One of the few journalists allowed into the executive dining suite at Carlton Communications’ headquarters in Knightsbridge recalls Michael Green, the famously volatile chairman, lighting one of his cigars after lunch one day. As the room became ever more befogged, David Cameron, Carlton’s fresh-faced director of corporate affairs, reached out to press a button on the wall that opened a window above Mr Green’s chair, allowing the smoke to escape into the summer afternoon.
It is a tiny moment that seems emblematic of Mr Cameron’s seven-year career at the company: the autocratic chairman creates an inhospitable atmosphere and it is the job of his deft public relations man to clear the air.
Unfortunately for the would-be MP, keen to add business experience to his curriculum vitae to impress Conservative selection committees, not everything could be wafted away as easily as his boss’s cigar smoke.
In a series of run-ins with financial journalists, Mr Cameron developed a reputation for arrogance, evasiveness and, in one case, alleged mendacity that dogged him during his attempt to become Tory leader in 2005 and may resurface during the imminent general election campaign.
But he also displayed the resilience and steely carapace required to work at close quarters with the combative Mr Green, now retrained as a psychotherapist, who has given a rare interview about his one-time protégé for this article.
Mr Cameron’s Carlton career, his only job outside politics, began in September 1994, when he was 27. The former special adviser had pulled strings to land the post: Annabel Astor, his future mother-in-law, persuaded Mr Green to take on a man with no corporate PR or investor relations experience.
His purpose was profoundly political – a fact he did not conceal from Mr Green. His sights now firmly set on winning a Westminster seat, he needed to counter charges that he was ignorant of life beyond the Whitehall bubble.
The company whose corporate affairs staff he joined was certainly going places. In less than a decade, Mr Green had transformed Carlton from a tiny, disparate media company with a turnover of £35m to an international business.
The previous year, Mr Green, having already wrested the London franchise of ITV from Thames, had gained control of Central in the Midlands. The multiple ITV franchises were consolidating towards a single entity in what was bound to be a titanic power struggle. It was one Mr Green dared not lose, and he did not care whether or not he made friends doing it.
“My reputation wasn’t great and that didn’t worry me in the slightest, but I always maintained my reputation for integrity,” Mr Green said. Early in his Carlton tenure, Mr Cameron had a stroke of luck. His predecessor having lasted only a few weeks in the job, he suddenly found himself in charge of corporate communications, almost doubling his £49,000 special adviser’s salary.
Early in his Carlton tenure, David Cameron had a stroke of luck. His predecessor having lasted only a few weeks in the job, he suddenly found himself in charge of corporate communications, almost doubling his £49,000 special adviser’s salary
He immediately began using contacts made in his former role to introduce Mr Green to potentially useful politicians. On one occasion, at the 1995 Conservative conference in Blackpool, Mr Cameron arranged a dinner with a minister at a restaurant deep in the Lancashire countryside. Unfortunately, the minister forgot the invitation and the two men must have sat in uncomfortable silence.
Yet even given his rapid elevation, the job would not have been seen as especially covetable within his social circle, full of high flyers already making their mark in established professions. Some friends watching from outside doubted the wisdom of joining such a company.
“[Compared with what some Eton and Oxford contemporaries were doing,] it was a crappy, crappy job,” one friend of 30 years said. “And it was only borderline respectable. This wasn’t like doing PR for Tate & Lyle or someone. But he needed to get that experience on his CV or he would never get a seat.
“In 1994, when he was looking for the right thing, we all believed that the 1997 election was going to be the Tory equivalent of Labour’s 1983 intake – Blair, Brown and so on. It would be [a] battered [party], but they would be the people who led the Conservative party back to power. It was a desperate rush to join in.”
In fact, the friend said, when Mr Cameron left the Home Office in 1994, he and his close friends believed John Major would call the next election in 1996. The Carlton job, in other words, was meant to be a two-year stopgap before he embarked on his real career.
Mr Green, well aware that politics was his principal focus, gave Mr Cameron time off to fight the 1997 election and welcomed him back when Stafford’s 8,000 Tory majority was overturned in the Tony Blair landslide.
“When he lost [the formerly safe Tory seat of] Stafford in 1997, the biggest humiliation for him, I think, was having to go back to Carlton, which he thought he had said goodbye to,” added the friend.
So Mr Cameron returned to rounds of heated internal meetings with his boss, debates on how to engineer the consolidation of commercial television and the less welcome dealings with the press.
Although rivals said he wrapped himself in a small clique of like-minded colleagues in a rather scruffy part of a large open-plan office on the floor below Mr Green, he was generally well liked at Carlton, not least for his ability to stand up to the chairman.
One of his closest friends told the Financial Times: “He thought the [Carlton] job was a chance to discover business at board level, and that was very exciting. He loved his time at Carlton, all except the dealings with the press.”
The mistrust was mutual. In interviews with seven current or former business journalists who had dealings with Carlton when Mr Cameron worked there between 1994 and 2001, only one had a positive view of him, one was broadly neutral and the others negative.
His best-known critic is Jeff Randall, a broadcaster at Sky News. He clashed with Mr Cameron in 1999, when the then editor of Sunday Business got wind of Carlton’s planned – but doomed – merger with one of its two rivals, Lord Hollick’s United News and Media.
