clever not wise. And the reason that people don’t feel that their politicians are in touch with them as they should be is that they don’t feel that politicians are debating the issues that really matter to them – like social care – how do you care for the elderly? If you could see Parliament really debating that, then people might have more trust in the political system. That’s where I’d like it to be.”

And, yet, there are obviously larger moments of shared humanity where all differences are put aside: “When people are talking in the House of Commons about the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, the mood is very different. Look, politicians can behave well, even if they often behave badly.”

I ask him what has been the happiest moment in his political life, and he says: “I think it was probably presenting the first Budget as Chancellor – probably because you felt you were actually doing something, after so many years in opposition of not being able to change things.

“The Budget was 3.30 one afternoon, and for some stupid reason the Conservatives decided to make points of order. And we had 18 minutes of points of order – hahahahah – and I remember turning to Tony and saying, ‘Look, we’ve waited 18 years, I suppose we can wait another 20 minutes.’?”

The relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown is one that has riveted the public and media alike. It has been the subject of many column inches, books and a TV drama, The Deal. Given the Conservatives’ recent, rather counter-intuitive claim that they are Blair’s heirs, it seemed a good idea to contact the man himself. Blair is harder to pin down, these days, than the PM, but he spoke to me on the telephone, in snatches, from Moscow, London and Brussels, before flying off to China.

They were both new MPs when they met – Blair was 30, Brown, 32 – and they got on instantly. “He was pointed out to me as someone who was a highly intelligent, able guy – the rising star of the Labour Party – and we got talking and I found him both intellectually stimulating and a fascinating personality and then, by a curious quirk, we ended up sharing this windowless, airless room underneath a House of Commons corridor.

“That was the start of a very close friendship because we were in a very, very small room – slightly bigger than the inside of a car, but not much – and we were there all the time. First, there was a very strong intellectual curiosity, and an understanding that the Labour Party had to change and that we were in serious trouble.

“Second, we got on personally very well together, we really, really enjoyed each other’s company, and he certainly taught me a lot about politics.”

Blair offers as an example the first press release he did, “which was very much like a sort of lawyer’s opinion, and he said, ‘What’s the headline?’ And I gave him this intellectual analysis, and he said, ‘Look, what’s the headline?’ So he was extremely good at doing that.”

Brown also helped Blair with his first speeches: “Getting a point to them and a rhythm to them that was for a public speech rather than an argument. But the most important thing was that for ten years we were extremely busy iterating and reiterating where the Labour Party had to be… what was the modern form of social democracy that would be capable of remaining true to its values but win public support.

“So it was an intellectual bond but a strong personal friendship, too.”

I ask him about the next stage, when the decision was made for Blair to become leader. Wasn’t that awkward, since Brown had somewhat mentored him? “Well, of course, these things are always difficult,” he says, and then – which felt almost too melodramatically apt – the line went dead in snowbound Moscow.

We resume, a day or so later: “Of course, it was bound to be difficult because only one of us could go forward, and we’d been working extraordinarily closely together and very productively.

“But at the time, the great challenge was how to win the aspirantly upwardly mobile in the South.” And yours was the face that fitted? “You could say that… Obviously, it was very hard for him but, yes, I think he eventually reconciled himself to it.”

Blair says that the first term was about re-establishing Labour’s credibility to govern, “and he was a tower of strength, particularly in respect of the economy, because the worry had always been that Labour either didn’t understand it or couldn’t run it or manage it. And, actually, in those ten years we were a very successful partnership. But, yes, the tension obviously remained.”

I’ve been told, as was widely speculated, that after 2005, there was a real deterioration in your relationship, is that right? “I’m not sure it was quite like that but obviously Gordon still retained a very strong ambition to be leader – and he was perfectly entitled to, which is why I always thought he’d be my successor.

“When major events happened, like September 11th and Afghanistan and Iraq and so on, he was there and he was supportive. But there’s no point in being silly about it – of course the tension remained between someone who had the job and someone who wanted the job. That’s always the way it is, but it was still a very enduring partnership.”

Do you feel protective of Gordon when he is under siege? “Of course, because I know what it’s like to be under attack in that way. One of the reasons why I would never go out and criticise the person who is Prime Minister is that I know how damn tough the job is, and I also know enough about the way the modern media works to know that things can get extraordinarily exaggerated and your motives are completely traduced.

“But there’ll always be a basis of friendship for us and, indeed, respect – because on the great issues of the day, he is someone who thinks profoundly and, indeed, in an original way – which is a rare quality.”

I wait for the PM in the library of 10 Downing Street, with its rather gloomy landscapes in ornate frames, and books – lined up under august busts – which have an uncherished and unconsidered quality, dating back to previous incumbents. Only in one corner, almost embarrassedly tucked-away, is there any sense of the here and now – a photograph of a beaming Brown, with his two boys, John, 6, and Fraser, 3, wrapped up in his arms.

Sculpted into the cornices, around the room, are four tiny bees that Cherie had commissioned to represent the actual Blair heirs. The original vandal was Margaret Thatcher who had decided, in a fit of whimsical grandeur, to have four thatches attached to the stucco of the ceiling in one of No 10’s reception rooms.

When Brown arrives, I ask him what form his interior legacy will take. “I haven’t thought about that at all,” he says. “What’s Tony done?”

I had asked him whether his weeks of darkness and enforced idleness as a youth had taught him more about patience or impatience: “Impatience, I think – because I was doing all these things I enjoyed, like playing rugby and football, and then that just stopped.

“So, instead of allowing it to be a setback, you think you’ll try to make something of it – and I became more impatient to do things more quickly.”

And, yet, you had to be patient for so long, waiting to become prime minister? But then you weren’t so very patient towards the end, were you?

“Well, ask Tony. We had our ups and downs but there is no political relationship, as I have said, that has survived so long as Chancellor and Prime Minister as the one I had with Tony. How many Chancellors did Margaret Thatcher have? Three or four? And I was the longest-serving Chancellor for 200 years. So we worked things through when there were difficulties, and I’ve got enormous, enormous respect for him.”

