They say you should never go into business with friends or family. The same is true — only more so — of politics. Because, however much you think you won’t be faced with difficult choices, sooner or later they come. And they can be agonising.
All this week, with the publication of his book, For The Record, David Cameron — Britain’s former Prime Minister, my husband Michael Gove’s ex-colleague and my one-time friend — has been explaining in quite colourful language just how tricky and divisive politics can be.
In particular, he has laid bare his disappointment with Michael’s decision to follow his heart on the EU referendum, instead of sticking to the party line.
David Cameron — Britain’s former Prime Minister, my husband Michael Gove’s ex-colleague and my one-time friend — has been explaining in quite colourful language just how tricky and divisive politics can be (pictured 2011)
Of course, Dave (as all his friends know him) also expresses his frustration with a number of other people, including current Prime Minister Boris Johnson — but it is clear that he is particularly unforgiving of Michael’s decision. And that is because their relationship was a little different.
They were not bound by class or school, but by something else: real friendship, not just as individuals, but also, and perhaps even more so, between their wives and, in time, their children, who grew up together in each other’s houses.
Dave’s wife Samantha and I shared the school run and spent weekends and family holidays together as political ‘widows’.
It had been Dave (along with George Osborne) who had helped persuade Michael to leave a successful career in journalism to become an MP, and who counselled and comforted him through that difficult process.
Dave’s wife Samantha and I shared the school run and spent weekends and family holidays together as political ‘widows’
As they worked together in Opposition, there was a real intellectual kinship between the two, a real sense that together, and with the help of others, they could make a difference in the areas that inspired them: education, equality and justice.
To see that friendship — which lasted more than 20 years — placed under such terrible strain is not only testament to the destructive power of politics, but it is also, in a funny kind of way, a metaphor for how deeply and irretrievably the referendum seems to have divided the wider nation.
Dave’s feelings, like many of those who argued for Remain, are all the more powerful because, I suspect, he and others didn’t appreciate how strongly many people, including my husband, felt. That once the referendum question had been put to them, they had no choice but to do what they thought was right.
David and Samantha Cameron, Michael Gove and Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter in the Chilterns in January 2011
As Dave himself acknowledged, the ‘latent Leaver gene’ in the Conservative Party — indeed, in the country — was stronger than any of them had anticipated.
I can understand why people feel so passionately that remaining was — and still is — the right choice, and that in losing the referendum they lost more than just a vote.
I myself struggled with the decision to back Leave, not least because my own family is firmly rooted in Europe: my parents live there, my brother is in Spain and I grew up in Italy. Europe may not be in my blood, but it is very close to my heart, a deep and indelible part of my cultural DNA.
So, while I sometimes wish there was more respect for people who voted to leave, whose integrity in doing so is just as great as those who fought to remain, I appreciate where Dave is coming from.
After all, it is in large part because of Boris and Michael that Dave’s political career was cut short. That was never the intention, but it was the outcome. They weren’t the only catalysts, of course.
To see that friendship — which lasted more than 20 years — placed under such terrible strain is not only testament to the destructive power of politics, but it is also a metaphor for how deeply and irretrievably the referendum seems to have divided the wider nation (pictured in 2010)
It may also have had something to do with the fact that, having decided to go ahead with a referendum that many, including Michael, counselled against, Dave allied himself so closely to the Remain campaign he almost had no choice but to resign when they lost.
But still, DC’s anger is understandable and he is entitled to express it however he sees fit.
That said, I still believe it should be possible to disagree fundamentally on political issues and remain friends.
I seem to remember trying to tell Dave that in the early weeks of the campaign, over New Year at Chequers, and later when he cornered me in a lift and told me he was fighting for his political life. That was at Tory chairman Andrew Feldman’s 50th birthday party, when Samantha and I exchanged cross words for the first time ever.
After all, it is in large part because of Boris and Michael that Dave’s political career was cut short
That was the last time I saw Dave, back in February 2016. But, by then, it was already too late. Politics and its corrosive influence had driven a wedge between us. The referendum was just the final hammer blow.
It was not always that way. Dave and Samantha were guests at our wedding in France in 2001. Samantha was pregnant with Ivan at the time. Their names are inscribed, next to others — many of whom we have lost to Brexit — on the seating plan that my artist friend, Lucy, painted for us and which hangs in our sitting room.
A few months earlier, we had been to stay with the Camerons on the Isle of Jura, where Samantha’s mother, Annabel, has the most beautiful, magical house.
Crossing the sea from Oban, we had shared one of the most frightening, white-knuckle experiences of my life, skirting around the infamous Corryvreckan Whirlpool in stormy waters in a vessel distinctly ill-equipped for the purpose.
I had brought with me an absurdly urban pink leather suitcase, and I remember Samantha’s stepfather laughing like a drain as he helped me off the boat with it, irretrievably soaked in salty water.
I myself struggled with the decision to back Leave, not least because my own family is firmly rooted in Europe
I spent one of the happiest weeks of my life there with their extended family, basking in the warmth of their hospitality and kindness, laughing at Dave’s inexplicable desire to swim in the freezing cold sea, dining on freshly smoked mackerel and soaking in steaming baths rusty with peat at the end of long, midge-infested walks.
I remember also the first New Year at Chequers after Dave entered Downing Street in 2010, overwhelmed by the excitement and privilege of it all.
Sitting by the roaring fire in the Great Hall, bilious Elizabethans and their bug-eyed mistresses staring down unblinkingly at us from the walls, our children engaged in a riotous game of Capture The Flag, Dave producing an endless supply of White Ladies (he makes a mean cocktail does Dave).
Gazing in fascination at Oliver Cromwell’s death mask in the Long Gallery, sleeping in the so-called ‘prison room’ where Lady Mary Grey, sister of Jane, was confined by Elizabeth I for daring to marry without her consent.
The children delighted in discovering the secret stairway leading from her attic to the drawing room below, next to her eerie handprint etched into the wall, and scared themselves silly with tales of ghostly occurrences.
Earlier, we had made a trip into town to procure a karaoke machine, ostensibly for the children, but in reality so that Dave could indulge his passion for X Factor. Trailing around the shop behind him, I watched as other customers did a double take. ‘That bloke looks just like David Cameron,’ one man said to his wife as he walked past.
And that, ultimately, and despite all that has been said and done, is how I will always remember Dave and Samantha (pictured in 2015)
It was a uniquely special experience — and, of course, a great honour to enjoy Chequers in that way.
There are other memories, too. The heart-rending sadness of Ivan’s death (his is not my story to tell, but believe me, never was a boy so loved); my joy at becoming godmother to the Camerons’ daughter, Florence; helping Samantha choose party conference outfits; half-terms spent in Ibiza, just us wives and the kids on the beach while the boys worked hard in Westminster.
And that, ultimately, and despite all that has been said and done, is how I will always remember Dave and Samantha. As dear friends who were there at key moments of my life. In the years before power and politics got in the way of those simple, happy, human connections.
Two incredibly kind, generous souls who overcame unspeakable loss with the death of their beloved Ivan, who always embraced life even in the face of tragedy, and who inspire love and admiration in all who truly know them.
Hard as these past few years have been, nothing will ever erase those memories. Because that is what really matters: people. Not politics, not power, not Brexit.
We make mistakes and we move on. Or we should at least try. And we remember the good times. Because, in the end, that is all that remains.