With its message to Labour voters, the new Conservative advertising campaign is a reminder that the general election has already started, 10 weeks before the country is likely to vote at the beginning of May. A series of posters produced last week are designed to appeal to those who, in the words of the slogan they carry, have “never voted Tory before”, asking them to consider what many would previously have regarded as unthinkable and place a cross beside their local Tory candidate’s name on polling day. Although the adverts have already been widely lampooned, with spoofs appearing online within hours, that is unlikely to worry Conservative leader David Cameron, who has brought a PR man’s eye to the project to remake the Tory party, and knows the importance of being talked about.
Cameron learned about the value of spin during a previous career as director of corporate affairs for television company Carlton, now part of ITV, his only professional excursion beyond the cosseted world of Westminster.
He was in the job from July 1994 to February 2001, during which time he had to deal with a difficult boss, and his political ambitions, though never deliberately disguised, took a back seat. Yet relatively little is known about his stint at Carlton, a period that helped shape his politics, and form his adult persona.
The manner in which he obtained the job says much about how men of Cameron’s background tend to progress through life. The future Tory leader, whose credentials at Conservative central office were already well-established after periods working for Norman Lamont and Michael Howard, believed a stint in the private sector would benefit his political career. With no experience outside politics, he did what any old Etonian might do and worked his contacts. The mother of Cameron’s then girlfriend Samantha, Lady Astor, was friends with Michael Green, then executive chairman of Carlton and one of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite businessmen. She suggested he hire Cameron, and Green, a mercurial millionaire, obliged. The 27-year-old was duly recruited on a salary of about £90,000 a year (the equivalent of more than £130,000 today).
One former Carlton executive remembers Green often found jobs for family friends and social acquaintances. “At one stage I was asked to find a job for Michael’s daughter and also for Suzie Ratner [daughter of Gerald Ratner, whose jewellery business collapsed after he described his own products as ‘crap’]. On one hand [Carlton] was kind of a global conglomerate, on the other it was like a family business. It would be ‘my neighbour’s nephew’s daughter’ or ‘someone I met at the synagogue or at Arsenal’ – and not ‘Would you give them a job?’ but ‘Give them a fucking job’”.
Tim Allan, Tony Blair’s former press secretary, says the future Tory moderniser held unapologetically Thatcherite views during this period, and displayed none of the informal sartorial style that would one day become his trademark. He was never without a tie, Allan recalls, but then: “Carlton was quite an old-fashioned company”. Its plush Knightsbridge head office was dubbed “Carlton Towers” by envious employees based in less salubrious locations. Executives could eat in a private dining room, served by a butler summoned by pressing a button under the dining table. According to one former executive, “The quality of the food was fantastic, absolutely fantastic. First time I had butternut squash soup – you could stand your spoon in it. Beautiful paninis, beautiful breakfast selection, fresh fruit, you would come out of a meeting and stuff your pockets … [then] you’d go upstairs and say, ‘You’ve got to cut your costs’.”
“There was a well-bred air about the place,” another former executive remembers. “[Green] brought people in who were well-educated and had proper English voices, I don’t think there were any regional variations – it was all very cut-glass, public-school.” Carlton’s head office was a Tory enclave at a time when the party was facing political extinction. Rachel Whetstone, who worked for Norman Lamont along with Cameron, was also based there for a time; she is now married to Cameron’s chief policy advisor, Steve Hilton. The former colleague says Cameron was “an upmarket guy, but they were all bloody upmarket at Carlton … they were all terribly posh. If they ever found a Labourite down there they would have hung him from the polenta machine in the kitchen.”
Green, a self-made man who built Carlton from scratch, hired bright young things from Westminster because the company had big political battles to fight. The ITV network, of which Carlton was a part, was heavily regulated, with strict quotas on the type of programmes it was required to broadcast. As director of corporate affairs, Cameron regularly lobbied ministers and was “in the room” according to former colleagues, when big decisions were made. They included the fateful decision to take on BSkyB, the pay-TV giant controlled by Rupert Murdoch, by launching a terrestrial alternative to Sky’s satellite service called ONdigital (later renamed ITV Digital) in partnership with Granada.
Allan, who had recently left No 10 for Sky, where he did the same job as Cameron, says his opposite number “had a difficult brief. Working for Michael Green was challenging. It was a difficult business [situation] because the arrival of digital TV was big news and Sky was seen to be winning the battle quite quickly.” ITV Digital’s spectacular failure in May 2002, a year after Cameron was elected to the safe Conservative seat of Witney in Oxfordshire, would help to usher Green into early retirement.
Described variously as “an astonishing human being”, “a madman” or simply “vile” by those who knew him, Green had a quick temper. The former Carlton executive describes him as a “deal freak [who]... could be a complete horror” to work for. As a conduit between Green and the media, Cameron had a job that must have seemed impossible at times. Leslie Hill, a former director at the group, describes it as “the hardest job at Carlton. Michael was prickly about the press and about communications; he wasn’t good at it and he didn’t like it so David fulfilled a more vital role than he would have done at another company. He handled Michael brilliantly.”
