The perils of privilege: why class remains Cameron's Achilles' heel

The Tory leader is sensitive to questions about his wealth and background. Andy McSmith explains why

"We have no Eton to create the self-consciousness of a governing class," the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald lamented 90 years ago as he compared the talented rulers of the British Empire with the mediocrities who then ran the United States.

This week, in Manchester, there are Tories quietly wishing that Britain had no Eton either. The polls are telling them that although the voters are sick of the Labour Government, they are not convinced that they want the Conservatives back. The Tories are not quite sure why the public has not learned to love them yet, but they wonder if class could prove to be their weakness.

In David Cameron they have their poshest leader since Sir Alec Douglas-Home led them to defeat in 1964. The question of class has dogged the Conservative leader all week since he was asked by Andrew Marr on Sunday morning whether it was true that he and his wife Samantha have a combined wealth of £30m.

Cameron's reply was predictably uninformative. "House prices change all the time. Our main asset is the house that we own in London," he said. He also confessed to being "desperately embarrassed" about a celebrated photograph taken when he was 19, showing he and Boris Johnson as members of Oxford University's elite Bullingdon Club. The tailcoats in which the young men were dressed cost £1,200 back in the mid-1980s.

When Samantha Cameron first entered the public eye, she too seemed embarrassed about her wealthy background. She claimed that she was brought up "near Scunthorpe". This was true, in a way. Her father, Sir Reginald Sheffield, owned Normandy Hall, a stately home set in 300 acres of north Lincolnshire countryside, and could trace his ancestors back 700 years. Samantha Sheffield's mother later married Viscount Astor, an Old-Etonian Tory peer who helped David Cameron in the early stages of his career. Lady Astor is co-owner of Oka, the upmarket mail-order furniture business.

Tonight, satellite television viewers will be treated to When Boris Met Dave, a fictionalised account of the adolescent years of Johnson and Cameron, set in the Brideshead Revisited world of Oxford University in the period just after Margaret Thatcher had crushed the unions, deregulated the City and allowed privileged young people to feel relaxed about their wealth.

Party spokesmen say they are not worried about this reminder of the silver-spoon beginnings of their two best-known public faces. "Everybody knows what their background is," a spokesman said yesterday. "David has never tried to hide it: he is obviously from a wealthy background. People will remember that Tony Blair was from a wealthy background, too. That did not affect Labour politically."

Tories also point out that the Labour Party tried this line of attack at the by-election in Crewe and Nantwich in May last year, when they branded the Conservative candidate, Edward Timpson, whose great-great-grandfather founded the Timpson shoe chain, a "Tory toff". The voters were not impressed, and Labour lost heavily.

Privately, members of the Shadow Cabinet admit that the class issue could flare up in a general election with more serious consequences for the Conservatives. The result in Crewe was the local electors' verdict on Gordon Brown and the Labour Government rather than a positive vote for Mr Timpson. In a general election, people might look more closely at the sort of people who are lining up for ministerial posts.

They will find yet more Old-Etonians including Oliver Letwin, who heads the Conservative research department, Sir George Young, a hereditary baronet recently brought back into front-line politics as Shadow leader of the Commons, and David Cameron's trusted chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn. Cameron's closest political ally, George Osborne, is another product of inherited wealth and a private education (at St Pauls in south-west London, the same school as the Shadow Culture minister, Ed Vaizey). Nick Herbert, the Shadow Environment Secretary, went to Haileybury in Herrtfordshire while Michael Gove, the Shadow Schools Secretary, was also at private school for part of his boyhood. It was with good reason that when David Cameron became leader four years ago, the Tory MP Nicholas Soames, grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, said jubilantly that the "natural order" had been restored.

This does not necessarily mean that they will grind the poor into the dust when they assume power. History suggests that the opposite is more likely. The Conservative Party was a gentler organisation when it was run by people who were born to rule, such as Harold Macmillan, than when it was taken over by people who had come up the hard way, like Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit. Many on the right fear that David Cameron will try to compensate for his background by not being Tory enough.

But for most people, this is a political party which proposes to freeze the pay of public sector employees while making sure that people whose parents own homes worth up to £1m can inherit the lot, free of tax. The danger for the Conservatives is that voters who can barely stomach the thought of voting Labour again will look at the galaxy of clever ex-public schoolboys running the opposition – and conclude that they are a privileged bunch with no idea of what it is like to live off an ordinary working wage.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?