LONDON – The Tory party’s annual Winter Ball in London is usually a starched, black-tie affair with a Tatler photographer on hand to snap the blue-rinse set as well as the “Hooray Henrys,” as Britain’s posh party boys are known, with their blonde, pashmina-clad dates.
Next month’s bash, though, is expected to be a lot different: First, it’s been rebranded The Black & White Ball, and it’s no longer black tie. A Cuban salsa group – and later gospel singers and an Asian funky house DJ – will replace the standard, generic cover band, and the party will take place at Old Billingsgate, a brick building in hip East London, rather than at the hulking Grosvenor House hotel in staid Mayfair.
The ball is already sold out – at $380 per ticket – and the guest list includes Jemima Khan and her brothers, Ben and Zac Goldsmith; designers Anya Hindmarch, Amanda Wakeley and Linda Bennett; actress Joan Collins, and a clutch of City bankers and Internet moguls who, even 12 months ago, never would have dreamed of celebrating the Tories, Britain’s Conservative Party.
“For the first time ever, I’ve taken a table,” says interior designer Nicky Haslam, who voted for Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. “A lot of people are feeling the change inside the Tory party. The leaders are young, in touch with the current vibes, and no longer the hammering, nasty old Tories of the past.”
A long-awaited, seismic change is happening inside the party, thanks to a group of thirtysomethings who’ve been fighting to update the Tories’ stuffy, elitist image, and craft more inclusive, broad-based policies. They’re known as the Cameroons, after their undisputed new hero, David Cameron, was elected party leader early in December.
A graduate of Eton, where generations of royal boys have been educated, and Oxford, where he earned top honors, Cameron, 39, is famous for his charm, his guts, and – most importantly in Britain – the common touch. He’s even got a fashion angle – his wife, Samantha, is creative director of the chic British stationery brand Smythson. The couple has two children, with a third child on the way.
And even at his relatively young age, many believe Cameron, a moderate conservative, could be the next Tory prime minister.
“I’m quietly hopeful about the Tories’ future,” says Daphne Guinness, a political watcher who’s voted for the party in the past. “And I’m really pleased there’s finally a serious opposition to Labour.”
Leonie Frieda, a journalist and historian, says: “Until Dave came along, I wondered whether the Tories even had a future. They were at risk turning into a freak bunch of loonies.”
Andrew Roberts, author, historian and a longtime friend of Cameron’s, says there’s a touch of John F. Kennedy about the new Tory leader. “He’s intelligent, charming and wise – if one can be wise at 39,” he says.
And while Cameron may not be a war hero like JFK, he’s certainly not lacking in guts or valor.
“About 15 years ago, I was on holiday with him in the South of France and I found myself surrounded by a school of jellyfish,” says Roberts. “Everyone just stood on the rocks and watched, but Dave jumped right in – with two set of goggles – and steered me to safety. It was a ballsy thing to do.”
Michael White, political editor of the left-leaning daily The Guardian, says Cameron has even managed to win over the old guard within the party. “The grumpy old Conservatives have decided that Cameron is their boy, and he doesn’t seem to inspire any of the usual jealousy or backstabbing. I think, for the older ones, Cameron is a case of hope over experience.”
Of course, the Conservatives have only hope to go on. After years of a revolving door of leaders – from the pint-swilling, cherubic William Hague to the scholarly looking Michael Howard – they need an injection of excitement to unseat Labour. And just as the buoyant Tony Blair offered a younger, hipper, “Cool Britannia” alternative to the Tories of “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher and bland John Major, Cameron could be the breath of fresh air the country is looking for after eight years of Labour. Blair has said he won’t run again – leaving the way open for his ambitious Treasury secretary Gordon Brown – but many believe Labour faces an uphill battle at the polls next time. An election must be held by 2010.
William Cash, a writer and social commentator whose father, Bill Cash, is a Tory MP, sees Cameron as an anomaly. “He’s got the common touch – which is bizarre considering he went to Eton, belonged to Bullingdon at Oxford and is a member of White’s, both of which are very traditional, all-male clubs,” says Cash. “But he has a unique chemistry – and the X-factor – that enables the Tory party to be likable again.”
Indeed, just days after Cameron took over, the Tories scored their first opinion poll lead over the Labour party in a decade. According to a recent poll by The Guardian, increasing numbers of Labour and Liberal Democrat voters would consider backing Cameron as prime minister.
Even the notoriously pit bull-ish British press is having a hard time finding fault with the tall, baby-faced Cameron – although critics stress he still has to prove himself. “He’s done the easy bit – and he’s got a long way to go,” says White of The Guardian. “He’s got to develop policies that connect with the priorities of the British people, and not with the rank and file of the party, and he’s got to get the Conservative Party elected for the first time in almost 20 years.”
Cameron and his supporters within the party are branding themselves as “compassionate conservatives,” trying to pair a strong social agenda with a dynamic economic one. They are patriotic and pro-business – and appear to be eager to help the poor, immigrants and the elderly. “There is such a thing as society – it’s just not the same thing as the state,” Cameron said in a recent speech. Roberts says Cameron’s great challenge now is to prove to Britain that he won’t cut social services and that he’s not a heartless Conservative.
