Cameron and his women: The ladies man

He cooks, he cleans, and, say spin doctors, even some of his best friends are women. Political Editor Marie Woolf looks at the feminine side of the new Tory leader
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A crowd of photographers loitered expectantly outside David Cameron's smart west London home last week, waiting for the new Tory leader to emerge. But he was busy inside, cooking porridge for his family.

Mr Cameron may be a member of White's gentlemen's club, where women are not allowed, but at home, we are told, he is eager to don a pinny and share in the cooking and other household chores with his wife, Samantha.

With two young children - and another on the way - Mr Cameron is apparently an adept nappy-changer and cook, whose Sunday lunches and fry-up breakfasts are legendary among his campaign staff. It was over a meal cooked by Mr Cameron that his plan to woo women back to the Conservative Party was refined with aides last week.

"He's of the generation that takes for granted that women play a key part in working life and politics," said one female friend.

Michael Howard made no secret of the fact that his wife, Sandra, a former Vogue model, did most of the cooking and was happy to play a largely silent role, like Conservative leaders' wives before her. But Mr Cameron represents a new era in Tory politics.

His wife is understood not to sign up to the Norma Major-Betsy Duncan Smith notion of how a leader's spouse should behave. Instead, she has turned for inspiration to Sir Denis Thatcher, a successful businessman who combined his own career with the role of party leader's consort.

Samantha, who while an art student at Bristol was a friend of Tricky, the coolest hip-hop DJ in the city, is the daughter of Sir Reginald Sheffield, an Old Etonian Lincolnshire landowner, who owns the 300-acre Normanby Hall estate, which has been in the family since 1590. Her younger sister, Emily, was expelled from Marlborough School after drugs were found in her dorm during a police raid.

Free-thinking and modern, Mrs Cameron encouraged her husband to "go for" the Tory leadership, warning him he would regret it if he did not try.

At the party conference, Samantha gave an ener-getic "pep talk" to Tory-supporting newspaper executives about why they should support her husband, rather than the then front runner, David Davis. "She is an intelligent and creative partner. She is very supportive of him, but she says what she thinks. She will tell him if he is wrong," said one friend. "He relies on her quite a lot."

Mr Cameron is the most aristocratic Tory leader since Alex Douglas-Home. Educated at Eton and a member of the hell-raising, exclusively male Bullingdon club at Oxford, he is an unlikely candidate to feminise the party. But his desire to promote women is borne not only of instinct, but necessity. Strategists warn that without the female vote he has no hope of winning the next election.

In this year's general election, the Tories haemorrhaged support from women, due partly to the party's "macho" policy agenda and focus on immigration and crime.

The Tory vote went down among women from all backgrounds and polls show Labour is 20 points ahead of the Tories in attracting the votes of women under the age of 34. Worse still, Labour has surpassed the Conservatives as the traditional party of the family.

"Women's votes won Mr Blair his 66-seat majority this May. Unless David Cameron acts fast, women could lose him the next general election," said Dr Katherine Rake of the Fawcett Society, which promotes women in public life.

In a firm nod towards positive discrimination, tomorrow Mr Cameron will unveil a plan to ensure that the party's dismal record on returning women MPs is reversed. A freeze on the selection of candidates will ensure that local Tories will no longer be able to assume that their next MP will be a grey-suited, white, middle-class man with local business connections.

Instead, an A-list of able candidates with a high proportion of women and ethnic minorities will ensure that the most winnable target seats produce a mix of Tory MPs at the next election that looks and sounds like 21st-century Britain.

Mr Cameron is at ease with women, having grown up flanked by his sisters Tania, 41, and Clare, 34. (It was Clare who introduced her brother to Samantha Sheffield, her best friend.)

Indeed, it is through the female line that he may draw an inherited predilection for politics. His mother, Mary, née Mount, is descended from a series of Tory MPs. Her grandfather Sir William Mount was MP for South Berkshire, which he inherited from his father, also William Mount. Her cousin is Sir Ferdinand Mount who was head of Margaret Thatcher's policy unit in the 1980s.