To this day, Mr Randall believes that Mr Cameron dissuaded him from publishing the story in a way that was dishonest and unacceptable.
But Mr Randall is not as angry as he was in 2005, when Mr Cameron, PR-turned-MP, was standing for the Tory leadership. In November, a week before the crucial vote, Mr Randall wrote: “I wouldn’t trust him with my daughter’s pocket money ... Watching Cameron pledge to make Britain ‘the best place in the world to do business’ reminded me just how slippery he was [at Carlton].
“To describe Cameron’s approach to corporate PR as unhelpful and evasive overstates by a widish margin the clarity and plain-speaking that he brought to the job of being Michael Green’s mouthpiece.
“In my experience, Cameron never gave a straight answer when dissemblance was a plausible alternative, which probably makes him perfectly suited for the role he now seeks: the next Tony Blair.”
Today, Mr Randall is unrepentant, although he has given Mr Cameron a second chance, largely because of the life-changing experiences of the birth and death of Ivan, the politician’s severely handicapped son.
Mr Randall has never publicly accused Mr Cameron of lying during his dealings with him at Carlton, but friends say he has made his feelings clear in private.
However, Mr Green defends Mr Cameron to the hilt: “I’ve had this out with Jeff Randall 82 times. He thought he was on to the story and David threw him off the scent but did not say to him categorically, ‘this is not going to happen’.”
Mr Green admits he was a hard taskmaster. “I was very, very tough, there’s no question about it; I was extremely tough, extremely demanding, very unreasonable – I don’t have any doubt that I was unreasonable.”
He added: “In terms of [defending] my reputation and what I was like to work for, I pushed David extremely hard. I’m sure I shouted, I’m sure I was quite fierce, but that was the way people worked at Carlton – they accepted it for what it is.”
A former Carlton board member said that on one occasion, when Mr Cameron had to face his boss on the morning that The Guardian newspaper exposed an award-winning Carlton documentary as a fraud, the PR man was subjected to the “most visceral, verbal punching I have ever heard anyone suffer in my life”.
But he withstood it for several hours, the former colleague said, taking Mr Green and other senior executives calmly through 10 or 11 drafts of Carlton’s press statement on the issue. Mr Green added: “I was a very difficult man to work for, full stop.” But he argued that Mr Cameron retained his own reputation for integrity with most journalists.
Tim Allan, a former special adviser to Mr Blair when the latter was shadow home secretary in the early 1990s, twice ran up against Mr Cameron. Once was when his Tory rival was a special adviser to Michael Howard, the home secretary, the second time when Mr Allan joined Rupert Murdoch’s British Sky Broadcasting as PR chief. Then, the two clashed over the rivalry between Sky Digital and OnDigital, the ill-fated joint venture into pay-TV by Carlton and Granada, which collapsed in spite of a £1.2bn investment. Nonetheless, the two young men became friends.
Mr Allan said Mr Cameron’s main problem was that he was operating on a “very difficult wicket” because of the poor quality of Carlton’s products and the uncompromising nature of Mr Green.
He said: “My own view [of the attacks of Mr Randall and others] on behalf of the union of spin doctors [is that] journalists are good at saying, ‘we were lied to’, when what they mean was, ‘we weren’t given the whole right picture, or we didn’t ask the right questions’.”
BSkyB ran an aggressive PR campaign against OnDigital, which Mr Cameron seemed unable to counter, according to journalists, City analysts and former colleagues.
However, most attributed it to the inferior quality of the product he was defending. “He had no option but to appeal to the better nature of Sky,” said one working close to him at the time. “And that is not a place you want to be.”
In the evenings, Mr Cameron often socialised with members of his close-knit corporate affairs team, many of them fellow Conservative party members who helped in his ill-fated 1997 and victorious 2001 election campaigns. A favourite haunt was the fashionable Met bar in the Metropolitan Hotel, on Park Lane. Occasionally, he went gambling in Mayfair with Mr Green.
He had daily contact with the Carlton chairman, who taught him how to understand company accounts, a rare skill among politicians. Mr Allan said Mr Cameron was one of the few senior MPs who ever reads the business pages.
Mr Green, who hinted that he regarded Mr Cameron as a possible eventual successor had he ever chosen to step down at Carlton (he was eventually pushed out by shareholders when it merged with Granada to form ITV in 2003), believes his protégé has strong leadership qualities and will make a great prime minister.
Mr Cameron even won the praise, if more qualified, from Labour-supporting senior executives at Carlton, such as Clive Jones, then chief executive. “He picked up the brief ferociously quickly. Like a barrister he could pick it up, absorb the facts and present a very good case very quickly.
“One of his great strengths and one of his great weaknesses, I think, is that he is the ultimate PR professional,” said Mr Jones.
“He did learn the ultimate politician’s trick, which is ubiquitous: they know how to bully. He learned from his time with Michael Howard, I think, and he wasn’t averse to using a little bit of muscle on journalists from time to time and sometimes, obviously, that’s counterproductive.
“There is a line from [T.S.] Eliot that suits David: ‘There will be time to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet’,” Mr Jones added.