Political hostilities were suspended as Gordon Brown led the expressions of sympathy for David Cameron after the sudden death yesterday of his severely disabled six-year-old son, Ivan.
Mr Brown, who proposed the scrapping of the weekly session of Prime Minister's Questions, found himself united in grief with a Tory leader with whom he has a strained personal relationship. Mr Brown's first child, Jennifer Jane, died after 10 days in 2002. Fraser, the youngest of his two sons, suffers from cystic fibrosis.
The Camerons, who have two other children – Nancy, five, and Arthur, three – had always known that Ivan could die at any time. He suffered from cerebral palsy and a rare form of epilepsy called Ohtahara syndrome.
On Tuesday, as the Cameron family enjoyed pancakes at their Notting Hill home, there was no sign of the tragedy that was to come. Ivan had a very bad night. But there had been many bad nights in his short life. After suffering a severe seizure, he was rushed to St Mary's Hospital, Paddington. He was pronounced dead shortly afterwards at 6.30am from acute abdominal failure.
There were tears as Tory party workers were told the news when they arrived at their headquarters in Millbank, Westminster. Like staff in Mr Cameron's Commons office, many of them had met Ivan. Occasionally the Tory leader brought him to work. Colleagues had lived the ups and downs with the Camerons; at the age of two, Ivan lost the ability to smile, but later regained it after his medical regime was changed.
Mr Cameron, who returned to his London home to grieve with his family, cancelled his engagements and is expected to take about two weeks off work.
The Tory leader spoke briefly to his unofficial deputy William Hague by phone, saying he wanted to remember all the other parents with disabled and dying children. Mr Hague told MPs: "Ivan's six years of life were not easy ones. His parents lived with the knowledge for a long time that he could die young but this has made their loss no less heartbreaking. Ivan their son suffered much in his short life but he brought joy and love to those around him. As David himself has said in the past, for him and Samantha, he will always be their beautiful boy."
Mr Hague had begun preparing to stand in for Mr Cameron at Question Time when Downing Street telephoned to suggest that it be called off for the first time since the Labour leader John Smith died in 1994. "We have gratefully accepted Gordon Brown's offer," the Tories said. Tory MPs praised Mr Brown's initiative and his moving Commons statement.
The Prime Minister told a sombre House of Commons: "Every child is precious and irreplaceable and the death of a child is an unbearable sorrow that no parent should ever have to endure. Politics can sometimes divide us. But there is a common human bond that unites us in sympathy and compassion at times of trial and in support for each other at times of grief." Later he and his wife Sarah sent a private letter to Mr Cameron and his wife Samantha.
For the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable said: "This is a personal tragedy that transcends all party barriers and I would simply want to express the hope that the family are given the space and there is privacy to grieve and cope with this tragedy that they have experienced." Buckingham Palace said the Queen had sent a private message of sympathy.
George Osborne, a close friend of the Camerons, said the family was in "a great deal of grief and shock". He added: "Sadly he has been a very ill boy since the moment he was born, but nevertheless he was always at the centre of family life round at the Camerons'."
Ivan was born at Queen Charlotte's Hospital in London on 8 April 2002. He suffered his first seizure within weeks and was in and out of hospitals all of his life, requiring round-the-clock care.
Mr Cameron has described how it hit him "like a freight train" when he and his wife were told about Ivan's condition – and that he would probably never walk or talk. "You are depressed for a while because you are grieving for the difference between your hopes and the reality," he said. "But then you get over that, because he's wonderful."
The Tory leader has described how they managed to cope after the initial shock: "There was a moment driving home from hospital and just thinking, 'We are going to get through this. If we can't do a good job and look after him, then we have failed'." In another interview, Mr Cameron said: "He is a magical child with a magical smile that can make me feel like the happiest father in the world. We adore him in ways that you will never love anybody else, because you feel so protective."
One Tory colleague said yesterday: "David put an enormous amount of effort into his relationship with Ivan. The father-son bond was very strong."
A Downing Street ceremony to mark the unveiling of a portrait of Baroness Thatcher, which Mr Cameron had been due to attend, was postponed.
Tory HQ was inundated with messages of sympathy for the Camerons. They issued a statement saying they were grateful for all the warm messages of support. They asked people not to send flowers but to instead make a donation to one of five charities: Mencap; Friends of St Mary's Hospital Paddington; Friends of Jack Tizard School, in Hammersmith; Helen & Douglas House, in Oxford, and Shooting Stars House in Hampton, Middlesex.
Gordon Brown's Commons tribute
I know that the whole House will want to express our sorrow at the sad death this morning of Ivan Cameron, at the age of just six years old, and our condolences go out to David, to Samantha and to the Cameron family.
I know that in an all-too-brief young life, he brought joy to all those around him. And I know also that for all the days of his life, he was surrounded by his family's love. Every child is precious and irreplaceable and the death of a child is an unbearable sorrow that no parent should ever have to endure. Politics can sometimes divide us, but there is a common human bond that unites us in sympathy and compassion at times of trial, and in support for each other at times of grief.
Sarah and I have sent our condolences to David and Samantha, and I know that the whole country, our thoughts and our prayers, are with David and Samantha today.
Ohtahara syndrome: The facts
What is it?
Also known as early infantile epileptic encephalopathy, Ohtahara syndrome is a neurological disorder characterised by severe seizures. Sufferers endure worsening mental retardation and are afflicted by a spate of seizures in their first few days of life. There is still much debate over whether or not it should be seen as a distinct condition, rather than a combination of severe, early onset epilepsy and symptoms associated with cerebral palsy.
What are the symptoms?
Sufferers undergo as many as 100 "tonic" seizures a day, in which the whole body is afflicted by a sudden stiffening of the limbs. The mental retardation prevents sufferers from walking or talking and extreme learning difficulties are standard. Dr Diane Smyth, a consultant paediatrician who treated Ivan Cameron, said the condition "demands 24-hour treatment".
How is it acquired?
The cause of Ohtahara syndrome remains unclear. Structural brain damage is in most cases thought to be at the root of the condition.
What treatment is available?
Anti-epileptic drugs are used to control seizures but have only a limited effect. In cases where a focal brain lesion (damage contained to one part of the brain) has been identified, surgery may be possible.
Is it always fatal?
The prognosis with Ohtahara syndrome is very poor: as many as half of sufferers will die in early infancy or childhood.
What are the implications for other children by the same parents?
Since scientists are unsure about the causes, it is impossible for them to speculate about the threat to future siblings. Many specialists say there is about a 5 per cent chance of it recurring in future pregnancies.