Joan Smith: Cameron's vanity could be his undoing

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The Independent Online

I'm looking at a photograph of David Cameron eating toast. His dress code is smart casual, a dark blue jumper over an open-necked shirt, and the hand that isn't occupied with a slice of bread is operating an iPad. The Tory leader is multi-tasking! Serious but relaxed! Now here's a photograph of his wife, planting seedlings in a community garden in the East End of London. Sam Cam does dress-down! In Tower Hamlets! She isn't just a designer-bag lady!

It would be an under-statement to say that image matters to the Camerons, whether it's informal shots of the Prime Minister at work or the first pictures of their new baby. The Tory leader and his advisers have worked tirelessly to present the right vision to the world – modern, family-centred, not-too-posh – so it's ironic that this obsession with image has created one of the few situations where the Prime Minister's judgement has seriously been called into question.

After a barrage of criticism, he decided this week to take two "vanity" staff – his personal photographer and his camerawoman – off the Cabinet Office payroll and return them to Conservative Party headquarters.

It's not difficult to see why the Prime Minister wanted Andy Parsons and Nicky Woodhouse with him at No 10. What's amazing is that this canniest of politicians didn't spot the potential for serious damage to his standing at a time when senior ministers keep telling us that savage cuts in public expenditure are unavoidable. They've tried to sweeten the message with the claim that we're all in this together but most of us don't have personal photographers – and if we did, we'd pay for them ourselves.

The row isn't over yet: Samantha Cameron's chief of staff, Isabel Spearman, is still on the payroll. Spearman used to do PR for Anya Hindmarch, Sam Cam's friend and fellow designer-bag lady; her duties include helping the PM's wife organise parties at No 10 and choose clothes. Cherie Booth had Carole Caplin in a similar role, but context is everything and Spearman's continued employment four days a week (the fifth is paid for by the Tory party) is bound to rankle as people struggle to cope with job losses and cuts in public services.

Booth did at least have the excuse that she was a barrister rather than someone with a high-powered job in fashion, but Sam Cam works for the upmarket brand Smythson. Admittedly her one-and-only fashion shoot wasn't a huge success. In 1997 or thereabouts, at a historic low in Tory fortunes, the not-long-married Mrs Cameron posed lying on the floor in a short sheepskin coat, cuddling a black kitten. The photos were gawky and innocent, nothing like the stylish nude portrait of Carla Sarkozy-Bruni which was widely published after her marriage to the French President – and maybe that's part of the problem.

The Camerons arrived in Downing Street at a moment when two glamorous couples, the Obamas and the Sarkozys, were supplying a steady stream of compelling images to the world's media. It's long been accepted that American presidents are trailed everywhere by a White House photographer, while Sarkozy-Bruni has succeeded in introducing the previously alien notion of the First Lady into French popular culture.

With a PR background, Cameron probably regards photographers and stylists as essentials, but it's an idea that was never going to run in this painful age of austerity. It's been a bruising episode for the Tory party but also sends a warning to other parties. The same public that complains about US influence on British politics buys celebrity magazines by the shedload, and wants to know all about the private lives of politicians. Public image is important in modern politics, but it has to be managed.

By all means invite a photographer to snap you having supper in your lovely home, as long as you pay for the pasta – and the pictures – yourself.

Joan Smith is Political Blonde: