Rebekah, Dave, and the Chipping Norton set: Where power in Britain lies
The key to the relationship between Britain's most powerful man and woman lies in the Cotswold triangle
The A361 is a misleading name for the road that links Burford to Chipping Norton, or Chippy, if you're local. It's a pedestrian, train-spotterish name, that gives no indication of its status as the vital artery that courses through the most glamorous heartland of power-brokers outside London.
To the uninformed eye, the grey-green hills north-west of Oxford are unremarkable. American tourists, hungry for Laurie Lee visions of sun-dappled sandstone, hurry through on their way to the Swells and Slaughters further west.
While there's nothing to see from the road, a very different story lurks behind the five-bar gates. "This is a highly sociable part of the world," says one local. "Every weekend there are drinks parties, barbecues, swimming and tennis parties. And in the winter there's shooting and hunting. There's a great mix of people, though it's pretty high octane."
If Cotswold life is notably social, it is also notably powerful. Within a few square miles, the Prime Minister, the most powerful woman in Britain, the most powerful PR man in Britain and the daughter of the world's leading media magnate can all be found. Anyone who wanted to claim that democracies are a sham could do worse than start here.
Neighbours talk of a barbecue a few weeks ago where the alcohol flowed, and David Cameron and Rebekah Brooks are known to be regular visitors at each other's houses, "forever popping round for supper", according to one friend. They are known to have had dinner with each other at least once over Christmas (with James Murdoch), and were seen together at a drinks party in a neighbouring manor house on Boxing Day, in defiance of those who thought the PM should not get too close to representatives of a company seeking to take over BSkyB.
Of big houses, there is no shortage. But in the past decade, the mix of occupants has changed from nobs and bankers to include a mix of celebrities and politicos. When Cameron came to the area 10 years ago, he rented a cottage from Lord Chadlington, the brother of John Gummer, before buying a farmhouse in the hamlet of Dean when he won the seat of Witney. Matthew Freud and Elisabeth Murdoch began renting China Corner from the Duke of Marlborough's Blenheim Palace estate, before buying Burford Priory for £6m three years ago. Rebekah Wade followed suit, renting at Blenheim before moving in with her new husband, Charlie Brooks (part of a long-established Cotswold family and a friend of Cameron's brother, Alex), to his converted barn between Sarsden and Churchill.
Up the A361 near Chippy is Jeremy Clarkson, and west a bit at Kingham are the Bamfords, the JCB millionaires whose Daylesford farm shop serves as a central canteen and parish pump. Blur's bassist, Alex James, is always about, as are Ruby Wax and Kate Moss; then there's Charlie Dunstone, the Carphone Warehouse co-founder, and Emily Oppenheimer Turner, whose family is big in the De Beers diamond mines. Local nobs mopped up in the mix include Lord and Lady Rotherwick, who run a music festival at Cornbury Park, and Josh Astor, whose mother's home Bruern Abbey was bought by the Bamfords for their son.
The question is, how did Cameron and Brooks come to form such a close bond? How did the grammar school girl from Warrington penetrate the Prime Minister's innermost circle, winning over both him and his wife Sam? And why did he allow himself to be drawn into an alliance with what has proven to be so toxic a brand?
The strength of their bond is rivalled only by that between Brooks and her boss, Rupert Murdoch, who calls her his fifth daughter. He chose to sacrifice a 168-year-old newspaper and the jobs of 200 staff to keep her in post. Those who know Brooks describe her as fun, charming and good company. The same is true of Cameron. She is mischievous and energetic, and they share a clear-eyed ambition, which in her case was focused on journalism from an early age.
Born in Daresby, Cheshire, she announced her intention to become a journalist aged 14. Her mother, Deborah, was horrified and pleaded with her to change her mind. But Wade was determined and, after leaving her grammar school in Warrington, she headed for Paris. What exactly she did there is uncertain: according to her Who's Who entry, she studied at the Sorbonne. Other accounts suggest she used her fluency in French to work on the journal L'Architecture d'Aujourd'hui.
