My first reaction on reading the extracts from Lord Ashcroft’s muckraking biography of David Cameron in today’s Mail was, ‘It that it?’ Ashcroft has been digging for dirt about the Prime Minister for the best part of five years, even luring Isabel Oakeshott away from the Sunday Times to wield the shovel, and all he’s been able to come up with is that he smoked cannabis with James Delingpole when he was a student and may have been present while someone else took cocaine at his house. And, of course, there’s the pig story.
I’m dubious about the pig episode and I’m better informed than most, having been a contemporary of Cameron’s at Oxford. I wrote about the Piers Gaveston Society for Vanity Fair in 1995 and subsequently did a fair amount of muckraking myself about Cameron’s undergraduate antics for a drama-documentary I produced for Channel 4 called ‘When Boris Met Dave’. I turned this research into a piece about Oxford’s ‘decadent’ dining societies for Harper’s Bazaar in 2009 that you can read here.
I may not be the world’s foremost investigative journalist, but if anything like this had happened I think I would have heard about it. The Gaveston members I spoke to weren’t particularly discreet about what they and their friends had got up to, but none of them mentioned this or anything like it. Indeed, none of them said the Prime Minister had been a member – a surprising omission if true. Are we really being asked to believe that there’s photographic evidence of this initiation rite taking place, but the story has never surfaced before now? I think it’s a figment of someone’s imagination.
That view is confirmed by Valentine Guinness, one of the founders of the Piers Gaveston Society (it was set up in 1977), whom I spoke to this morning.
‘It is a ridiculous story,’ he says. ‘As far as I know David Cameron was never a member of the Piers Gaveston Society, so there would have been no need for an initiation ceremony. He may well have attended one of their parties, but the pig’s head story is purely malicious gossip.’
No doubt the Prime Minister will be feeling a little deflated this morning, but it is his enemies who will be most disappointed. Ashcroft’s biography was originally due to be serialised during the general election campaign and, when it was held back until the autumn, rumours circulated that it contained revelations that were so scandalous they would have damaged the Conservatives’ re-election prospects.
But judging from today’s extracts, ‘Call Me Dave’ contains nothing of substance – nothing that casts doubt on the Prime Minister’s character or integrity, beyond some trivial stuff about when he knew of Ashcroft’s non-dom status. It’s just a lot of tittle-tattle, the sort of far-fetched ‘exclusives’ that might grace the pages of the Sunday Sport. No serious newspaper, including the Daily Mail, would have printed this story on the strength of a single source unwilling to go on the record if it hadn’t already been published in a book.
I had dinner with Isabel Oakeshott at last year’s Conservative Party Conference and after she’d established that I had nothing scandalous to contribute to the book she asked me how I thought people inside the Westminster bubble – journalists and broadcasters, as well as MPs – would react to ‘Call Me Dave’. I got the distinct impression she was worried about the harm it would do to her reputation, particularly if the focus was on Cameron’s student days. Now I see why. Isabel is a first-rate reporter who deservedly won ‘Political Journalist of the Year’ for her Sunday Times scoop that led to Chris Huhne’s fall from grace. To see her reduced to helping Lord Ashcroft peddle these sub-tabloid stories is a shame. The only people whose reputations have been damaged by ‘Call Me Dave’ are Isabel and her employer.