Mr Cameron's first pledge as leader was to end the "scandalous" underrepresentation of women in the party. With the authority of an overwhelming victor, he risked infuriating traditionalists and said the Tories must "change the way we look".

Having appointed a number of women to key positions in his back-room team, he then doubled the number of females on the Conservatives' front benches.

Behind the scenes, Kate Fall, 35, a diplomat's daughter, is deputy chief of staff and "gatekeeper"; Gabby Bertin, 27, an able media specialist, will be his press officer; and Fiona Melville, 29, will head constituency campaigns.

The new leader has also promised to end the "Punch and Judy" style of politics, wrong-footing Mr Blair at Prime Minister's Questions by offering to support him on education reform.

Deborah Mattinson, joint chief executive of Opinion Leader Research, has found from focus groups that in the past few weeks Mr Cameron has risen from obscurity to quite high levels of recognition. But she warns that he would be foolish to fashion his political persona in the mould of Mr Blair just as the Prime Minister's popularity is waning.

Gordon Brown, whom women perceive as trustworthy, according to research, may pose a sterner challenge to the new Tory leader. "Gordon is seen as solid, as someone you can trust. He is not a schmoozer but, in a funny way, women like that because it is an antidote to Blair," says Ms Mattinson. "Cameron has to build trust up. He has to do an awful lot more than being a nice bloke if he wants women to vote for him."

CAMERON'S INNER CIRCLE

His wife Samantha

Down-to-earth soul-mate

Samantha Sheffield, 34, and David Cameron courted while she was a fine art student at Bristol. They married in 1996: "The best thing I have ever done," he says. They now have two children: Ivan, three, who has epilepsy and cerebral palsy, and Nancy, 21 months. Their third child is due in February. Mrs Cameron may work for Smythson of Bond Street, provider of stationery to the Queen and the Blairs, but she has a dolphin tattoo on her ankle, acquired on holiday in Bali "on a whim".

"She is the one who keeps him in touch," says a friend. "After the first hustings, he came back and said, 'At least I'll get a lie-in', and she said, 'No, it's your turn to get up with the children'."

His mother Mary

Patrician but very private

The influence of the new leader's family far outweighs that of the famous Notting Hill set, according to friends. His parents are the reason why he puts such faith in marriage as an institution. Father, Ian, 73, is a former stockbroker and ex-chairman of White's. His mother, Mary, 70, is a magistrate. She is descended from a long line of Tory MPs and Home Counties stalwarts. When rivals were whispering about her son's alleged drug use, she spoke out from the family home in Peasemore, Berkshire - but with characteristic understatement: "We are very proud of David." A friend said that the family are "a very well-to-do and unassuming bunch who keep themselves to themselves."

His mother-in-law Annabel

The aristocratic connections

For all the material comforts of his own upbringing, it is from his in-laws that Cameron draws an aristocratic connection. The daughter of a barrister and granddaughter of the playwright Enid Bagnold, Annabel Jones, the Knightsbridge jeweller, was one of the Sixties 'It' girls. She was engaged at 21 to the Old Etonian Sir Reginald Sheffield, but the marriage foundered after five years. After her divorce, she remarried to Viscount Astor, who was later a minister under John Major. Her Beauchamp Place jewellery shop was a favourite with Diana, Princess of Wales. She now co-owns an exclusive group of interiors shops called Oka. Cameron family Christmases are usually spent at the Astors'.

His sister-in-law Emily

Hint of danger and glamour

Samantha's younger sister, Emily Sheffield, 32, brings an element of dangerous glamour to his entourage. During his campaign, it emerged that she was expelled from Marlborough after cannabis was found in her dormitory. However, she went on to win the Student Journalist of the Year award in 1995 and, after graduating from a series of madcap girl-about-town newspaper columns, now works for 'Vogue'. Her articles include the following: "One way of getting into Notting Hill Prep ... is to send your offspring to The Acorn. Get a place at this achingly fashionable nursery... and you'll get into the fashionable NHP, as those in the know call it." Ms Sheffield is married to the actor Tom Mullion.

Katy Guest

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