He was also close to his special adviser Damian McBride, who had to resign after the e-mail scandal when he and Labour blogger, Derek Draper, fabricated unpleasant personal stories about Tory politicians and their wives. Do you still talk to him? “No, I haven’t talked to him.” Don’t you miss him and feel sad about it? “It’s a very sad example of someone making a mistake and paying very heavily for it. You can’t condone what happened but, equally, the penalty for him was very high.”

Does that mean that you’re not a good judge of character? “I don’t think so, no. One of the things about people is that you think you know them and then you get a surprise. But you think you know yourself and then sometimes you’ve got to think, ‘Oh, I’ve reacted in this way which surprises me.’?”

Well, look at Peter Mandelson, and how he bounces back. He’s gone from being the Prince of Darkness to – what? – the Labour Party’s Winne-the-Pooh? “I think people admire the way he’s fought back.”

Earlier, we had been talking about Brown’s extracurricular interests – he still plays the piano (as a boy he had lessons from his aunt, who was a music teacher) and he likes Bach, but he also can bang out some Beatles songs. What’s your favourite Beatles song? “Hey Jude.” He tells me that his older son, John, was given a teddy bear that plays Imagine when you wind it up – but it’s only later, when I compare Mandelson to a Mandy Bear, that he says: “That’s the guy who gave John the teddy bear that plays Imagine.”

What does he make of George Osborne’s claim that the Tories are the real Blair’s heirs, presumably trying to imply that Brown is a sort of Arthur Scargill throwback?

“It’s a Tory tactic to try to present themselves as centre ground and me as too far on the left. And it’s wrong because, basically, I am centre ground and they are too far on the right.”

Given that GB was as much the architect of New Labour as TB, the Tories might as well say that they are wearing Brown’s crown.

Moving on to Iraq, did he ever feel like resigning over it? “No… It wasn’t weapons of mass destruction or the issue about regime change that was important to me. To me, the important thing was, if you are creating a global community – which is what we are trying to do after the Cold War – you cannot have countries that persistently defy the international community by refusing to abide by their obligations.”

But was it our responsibility to go in? “There is a responsibility to protect – which we will have to debate – you know, we didn’t go into Rwanda when we should have done. You wouldn’t justify now the Western world’s inability to deal with the problems of Rwanda, would you? So you would support intervention in cases where it was morally justified.”

So are you saying we should be doing more Iraqs, not less? “Well, I think you’ve got to ask – what is a just war and what is a just peace.”

But, Gordon, do you understand that it’s not just the expenses scandal that has made the public turn against politicians – it’s also that thousands and thousands of people marched against the Iraq War but their opposition counted for nothing. Do you understand that anger?

“I understand the anger over Iraq, I do – because people feel that they were given information that turned out not to be correct. I understand the feeling that people have but you want me to, sort of, denounce something that I was involved with.

“Do I understand why people feel worried when there are casualties and people are killed? Yes, I do – but I can’t be in politics and be a pacifist.”

How much does the public have a right to know about their political leaders? “That’s an interesting question, isn’t it?” If you had been suffering from depression, for instance, should we know about that? “I’ve never really thought about it.” But weren’t you asked about that by Andrew Marr? “That was about prescription drugs, wasn’t it?” But if I asked if you were on Prozac, let’s say, should I expect an honest answer? “I think people have got to give answers to questions, yeah.”

But do you think that’s a legitimate question to ask? “Look, I think we are in a world where every part of my private life has been investigated by someone. Every part of what I do… my house, my marriage, my children. I didn’t choose to expose the fact that my son [Fraser] had cystic fibrosis. I didn’t want people to know that. I’m not ashamed of it but I didn’t want people to know because I want to protect my sons.

“But it leaked out. Someone sold the story. But I am realistic that people will ask all sorts of questions and they do – and in the end people will judge you by what you do.”

He had said that his upbringing was one where you didn’t talk about personal things outside the confines of your family: “I was quite a shy boy when I was young and, yes, I’m probably still shy… but not unwilling to take on the things I do.”

Do his feelings get hurt by the personal comments? “I think it does affect you when people say, ‘Oh, this guy’s got a…’ – hahahaha – ‘weird smile,’ and ‘This guy’s got something wrong about the way he speaks.’ I mean, people are pretty cruel sometimes. But, no, I don’t get hurt any more.”

Watching the Browns, over several days, one did, indeed, get the impression as the PM puts it, “We do well together – we’ve been very lucky.” He looks a bit emotional. “You’ve got to understand each other’s needs and, at the moment, she’s having to do more for me, so it’s more of a pressure on her.”

How much do you think Sarah’s changed you? “A lot, I think. She’s helped me to be more outgoing and more sensitive to things that probably I was not as sensitive to as I should have been.”

What have you discovered about her in this role? “Poise. I knew she was compassionate and very dedicated to what she was doing – but it’s a difficult job for her because there’s no official title or office that sort of backs her up. But she’s tried to do all the things that are necessary with poise and, I suppose,” – a shy laugh – “elegance.”

Can you imagine a life without children? “Not now – it’s absolutely the best thing that has happened to me, and it was never clear after Jennifer died whether Sarah could have more children, so we were very lucky.

“Working here and living here, you’re meeting your children throughout the day – so, you know, they’re running in to see you.” Are you demonstrative with them? “Oh, yes, very.” Were your parents with you? “Not so much, no. But children like that – we play a lot together and I try to read them stories… You know, it’s the softness of their skin which is just wonderful.

“I’ve been very lucky to have children at this age – Sarah is younger than me, our children are very young, and I feel younger as a result. It’s very energising to be around children.”