Cameron won a reputation internally for standing his ground in the face of Green’s verbal onslaughts, according to Martin Bowley, who ran Carlton’s sales operation at the time. “David always stayed calm. He always had an extremely red and rosy face, shinier than it is now, and he would sit there and say ‘I think this’ – then – bang – Michael Green would go: ‘You don’t fucking tell me, you fucking idiot.’ And David would go ‘Well, no I do, I think this,’” says Bowman. “And that was how it was done. And seven years is a long time. I watch David now on that dispatch box and I see Gordon Brown putting on his best show – nothing comes close to Michael Green giving you a hard time, believe me. Nowhere near it. It is incredible”.
A senior journalist at the time, who dealt with Cameron and clashed with Green routinely, says: “David Cameron was working for a complete raging nutter, which is never easy.” Was he always candid with journalists? No. I could understand why journalists – myself included – felt misled.” He was amazed when Cameron sought his support when he eventually returned to politics. “We had a fairly combative relationship and I would ring up asking embarrassing questions … [but] he still managed to pen me a letter asking me to come and campaign for him.”
It would often fall to Cameron to communicate Green’s displeasure with imagined slights in press reports, recalls another former commentator. “Every time there was a line in the story – and you thought ‘Who could possibly object to that? – that would become the issue for Michael and you would get a bollocking from David.” Relations with the press were not good; another former Carlton executive concedes that Cameron “pissed off” a lot of reporters, not a sensible strategy for someone who was paid to keep them onside.
One senior business journalist who dealt with Cameron extensively describes him as “thoroughly unpleasant” and not a very efficient press officer: “A good PR man will tell you stuff and give you insights and he never did that – which is why Carlton had rings run round it. If he’d been doing the job properly he would have said ‘You have to make allowances for Michael [Green]’, but he’d be just as abrasive.” Cameron’s affable demeanour is only skin-deep, he added. “You see him now and he looks a charming bloke and for people who were meeting him for the first time he could be charming … [but] everyone’s view of him has been coloured by subsequent events.” Cameron, he says, was a man who cultivated only those who could prove useful. “I’ve only seen him once since he [became Tory leader] and he apologised for being such a wanker.”
In an era when advertising money was plentiful, Carlton had a reputation for below-par programming. “The media establishment viewed Carlton as a pariah,” according to the former commentator. The young Cameron had a coterie of friendly reporters, including James Harding, now editor of the Times but then a Financial Times journalist, and those excluded from Cameron’s briefings criticised his “offhand” style and habit of blocking questions or simply ignoring calls. On one occasion, his determination to avoid talking to Janine Gibson, then Guardian media correspondent, descended into farce when he answered his phone and stutteringly pretended to be the cleaner: “I can’t prove it was him, but it certainly sounded an awful lot like him,” she recalls.
Cameron has since tried to rebuild relationships with key journalists – including Sky News business presenter Jeff Randall, who said when he became Tory leader that: “I wouldn’t trust him with my daughter’s pocket money” – and cemented plenty of new ones with powerful proprietors and editors, but Cameron’s ire was not reserved solely for media representatives. A former PR man who worked with Cameron closely says he once greeted a bulky Granada publicity man with the words: “Ah, Bunter, how are you?” He says: “It was beyond banter. It was an attempt to put him down … I know it hurt.”
With a young family, Cameron didn’t often socialise with colleagues, recalls Bowley, and his political ambitions meant he rarely took risks. “This is not a guy who was falling around plastered in the pub. He is the sort of guy that hasn’t got any anecdotes about him. I can’t tell you a bad story, I can’t tell you a drunk story, I can’t tell you a womanising story, I can’t tell you a drug story; I can’t. I don’t think they are there. We had lunch twice. But he would be on water, I’d be on wine and he’d be off: ‘Gotta go – seeing Citibank at half past two.’”
Yet despite Cameron’s reputation as a bright and able colleague, few of the executives who worked with him believed he would rise to the top of the Tory party. A former ITV colleague says: “If you had asked, where do you think David Cameron will end up, I would have been more inclined to say doing the Andy Coulson job [Coulson, a former News of the World editor, is Cameron’s director of communications]. Frankly, no one would ever have predicted he could be about to run the country. He was clearly very bright, but he didn’t have that sort of naked ambition.”
The former Carlton executive remembers Cameron as “quite unremarkable”. Another senior media executive who attended many meetings with Cameron says: “He didn’t lead well or dictate the agenda. He always had opinions … and he was an articulate speaker but … I can never remember [him] grabbing a meeting because of the power of his arguments or the manner of his delivery.”
It is the journalists who dealt regularly with the younger Cameron, however, who find it most difficult to accept that he could be running the country in a few months’ time, perhaps because many of them still remember him as a PR man capable of dissembling and doling out disinformation. “I have to pinch myself when I think he could be prime minister,” says the senior journalist. “I can still picture him wringing his hands behind Michael Green’s back. It’s like that saying from the US – they say ‘Anyone can become president’ – and now I’m starting to believe it.”