What we do know is that she was soon back in Cheshire, working with Eddie Shah's Messenger Group and, later, his newspaper The Post before becoming a secretary on the News of the World's magazine in London. She was only 20, and quickly rose through the ranks, joining The Sun and in 2000, aged 31, becoming the youngest editor of a national newspaper, at the News of the World.
It was at around that time that Brooks began spending weekends at China Corner, the cottage in the grounds of Blenheim Palace rented by Matthew Freud and Elisabeth Murdoch. They were married in August 2001 in the Blenheim chapel, with a marquee reception afterwards for only 70 guests. Among them was Rupert Murdoch, Wade and her future husband, the EastEnders actor Ross Kemp.
For an ambitious and hard-working couple, it made sense to get a bolthole of their own, and soon Wade and Kemp too were renting a cottage from the Duke of Marlborough. The Duke's 11,500-acre estate would provide the perfect venue for Wade to pursue her interest in riding, while Kemp could often be found nursing a pint at the Feathers hotel in Woodstock.
History is hazy about when Wade first met the Camerons, but by the time David was elected leader of the Conservatives in 2005, a friendship had been born. It helped that they were neighbours, and that they shared a passion for tennis and riding. But their friendship cannot be put down to chance.
The key to explaining Brooks is her knack for forging well-targeted friendships. Before she married Charlie Brooks, she and Ross Kemp were a New Labour power couple, considered close friends of the Blairs. In 2008, she attended a "sleepover" at Chequers, held by Sarah Brown, while today she is close to Samantha Cameron.
As one person who knows her says: "Rebekah is immensely likeable and fun. She's just full of fire and energy." Stories abound of Wade using her charm to best advantage, wheedling stories out of reluctant informers. Her hunger to be the best made her an ideal candidate as a tabloid editor. But her drive wasn't always applied in the right direction. Her stint editing the News of the World was defined by her campaign to name and shame paedophiles in the wake of the murder of Sarah Payne, which was criticised for being grossly irresponsible.
While Rupert Murdoch approved of her go-getting instincts, others felt she was coarsening the tone of her papers. Wade found plenty of enemies in the old guard at News International. They would snipe about her inexperience and lament the passing of a more gentlemanly management style. Her ascendancy coincided with the alleged proliferation of illegal practices to get stories. When the News of the World's royal editor, Clive Goodman, was imprisoned for phone-hacking, Piers Morgan, who edited the paper for a year in the 1990s, said: "I feel a lot of sympathy for a man who has been the convenient fall guy for an investigative practice that has been going on at almost every paper in Fleet Street for years."
We do not know the extent of Brooks's involvement in phone-hacking. Nor, as he admits, does Cameron. But we do know how close they have become, even if, in the context of the BSkyB bid, they have became a little embarrassed by their friendship. Locals speak of how they go to elaborate lengths not to be seen together, even texting one another to stagger their arrivals at social events.
And on 9 October last year, Cameron celebrated his 44th birthday with a weekend house party at Chequers. It was a bibulous affair, an opportunity for Dave to let his hair down after the death of his father three weeks before. The Moscow Mules flowed late into the night, all to be walked off in the Chilterns the next day, a weekend out of politics. Only his very oldest and closest friends from school and university were invited, such as Dominic Loehnis and Giles Andreae.
"There was almost nobody there who had not known him for at least 20 years," says one. "It was the gathering of Dave's old gang." The one exception was... Rebekah Brooks. The pair genuinely like one another (although Cameron seems to have taken Andy Coulson's side in the last few days). Cameron protests that he and Charlie Brooks are old friends from school (in fact, Charlie was three years above him and better friends with Cameron's brother). But maybe this is the sort of thing he meant when he said on Friday that party leaders had spent too much time courting support.
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