How does Brown think he and Sarah will get on when they have more time on their hands? “Better,” he says. “I think so because Sarah’s got things she wants to do, and I’ve got things I want to do…”

Can you imagine a life without politics? “Oh yes, I could always imagine a life without politics.” What would you enjoy? “Time to read, time to write… I have written one or two books and I love the intellectual discovery that comes with it. I’m fascinated by the moral sense that people have and how that arises, and what makes people do the things they do.”

When we had been talking about poetry on the train, Brown spoke about his favourite poem – Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard, and its theme of potential never realised, the flowers never to blossom and so on, because of impoverished lives. I’d asked him, then, if he felt that he’d fulfilled his potential. “Not yet. Does anybody in the end? I don’t know.” He also said that everyone who is reported as being one-dimensional has more than one dimension: “Everybody has a hinterland of some sort.”

I spoke to Rory Bremner, whose job as a political satirist and impressionist requires him to examine our political leaders with forensic precision, and his view was that Brown was the most three-dimensional of them all. He also said that, “Brown is a serious man and a significant politician but the skills set of a modern politician is about fluency and ease and looking relaxed in your own skin, and Brown doesn’t fit into that.”

What Bremner said chimed with the general impression I had of Brown, while working on this piece that, despite, his mistakes, he is a man of substance in a shallow age. So the question is – will we get the prime minister we deserve?

Towards the end of our sessions, I put it to him that politics often seems not to be about the art of the possible but the art of the compromise. “It ought to be the art of making the desirable possible, in my view,” was Brown’s supple riposte. “Is that not what politics should be? Making the desirable possible?”

Politicians

Who is David Cameron?

The Times May 16, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

The past year has been a momentous one for David Cameron. As Gordon Brown’s Government stumbles from crisis to crisis, Cameron has reaped the political reward, as his target narrows on No 10. Yet alongside this public ambition has been private grief as he suffered the devastating death of his eldest child, Ivan

David Cameron
Photo: Tom Stoddart

If David Cameron wants to survive to become the next prime minister, he should avoid being driven at all costs. We are hurtling through the narrow, winding country roads of West Oxfordshire, having left his constituency headquarters in Witney (Tory-blue carpet and chairs; wobbly round table; rough Cotswold stonewalls) a fraction behind schedule for the 20-minute journey to Chimney Meadows nature reserve, where Cameron is to deliver a speech.

He is still tanned from his holiday in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh – “Yuh, Tony Blair territory” – and looks slimmer and, strangely, after all he has been through in recent weeks, even more fresh-faced and youthful than when we last met. “Really? I feel a lot older,” he grimaces when I tell him. He is definitely, however, more uptight, barking at the poor chauffeur: “Are you sure this is the right direction?”; “This isn’t the way I would have gone” every few minutes; continually worrying about running late. After our white-knuckle ride, Gabrielle Bertin, Cameron’s press officer, confides that her boss is always a bit of a nightmare passenger. Here is a man who hankers to be in the driver’s seat in more ways, clearly, than the big one.

The occasion, described to me by Cameron as “very birds and trees”, is attended by 100-odd local wildlife enthusiasts in green wellies, Barbours and fleeces; not all of them Tory voters. By the time he is called upon to speak, the leader-in-waiting has regained his customary composure. He starts with a little joke that this is the first time he has given a talk in a barn which means that there’s less risk – what with the fresh air and open doors – of his audience falling asleep.

The speech is an opportunity for him to underline his green commitment: “Some would say that in a recession we can’t afford to go green, but I would say quite the opposite… Some people find the greening of the Conservative Party rather peculiar but…”, and says that he wants to make it easier for local communities to take over disused land, in a move that would echo Thatcher’s “right to buy” homes policy.

He finishes by drawing on the theme of a Dr Seuss book, The Lorax, which is the Camerons’ current bedtime reading for their children, Nancy and Elwen. It is a fable of the dangers of destroying biodiversity: “The effect of deforestation, smog and pollution – gluppity-glupp and schloppity-schlopp to Dr Seuss – are all too familiar… The moral of the story is all in one word: ‘Unless’.” Cameron adopts a singsong voice: “‘Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, It’s not going to get better, it’s not.’”

It is six weeks since Ivan, the Camerons’ eldest child, died. David Cameron had agreed that we should meet to talk briefly about this sad event, before our drive to Chimney Meadows. It would be fair to say that we were both rather dreading the intrusion into such a private realm of loss. We had, however, spent months talking on and off for this profile, during which time I had met Ivan in the family’s London home, and the grieving father must remain a pragmatic politician.

First, we catch up on the big news of that week: McNastygate. I’m most interested in what he thinks the whole Damian McBride affair says about Gordon Brown’s character, but the question confounds him: “I don’t know; I’m not a psychoanalyst. I don’t think you can just say that this is a one-off problem. There is a pattern of behaviour but I profoundly believe politics doesn’t have to be like this.” Cue predictable guff on how much healthier the political culture would be if the Conservatives were in power.

I wonder which of the prevailing theories about Brown rings truest to Cameron: is the Prime Minister a Jekyll and Hyde character (donnish introvert alongside bruiser bullyboy) or someone who needs the likes of McBride because he doesn’t have the requisite toughness for that sort of gloves-off fight?

“I just don’t know the man well enough to answer the question,” he sighs. “But you choose the people you want for the skills they have and what you want them to do so… it’s like the scene in Casablanca, as Andrew Neil put it, when the barman says, ‘I’m shocked that people have been drinking in my bar.’ ”

Politics, he agrees, sometimes – quite often – means being unpleasant (as anyone who has witnessed recent Commons confrontations between Brown and Cameron will attest). “Yes, there’s rough and tumble; yes, there’s argument; yes, it can get very heated; yes, sometimes it does go into… um… what people’s motivations are…” And nasty? “Yes, but it’s a world apart from what’s been going on here, (a) because it’s all untrue, and (b) because it’s going after people’s wives. I felt really very angry about it because I thought, ‘How can these people say that about someone’s wife?’” (The leaked e-mails contained below-the-belt comments about George Osborne’s wife.)