Heartless isn’t the first adjective that springs to mind with Cameron, who’s been forced to deal with unusual and particularly demanding family pressures. He and his wife have two toddlers, Ivan and Nancy.
Samantha is pregnant with their third child. (Cameron, in true, sensitive-man form, says he plans to take paternity leave when the baby is born early next year.)
The Camerons’ toddler Ivan is severely disabled, having been born with cerebral palsy and epilepsy, and needs around-the-clock care. By all accounts, the Camerons are fabulous parents to him and his sister, Nancy, and the Tory leader shares the cooking, carpooling and child care with his wife.
“It’s a strong, loving marriage,” says Roberts, a longtime friend. “They are a remarkable couple without shoving it down your throat.”
Laetitia Cash, a freelance foreign policy writer and former Tory MP candidate (and William Cash’s sister), says Cameron sets a great example.
“He’s very encouraging about his wife’s career, and that touches the right buttons for all of us.”
Smart, low-key and self-possessed, Samantha has injected new life into the once-stuffy Smythson, creating stationery with cheeky motifs – like red lips and stiletto heels – and launching a line of leather handbags, which have been a runaway success. She zooms around London on a silver Piaggio scooter, and sports a little dolphin tattoo on the inside of her right ankle, about which the British press has made much to-do. And while the couple’s posh and privileged backgrounds could have been a major hindrance, it hasn’t worked against them so far.
Samantha is the daughter of Lady Annabel Astor, whose jewelry designs Princess Diana loved, and Sir Reginald Sheffield, a landowner from northern England. David Cameron also comes from an extended family with titles and political connections galore: His father is a successful stockbroker and his mother is a magistrate. “There’s not a scintilla of social snobbery there either,” says Roberts of the couple.
The couple live in North Kensington (they’re currently moving house to accommodate Ivan’s special needs), and spend their weekends at their cottage, a converted barn, in the Cotswolds, home to Cameron’s constituency.
Frieda, a friend of the couple’s, says it’s obvious they’re proud and very supportive of one another. “Sam is a massive part of his success,” says Frieda.
Indeed, during the Tory party conference before Cameron’s election, Samantha made it clear to everyone that, as a political spouse, she was more of a Denis Thatcher, behind-the-scenes supporter, rather than the very public and controversial Cherie Blair. “You’re not going to see Sam booking 15,000-pound lecture tours any time soon,” says Cash with a laugh.
Sam, who never commented on politics before her husband’s election, has declined all interview requests since his victory.
Discretion, it appears, is a mantra for these new Tories: Cameron takes pains not to be photographed in black tie (a “Hoorah Henry” look he’d rather not cultivate). Recently, he covered his neck in a scarf to cover the black tie when photographers took his photo after a gala to honor his predecessor as Tory leader, Michael Howard. Samantha, a lover of vintage clothing, is equally discreet: The Sunday Times of London’s Style magazine has already called her poster girl for a stylish, but far from flashy, group of English women.
“Being at the sharp end of trends is irrelevant to them,” the magazine said. “[But] they keep their eye on the catwalks, can tell a Marni from a Marella.”
For his part, Cameron is known to favor Paul Smith suits. And his agenda is equally hip: The environment and getting more ethnic minorities and women into parliament are two issues at the top of his list. (The Asian funky house DJ who’s been hired for the Black & White ball, Ali Miraj, is a recent Conservative MP candidate.) Currently, nine out of 10 Conservative MPs are white men, and women are grossly underrepresented.
“We need to change the way we look,” Cameron said in his acceptance speech last month.
He and his followers want to woo entrepreneurs and business people from minority groups in Britain’s big cities, and get them voting Tory. In a major break with the Tories’ conservative social attitudes, he has recently named a gay woman, the millionaire entrepreneur Margot James, as one of the party’s four vice-chairmen. A few days after his election, he appointed 30-year-old Zac Goldsmith, editor of The Ecologist and son of Lady Annabel Goldsmith and the late Sir James Goldsmith, as a member of a new policy study group on quality-of-life issues, including clean air, transport and energy.
Cameron, meanwhile, started biking to work the day of his victory. “That was a carbon-neutral journey – until the BBC sent a helicopter following me,” he joked in his acceptance speech.
Like Goldsmith, Cameron also favors fox hunting – which is now illegal in Britain, thanks to Blair and his backers. He started riding as a child and has taken part in the Old Berkshire Hunt. Cameron even says he’d make hunting legal again, a policy bound to find favor with old-time Tories. His supporters say his willingness to be outspoken on unpopular issues – such as fox hunting – indicates he’s not a slave to the polls or too much of a people-pleaser.
“He’s proud to be the man he is, and he’s not desperate to be so inclusive. And his steps are not dictated by the pollsters,” says Frieda. “There’s no doubt it’s going to be a rough and stormy ride ahead for him, but if anyone has the power to change this country for the better, it’s Dave.”