Did it make Cameron want to punch him? (I meant McBride but Cameron clearly thought I was talking about Brown which makes his response even funnier.) “You want to get the sort of mud wrestling scene from D.H. Lawrence! No!” he laughs. “I just felt really angry and the point about me saying, ‘I want him to say sorry,’ was not a ploy to be clever. I just thought, ‘I bloody well want him to say sorry. I’m really angry about this.’

“And it’s no good saying he didn’t write the e-mails. This happened in his office in Downing Street, he’s the leader, he’s the head of the culture, so you have to say sorry. He did eventually, and good for him, quite right.”

Cameron, of course, has first-hand experience of spin; in his one break from politics, he was Michael Green’s director of corporate affairs at Carlton Communications from 1994 to 2001. I say that he seemed to be universally unpopular in that role and he erupts into laughter: “It was pretty impossible because I worked for someone whose view – particularly when you’re dealing with market-sensitive information – was that you should say very little. I was perennially known as saying, ‘No comment,’ to everyone about everything.”

The Carlton chapter in Francis Elliott and James Hanning’s (newly updated) unauthorised biography makes you sound a good deal more disagreeable than that. “It’s very bad,” he splutters. “It’s a long time since I read the book but it’s not right at all.” But all those quotes were attributable to journalists who wrote about what a s*** you were! “Butbutbutbutbut… [snorting with laughter]. I don’t accept that, I really don’t.”

What? David Cameron says, “I was not a s***”? “Of course I was not a… you know,” he says, hyper-alert to the possibility of providing the wrong sort of soundbite. “The point is there are a lot of people you could talk to who would say that I did the job very fairly and in a very honourable way.” (He plucks out one name and says, sounding slightly desperate, “I’m sure she would vouch for me.”)

So is there nothing you’ve done in your professional life that has made you ashamed of yourself? “Of course, I’m sure there are things that I’ve done that I shouldn’t have done,” he says. “But what Damian McBride did is just in a different world.”

We move on to Ivan. In our early meetings, I was struck by how often Cameron talked about his profoundly disabled first-born child. What was striking is that although I found Cameron to be frustratingly reticent in some ways, he always seemed utterly relaxed talking about Ivan’s condition – an extreme form of epilepsy and cerebral palsy – almost as though it were a relief to speak openly about what it is like to be a parent of a disabled child.

I had asked him whether, on hearing the news about the extent of his son’s disability, there had been a moment where he feared he might not love him because of it. “That’s a very deep, big question,” he replied. “But I never worried that I wouldn’t because when your first child is born, that’s an incredibly precious feeling that you have and you love him from the moment he pops out.”

We had been talking back then about his faith – which he described as “good, solid Church of England… sort of full of doubts and worries and concerns and I don’t think I’ve got a direct line to God! But if something goes wrong in life, I’m more inclined to try to be rational and sensible and practical…” – and, again, his thoughts led inexorably back to Ivan.

“I suppose with Ivan, on the one hand it does sort of shake your faith but on the other hand, I don’t know, in a rather strange way it also reaffirmed it.”

It is still very early days since the death of his boy and, of course, “It’s not a straight line where every day gets a little better. Some days, you think, well, this is getting a bit better, and other days you feel completely miserable and it’s not getting better at all.

“I try to think of… The fact is that he did have a lot of pain in his life and he did suffer a lot, and so I try to think of that because it makes me think that he’s in a better place – but you just can’t get over the fact that we miss him a lot, you know. That’s the really difficult thing.”

In one of the many, many pieces that have been written about Ivan, I was struck by the description of him being a presence in the room that pulled people, particularly children, towards him; almost as though his stillness radiated a sort of calmness which you wanted to be near. I felt it, to a small extent, myself. “I think because he couldn’t move, if he heard a new voice, his head would turn and he would look at you and you would just be drawn.” And he was beautiful. “Yesssss,” a sharp intake of breath; his eyes redden and so do mine. We’re going to find this… “Very difficult…”

Cameron pulls himself up. “The letters were amazing, I got 11,000 letters… I didn’t read every single one but I did read a huge amount. I read all the ones from people who had children like Ivan, because they were amazing stories, and all the ones from people who’d met him and what their impressions were and that was very touching to read.”

He and his wife Samantha watched Gordon Brown’s speech: “I thought it was very good and I wasn’t expecting it at all because, you know, I thought Parliament will carry on, as it were, but it was very touching that he and William Hague did what they did and said what they said.

“The Houses of Parliament are extraordinary in that one minute everyone is having a go at each other, and the next minute because of bereavement or an event it suddenly stops. It was odd watching television that night – the mood was very striking – but we were watching it because it was lovely seeing…” Cameron emits a piercingly grief-stricken laugh, “…you know, pictures of Ivan.”

I mention the lovely one of him and Ivan that was on the front of every newspaper and he says that someone did an incredible drawing of it and sent it to him: “Absolutely beautiful… a little pencil drawing, really the loveliest thing. I’m framing it and I’ve brought it down to Dean [his Oxfordshire home] to put it on the wall because it’s so lovely.”

The Camerons haven’t even thought about how to deal with their London home, with its basement converted specifically to cater to Ivan’s needs. When does life move on to deal with painful practicalities of that sort? “Very slowly. That expression – time and space – is very true. Because you do need time and you do need not to rush these things. There are all those sort of things which we haven’t changed yet and it will take a very long time to do that.”

Is it the case that Samantha is finding it particularly hard because of the bond – even a sort of cocoon – that mothers are said to have with severely disabled children? “The point is that it was not just because he was our first child that life evolved around him an enormous amount, but Samantha had arranged a life for him and care for him and everything for him so brilliantly and beautifully and that not being there any more is… an enormous vacuum… and that will take a very long time to come to terms with.”

Was there any moment when he thought that he didn’t want to be in this game any more, that there are more important things in life than politics?

“It was more like just the world stopped and nothing else mattered; it’s more like that. It doesn’t suddenly change everything you think but… it’s the only way I can describe it. This happened and suddenly the clock stopped,” he says, echoing Auden’s moving love poem of loss, “and the next few days and weeks were just very different to anything that had gone before and then, slowly, you emerge.”

He continues: “You’re quite hyperactive, too. Funerals are very cathartic things because the arrangements and everything are tremendously important because it helps you understand what’s happened and then afterwards you feel a bit low because… as I say, it’s not a straight line. It’s not a bit better every day – it just comes and goes.”

Do you think it’s made it harder for you because you’re so much in the public eye? “I don’t know, because I am what I am and what I do, and there’s nothing to compare it with.” He stops and thinks. “There are ups and downs. The positives are the letters I’ve had, and the extraordinary contact I’ve had with people has been very helpful – because it’s lovely to know that people are thinking about you, and it helps that other people who’ve been through the same thing write to you. But on the other hand, the fact that people do come up and say lovely things sometimes just sets you off again.”

It was only afterwards when I listened to the interview that I realised that Cameron had hardly mentioned Ivan’s name, as though to say it might make him fall apart.

The man behind the scenes

We had spent a very long day together at the beginning of January, travelling up by train to the unTory North East heartland – Stockton-on-Tees, Sunderland, Newcastle, Tynemouth, North Shields – from eight in the morning, not getting back to London till after midnight.

There were a number of train journeys, car rides, hanging unglamorously around Doncaster station in the dark and freezing cold (he had, imprudently, forgotten to bring a coat) for a delayed connection, and so on

– but, as many a sceptical interviewer before me has found, Cameron is good company, not at all arrogant or pompous, relaxed, with the sort of easy charm that can make you want to forget you’re being charmed.

This Cameron swears, likes a drink, sings Lindisfarne’s Fog on the Tyne in a bad Geordie accent as we approach Newcastle, and speaks refreshingly openly about other political figures, both in the UK and overseas – but then worries terribly that his off-the-record comments might somehow resurface. (He is a bit of a fretter, I think.) I have to reassure both him and Gabby Bertin – oh, about half a dozen times – that not a word of his indiscretions will see the light of day.

The next meeting was at his home – another early start – a week or so later, and it was clear that Cameron was as keen as me that I should catch a glimpse of him being a modern father with Samantha, creative director of pukka stationer Smythson, clearing up breakfast, getting their three children ready for school, before setting off to work.

When Cam’s Gang – the New Tory brat pack – was first written about in 2005, much was made of its members’ proximity to one another in fashionable Notting Hill, West London – a not altogether helpful (at least not to them) shorthand for a certain fast-living, trustafarian lifestyle. The Camerons’ home is not one of those gorgeous white stuccoed piles within walking distance of bijoux boutiques and foodie restaurants, but a rather more ordinary Edwardian house in an unremarkable street near tatty Latimer Road Tube station. Admittedly it did cost more than £1 million, which is not hard in London, and that was before its architect-designed, environmentally friendly makeover, but there’s very little to distinguish it – apart from, perhaps, a number of large nudes by Samantha propped against a wall – from any other metropolitan upper-middle class family home.

When I arrived, Samantha was sitting on the sofa with Ivan on her lap, putting on his socks, while David was perched in front of the computer watching clips of Ben 10 cartoons on YouTube with Nancy, 5, on one knee and Elwen, as the family call him, although he was christened Arthur, 3, on the other. Later the couple switched and David told me, as he carefully arranged his eldest son’s floppy limbs into his mechanised wheelchair, that he got a smile from Ivan earlier on when he kissed him on the back of the neck. With so little else to gauge how your child is feeling, one can see how a smile – particularly since they were rare – must have been cherishable indeed.

Cameron has been accused, from both within and without his party, of using his family, particularly Ivan, for political leverage. The Browns, for instance, also have a disabled child, Fraser, who has cystic fibrosis, but they have made the decision to keep their boys out of the public domain.

I don’t happen to feel that Cameron’s approach was wrong, even if there were an element of expediency about it. To see an extremely handicapped child cuddled up with the rest of the family – being cared for by a loving father, one who has his sights set on the most senior post in the land, in an unselfconscious way – must help to remove the stigma and fear around the disabled.

The Leader of the Opposition is used to hearing the criticisms and handles them with equanimity, explaining patiently when we first met: “For one thing, my family is very important and – as I’ve put it before – I’m asking people to do a big thing and make me Prime Minister and they have a right to look at you and what you’re like.

“But I also agree with people who say that you have to think about privacy and to me it’s a judgment you have to make, and sometimes you get it right and sometimes you get it wrong. And I’ve said this about Ivan: he’s my son and I love him and I’ve learnt a lot about disability through him and I do talk about him… [on the train, he proudly showed me a photograph of Ivan on his mobile phone, a beautiful pale face with thick black eyelashes and silky dark hair]… and if sometimes people say I talk about him too much, well, people have a perfect right to criticise me. I might sometimes get it wrong and if people want to say, ‘Oh, I don’t think you should’, fine. I’m very relaxed about it because it is a judgment you have to make all the time.”

Character study

By the time we spoke in Cameron’s office in Portcullis House, London, some weeks later, I was feeling rather too well disposed towards him for comfort. Still a suspicion lingered that the Prime Minister in waiting might not be quite as reasonable and compassionate as he seems. And how important is “niceness” anyway in a political leader – unless it’s part of the detoxification process, as Cameron doesn’t like to call it; convincing the voters that your party is no longer “the nasty party”.

Cameron had said to me on the train that, “Character is often more important than policy in some ways,” and in the absence of a strong ideology, it is his character and judgment that demand particular scrutiny. The appointment of Andy Coulson – the former editor of the News of the World who resigned when one of his reporters was caught tapping the Royal Family’s telephones – as the Tories’ communications supremo was thought by some to send out an odd message, especially given Cameron’s vocal anti-spin position.

I had a couple of niggling doubts about Cameron’s character before the Portcullis meeting, when I’d put in a few phone calls to contemporaries of his at Eton and those who knew him subsequently. The Old Etonian said that from what he could gather, Cameron had been “a bit of a bully, the type of boy who might try to stub out his fags on friends’ younger brothers”. When I repeated this, Cameron looked shocked and said, “That’s an appalling thing to say and also completely untrue.”

At his prep school, to which he was sent off to board at the age of 7, there was “teasing… which could become a bit cruel… But you all had a bit of that dumped on you… It wasn’t particularly bad… Sometimes it just goes over the top and has to be pulled back. How do you cope with it? I suppose it’s just one of the things that you have to sort of learn.”

During the period Cameron worked at the Conservative Research Department and beyond, he was described to me as a “toadying suck-up” to those above him and a “petty tyrant” to those below. Another contact added, “There were, of course, numerous stories of him behaving like that at Carlton.”

But what really irked me about Cameron when we did our interview in his office was the smoothness of his transition from regular human being into professional politician. Within seconds he’d started talking like a parody of himself on television: head tilted, a slight sheen on his baby’s-bottom cheek, the exaggerated tone of eminent reasonableness, and that curse of the politician when under the spotlight: the uninterruptible platitudinous flow.

It didn’t help that we had started talking about his attitude towards the importance of restoring family values to mend so-called (by Iain Duncan Smith) “broken Britain”. By family values, Cameron really means a conventional nuclear family with a mummy and a daddy, whom he seems to believe will be encouraged to stay together if his government pays them £20 a week as part of a married couple’s allowance. However much Cameron strives to dress this up differently, it does recall the last Tory era when the likes of Peter Lilley were blaming all the woes of society on teenage single mums.

Off he goes into speech mode: “Of course we should help every family and there should be benefits for single parents. Of course that’s true, but what I’m saying is let’s not ignore what is, I think, clear: that, on average, overall, looking right across the piece, children benefit from having Mum and Dad bring them up… You’re just trying to say, let’s have a tax system and a benefit system that at least sends a positive signal about commitment and staying together. Now of course nobody gets married for £20; I’m not saying that. But we shouldn’t have a system that actively encourages people to break up.”

There is an interesting schism here. If you look at what Cameron has said in his public speeches, there is something quite brave and bold and empathetic about his words. In his 2006 conference speech in Bournemouth, this is what he said about single parents: “Those of us who don’t live the life of a single parent, just try to imagine it for a moment. Trying to get a job… trying to hold down a job with an employer who isn’t understanding about the fact that you might have to disappear at a moment’s notice because there’s no one else in your child’s life and you are responsible.”

It was this same speech that demonstrated Cameron’s dramatic evolution from traditional (he was an enthusiastic early supporter of the homophobic Section 28) to modern Tory when he defined the importance of marriage thus: “And by the way, it means something whether you’re a man and a woman, a woman and a woman or a man and another man. That’s why we were right to support civil partnerships and I’m proud of that.”

In June last year, he reiterated this theme in a lecture for Relate – and was applauded for doing so by the chief executive, Claire Tyler. She is unswayed, however, by the thinking behind the £20 married couple’s tax break, believing it more important to target “properly funded services” at those who really need them.

So far, so right on. And, yet, when Cameron talks to me, he continually emphasises the benefits of the conventional mum and dad set-up. It’s as though, rationally (or pragmatically), he knows that the right thing to do is to adopt a more inclusive approach but at a gut level remains unconvinced. The explanation for this, I think, is part of the Dave/David Cameron conundrum – the way in which he is a throwback to a much earlier, pre-Thatcher Tory age, while striving to be his party’s most radical modern transformer. One of his friends has described him brilliantly as “Alec Douglas-Home goes to the Glastonbury Festival”.

Thus “Dave” employs teenage lingo like “bigging up” and “whatever” even when addressing an audience of ancient, tweedy Torygraph readers, although he doesn’t fall into Blair’s trap of modifying his accent, wears his colourful Converse trainers and gets up Baroness Thatcher’s nose for not wearing a suit and tie. David is rather stiff-upper-lip and feels uncomfortable being drawn into any navel-gazing. “Dave” knows his Killers songs, and the references in his speeches are not Shakespeare and Byron but television shows and films – a post-modern Tory, if you like – although it tends to be old-style action stuff such as The Guns of Navarone (he’s seen Where Eagles Dare 17 times) rather than, say, Pulp Fiction. David has a sort of noblesse oblige attitude to the have-nots in society that harks back to Harold Macmillan; when I say this he nods and points to a far wall of the room: “There’s a picture of him over there.”

Family values

Cameron is a bastard from way back – something he tells me on the train. His lineage can be traced to William IV (1765-1837) and his long-term mistress, the actress Dorothea Jordan, who had ten illegitimate children. Samantha goes back even further, to the first Duke of St Albans, one of two illegitimate sons by Nell Gwynne and Charles II.

His own family background, unlike that of his wife, seems to have been conventionally settled and down-to-earth. His father, Ian, sounds admirable: a man who, despite being born with badly deformed legs (he has now had both amputated and is blind in one eye), never let his disability stop him doing anything he wanted in life – from playing tennis to securing the hand of the well-connected Mary Mount who, at 19, judging from an early photograph of her in a ball dress, was something of a bobbydazzler.

I suspect that David’s emphasis on the importance of marriage and a stable family has been inherited from his father, who apparently had a wretched time as a child when his own parents divorced. Samantha’s parents, Sir Reginald Sheffield – former owner of the 300-acre estate of Normanby Hall, outside Scunthorpe – and Annabel Jones, divorced amicably in the early Seventies. She became Viscountess Astor when she married William Astor a few years later.

But let’s return to that interview in Portcullis House, where Cameron’s inner politician had the effect of unleashing my inner Paxman, prompting him to say, “You’re meant to be interviewing me, not attacking me…” Then, “Actually, I’m enjoying this.”

To my complaint that he was so much more irritating in politician mode, Cameron said, not unreasonably, “Well, I am a politician, for Christ’s sake, what do you expect?” At one point, hilariously, he and his personable press secretary, Bertin, who was sitting in with her own tape recorder, started applauding my technique; Cameron: “You’re just trying to get stuff out of me; it’s a very clever tactic.”

What neither of them seemed to understand was that my bad temper was absolutely genuine. From the moment Cameron donned his politician’s mask, everything that came out of his mouth sounded phoney. He trotted out his favourite soundbite several times: “There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state,” which is annoying on so many different levels that it’s hard to know where to start.

It’s a blatantly tricksy device to distance himself from the Thatcher era, when her line “There’s no such thing as society” became synonymous with uncompassionate Conservatism. But the rest of that line, which was rarely quoted from her interview in Woman’s Own, was, “There are individual men and women, and there are families.” And so while pretending to turn his back on nasty, selfish old Thatcherism, he is actually reconfirming her belief that it is up to individuals to sort out social problems, and not the responsibility of government.

“Broken Britain” is another maddening slogan which panders to the worst sort of Daily Fear prejudices, taking a few black spots and violent crimes to paint a distorted picture of widespread and irrevocable breakdown which is, surely, unrecognisable for the most part to most people.

Cameron’s response to this, when I say that there is much evidence that the British are plenty caring and compassionate without needing any guidance from the Conservative Party, is, “I’m not saying that every part of our country is in a broken state… My constituency is a wonderful part of the world where there is a very strong society and people do look after and out for each other.”

What I believe Cameron really thinks, but feels it would be too unpolitical to emphasise, is that profound social problems are almost universally linked to profound economic problems. He does actually address this himself, saying that society is too unequal and his real concern is the gap between the bottom and the middle, and that “part of what my whole leadership of this party has been about is reconnecting the Conservative Party with its heritage of caring about inequality, poverty, the causes of poverty and the two nations of a country that…” a nod to me, “in some parts is broken.”

So, I put to him, when he keeps linking divorce or the lack of fathers to the collapse of society, wouldn’t it be more honest to acknowledge that where this makes a particular impact is on those who are already struggling to survive. After all, he must know plenty of people – his wife, for one – whose new extended families, post divorce, have successfully reconfigured into perfectly happy and functional tribes.

“It’s much easier to get on if you have the resources to do so,” he agrees. “So if you’re saying, ‘Does relationship breakdown particularly disadvantage people in less well-off communities?’, the answer is probably yes.”

Part of Cameron’s charm is to use self-deprecation whenever possible, which is also useful for warding off an unwelcome line of inquiry. He seems to find it particularly difficult to respond to questions that attempt to delve, which leads to more combative banter. So he will say that he is “boringly” uncomplicated and straightforward, and I say, “So no hidden depths, only shallows?”

He does admit to having been in the shadow of his older brother, Alexander, three years his senior, a barrister and “probably” a Conservative voter – unlike his elder sister, Tania, “who was always a Labour voter… I don’t know whether I’ve swung her; I’m working on it.” As for his younger sister, Clare, through whom he met Samantha, he has no idea what she votes. Alexander, he says, was always better at sport than him, very popular, and a “brilliant actor. He was in every school play – he’s a really, really good actor.”

He also has a fear of failure which he finds hard to explain: “I don’t know… I just don’t know what I feel. I hate letting people down. I hate failing.” Perhaps if you have a flaw it is that you don’t care to scrutinise yourself too much? “I try to scrutinise if I’ve got something wrong. I try to go back and think, well, why? And sometimes that can be something that’s part of your make-up that you failed. It is something that you have to ask yourself. When you let people down, you have to go back and say, ‘Well, why did I do that? Where did I go wrong? How was I… I don’t know, whether… was I being insensitive or…?’ So I can do a bit of self-analysis, I hope.”

This has such a personal tinge, I wonder whether he and Samantha argue much. “Yes, of course we argue. Not absolutely throwing-the-furniture arguments, and we try to never go to bed on an argument… try to make it up before you sleep. But, yeah, relationships are very good for discovering about yourself and your strengths and weaknesses.”

When Cameron was telling me about his Eton days, where he was a self-confessed late developer, he made a point of saying how much he enjoyed spending time in the art department. “I just sort of quite liked trying out different things – printing and silk-screening and so on.” He says that he only got a C at O level, “but was quite proud because

I did it on my own, outside the curriculum, because I really enjoyed it”. What does Samantha think of your efforts? “Terrible. She’s the artist and I’m not.”

When I ask him whether he had girlfriends as a young man, he says: “Lots.” Any serious relationships before Samantha? “Yes, but none I’m going to particularly tell you about.” Cameron could have picked any number of conventional Sloaney Tory girls to be his mate – he has a certain plumped-up Rupert Brooke appeal and is bright, although not dazzlingly witty, comes from good stock and so on.

I wonder, given that interest of his in art, and the slightly wistful way he talks about his brother’s brilliance on the stage, whether his attraction to Samantha was his own small form of rebellion. For all that is made of his wife’s aristocratic background, we also know that she chose not to conform entirely to its expected norms. As an art student in Bristol, for instance, where one might have expected her to live in well-heeled Clifton, she picked Montpelier and St Paul’s – which had been the centre for the race riots during the Eighties. Much has been made of her friendship with the trip-hop artist Tricky, her dolphin tattoo, and so on. But she also seems to have had some sort of grit in her personality that impressed Cameron then – enough for him to travel from London to Bristol every weekend, and be ragged mercilessly for being a weird young Tory – and still does.

What does Cameron think? “It’s a good theory but I’m not sure,” he says. “Something just clicked and it got better. When you really love someone, you can’t always explain why – you just do.

“Now, you know, she is a very hardworking career woman with a great job and big responsibilities which she loves and she’s incredibly organised and brilliantly efficient, but there’s still the bohemian lurking inside.”

When I visited the Camerons’ home, three months or so ago now, I could not help but be impressed by the way they seemed to deal, with great fortitude and grace, with the daily vicissitudes of coping with a very disabled child. I asked him then – since I gather it’s what some of his closest friends believe – whether there have been two factors in his life that have been the making of him. First, Samantha: “She’s been a good influence on me, so that’s definitely true. What’s the other?” Ivan? “Yes, I’m sure he’s had a big effect. I mean, I hope that had neither of these things happened, I wouldn’t have been a truly awful person, but I think you have to add it all up – a bit of nature, a bit of nurture, a bit of circumstance, that’s what makes us what we are.”

Where Cameron has a real Achilles’ heel is his hang-up about the privilege of his background. Another of his slick slogans is “It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re going”. This may be intended to reassure those who have been born without the advantages Cameron has enjoyed that he wants to create a meritocratic society in which they, too, can flourish. But, in my dealings with him, what is really noticeable is how he wants to distance himself from his own wealth and how often he “bigs up”, as he might put it, the way his party has recruited people from very different backgrounds to his own. At times, he and his associates sound like the posh girl Jarvis Cocker sends up in the blistering Common People.

I wanted to know when he started caring about the poor. Did he ever come across poor people growing up? “Yes, of course.” When and how? “Well, in my home life, where I lived, you were very aware of the country you were in.”

Where in your home life? “I’m trying to think…” Did you know any poor people? “Yes, of course. People who are less well off than me, yes of course.” Where did you meet them? You didn’t meet them at Eton, did you?

“No, but at home.” How did you meet them at home? “I don’t want to disinter my entire childhood and who I played with and what it was like…”

He knew as well as I did that this wasn’t really a satisfactory response and so, a week later, sent me a longish e-mail attempting to make a link between his views now and how those seeds might first have been sewn.

“Here’s what I think. I was brought up in a stable and prosperous family. But we were always aware – and made aware – of just how fortunate we were. Mum was a magistrate for some 30 years and very plugged in to the community. We’d talk a lot about what she did and in many ways she embodied that sense of giving something back and public service that I believe in. Of course, the schools I went to were quite exclusive, but we weren’t cut off from the rest of the world and had quite a free country childhood in a busy and socially mixed village.”

He went on to say that he’d done some social work at school, visiting an old lady and doing her shopping, but that his view of social responsibility – a bit like his view of politics – “didn’t leap fully formed… in some cathartic moment… It just emerged as I got older… For me a really big part of wanting to be, and being, an MP is the social work. I love it and still do now with everything else going on. Some might see this as rather an old-fashioned view of public service – and I accept it can sound a bit patrician, but it’s what I think.”

I only get one flash of that Mr Nasty streak in Mr Nice when I raise the question of the Camerons’ various properties. We had been talking about his bewilderment about the depth of dislike that some people in the Labour party have towards the Conservatives: “Where I think Conservatives tend to feel Labour are misguided and wrong, there are some people in the Labour Party who just think the Tories are awful and evil, which is ridiculous and wrong.”

In my attempt to explain why they might have these feelings – I confess to shuddering whenever I see that photograph of young David and Boris in their Bullingdon Club regalia – I mention the four houses: “The four properties thing is rubbish. Touching that you believe everything you read in the newspapers!” You patronising git, I exclaim.

“I don’t mean it like that, but…” So how many properties do you own? “I own a house in North Kensington which you’ve been to and my house in the constituency in Oxfordshire and that is, as far as I know, all I have.”

A house in Cornwall? “No, that is, Samantha used to have a timeshare in South Devon but she doesn’t any more.” And there isn’t a fourth? “I don’t think so – not that I can think of.” Please don’t say, “Not that I can think of.” “You might be… Samantha owns a field in Scunthorpe but she doesn’t own a house…”

The rest of the interview was punctuated with Cameron’s nagging anxiety about how this exchange was going to make him sound: “I was wondering how that will come across as a soundbite”; “‘Not that I can think of’ makes me sound… I am really worried about that…”; “I am still thinking about this house thing”; and his parting shot was: “Do not make me sound like a prat for not knowing how many houses I’ve got.”

At the end of our interminable day all those months ago in the North East – visits to factories, including Nissan, which had just laid off 1,200 workers (on Cameron’s walkabout, he came across as a paternalistic factory owner in the Lawrentian mould, which bewildered the remaining employees), a college where unemployed adults were offered retraining courses, a meeting of the party faithful (a scattering of spiky-haired youths among the tweed-and-pearls set), a Cameron Direct, where the public get to ask the would-be Prime Minister any questions, public or personal – Cameron himself seemed a little vanquished by the ceaseless grind of it all. As we sat in the train – first class, but still pretty grim, with its glowering lights and sweating paninis – he wondered what the day had achieved.

In an effort to cheer him up, I said that, come what may, he has achieved something, has he not, by bringing a party back from the wilderness and making it, for the first time in years, seem electable. In some ways, Blair – to whom he once said he was the heir – had it easier because getting rid of Clause Four was such a symbolic gesture of change. I asked Cameron if the former PM had been an inspiration: “I wouldn’t put him down as one of the people who inspired me, no,” he said, but I’m not sure I believe him. “I do think that his success in transforming and modernising his party was impressive and what he did was an important achievement for the country.

“Clause Four was totemistic and it was a great totem for him to have. I haven’t had anything like that but I like to think that all the changes I’ve made to the party and policy and modernisation – the attitude towards people’s sexuality and life choices, more diversity – does accumulatively present something exciting. But in the end it will be up to the voters to decide.”

It’s clear that for Cameron, it’s not enough to make his party electable; what matters to him is getting elected. And now, more than ever, as Gordon Brown lurches from crisis to crisis, it seems that the voters are inclining towards the devil they don’t know rather than the one they think they do. Cameron appears to have learnt a lesson from all those Dave-ish action films he loves: who dares wins.