Samcam comes to Downing

David Cameron's wife brings style and mystery to the PM's residence

Samcam comes to Downing

Steve Back/Rex Features/CP, Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

Samantha Cameron might just be the perfect political wife. Serene, stylish, shrewd and hard-working, during the Conservative campaign last spring she was unveiled as “the Tories’ secret weapon,” and has been described by party insiders as “Dave’s best look.” The fact that she was luminously pregnant at the time with the couple’s fourth child (a girl, Florence, born three weeks premature a few months after her husband David’s Tories took power) only added to her photo-op appeal.

But Samantha’s easy smiles and effortless style conceal hidden depths of character. Those who know her say she is unflappable, impeccably mannered and also genuinely warm—a woman of “famously even temperament,” according to a recent profile in the Sunday Times. It’s a quality that has held her in good stead in the last year and half, an exceedingly turbulent period that’s included the death of her oldest child, the birth of another, the death of her father-in-law and the not insignificant matter of her husband becoming Prime Minister. Oh yeah, she works for a living, too.

Unlike her predecessors Cherie Blair and Sarah Brown, Samantha Cameron did not share a passion for party politics with her future husband. Instead, they met via a much more old-fashioned route: she was school chums with David’s sister Clare. They met not at a Tory event, but on a Cameron family holiday in Italy. When they began dating, David Cameron was already well ensconced in Westminster, living in London and working as an adviser to an MP. Samantha, by contrast, was enjoying a rather bohemian existence, studying fine art at Bristol Polytechnic (now the University of the West of England), and learning to play pool in seedy pubs with hip-hop star Tricky.

It was here that she traded in her cut glass accent for an estuary lilt—a reverse-snobbish affectation that would prompt some critics to describe her as a “trustafarian” (i.e. a rich kid who likes to slum it), but one that would go a long way with the British public. She also developed her personal style—a mix of ladylike classics and edgy trends that perfectly suited her tall, naturally willowy frame. “She wasn’t in the mould of his girlfriends at all,” family friend James Fergusson said in the recent book Cameron: The Rise of the New Conservative. “She was an art student, ‘hey man’ type, but he saw the toughness in her very quickly.”

While Samantha Cameron might be down to earth, her background is anything but. Presumably this was why she was not intimidated by Cameron and his Etonian pals, and also why she assumed the seat of power with natural grace, casually schlepping the family up to Chequers (the Prime Minister’s stately country residence) with as little pomp and circumstance as possible. In contrast to her recent predecessors, she is, quite literally, to the manor born.

Samantha Sheffield is the eldest daughter of Sir Reginald Sheffield, a baronet and a direct descendent of King Charles II. He can also trace his lineage back to the Crusades. Her mother, Annabel, divorced her father when Samantha was young and married William Astor, a viscount with a vast country estate and fortune of his own. Samantha’s childhood reads like something out of a Jane Austen novel. Educated at exclusive all-girls boarding schools, she spent most of her early years in her father’s Regency mansion, Normanby Hall in Lincolnshire. Or, as she preferred to tell acquaintances, “I grew up near Scunthorpe” (a nearby industrial town).

While her pedigree exceeds that of her husband (who is a descendent of a mistress of King William IV), Samantha is much more modern and socially elastic—a contemporary Jackie Kennedy to Cameron’s buttoned-down Tory boy image.

After university, she took at job at the historied stationer Smythson, where her mother (who is also co-founder of the successful furniture company Oka) was also employed. Samantha rose quickly through the ranks, eventually becoming Smythson’s creative director and rebranding the company in one of the most successful image makeovers in recent British fashion history. Her contemporary flair is credited with breathing new life into the stationer, which had been churning out leather diaries for dowager duchesses since 1887. Today it is cutting-edge chic—one of their bestselling $1,000 handbags is called the “Nancy” after the Camerons’ eldest daughter. For years, she was the major breadwinner in the household—pulling in the six-figure salary as David paid his dues in Parliament.

While privately she is said to have mixed feelings about public life, she is nonetheless credited with being the one who encouraged her husband to go after the Conservative leadership in 2005—an audacious bid for the then 39-year-old MP. While not publicly political herself (she is rumoured to be more liberal than her husband, and even to have voted Labour in the past), she has also been instrumental in managing his public image. She edits many of his speeches and once gave him the wise advice to answer every question from a personal, local, regional and national perspective—in that order. According to party insiders, she also coined the now famous Cameronism: “There is a such thing as a society—it’s just not the same thing as a state”—a redress of Margaret Thatcher’s famous gaffe that “there is no such thing as society.”

Samantha Cameron has rarely given an interview—a silence that only adds to her mystique. Perhaps it is a reflection of her ambivalence toward her new public role. When the Camerons were moving into their last house in North Kensington, a friendly neighbour looked at the moving van and remarked that the next time they moved, it would be to Downing Street. Samantha’s now legendary response: “I f–king hope not!” But she appears to be rising admirably to the occasion—juggling new motherhood, part-time work (after the election she scaled back at Smythson to two days a week), and the strange reality of life in the spotlight.

Despite the Tories’ recent and controversial spending review, Samantha (or SamCam, as she is affectionately called in the tabloids) is enjoying a honeymoon period with Britain’s cantankerous media. In that recent Sunday Times piece, the writer Eleanor Mills did not uncover a single criticism of her subject, despite relying heavily on anonymous sources. Unnamed friends did, however, share details of Samantha’s pregnancy complications (you’d never have known it from the campaign photos) and her recent revamp of the Downing Street flat, complete with family-style eating-living-play area in a clean contemporary palette (she favours the colour grey, and collects mid-century modern furniture).

The cranky, contrarian journalist Toby Young has described her as “obviously a grown-up, a serious person, someone who’s managed to combine being a good wife and mother with a successful career. And the fact that Dave managed to persuade her to marry him—and had the good judgment to choose her—is a reason to vote for him.”

But Samantha Cameron’s polished glow also conceals a quiet depth of sorrow. Last year, the couple’s first child, Ivan, born severely disabled with cerebral palsy and epilepsy, died suddenly in hospital at age six. Samantha, in particular, was said to be devastated, having made Ivan the centre of the family’s life for so long. Every visitor to the Cameron’s house met Ivan, and he was taken out on all family outings. David Cameron spent many nights sleeping on hospital room floors with his wife, at Ivan’s bedside. While Samantha returned to work not long after Ivan died, she is said to be grieving still.

As her former assistant at Smythson put it recently, “Sam is very strong without being devoid of emotion. She has been through an unimaginably traumatic experience recently, but has carried on with enormous guts and courage. Sam makes you want to look out for her, because she doesn’t ask you to.”

According to reports, Samantha is now winding down her career, focusing more on her family and her chosen children’s charities. But unlike Michelle Obama, you aren’t likely to hear her haranguing the nation to eat its veggies or staging photo ops in the garden any time soon. She is a private person thrust into a public role. As such, she has opted, in traditional English fashion, to keep calm and carry on. Frankly, it looks good on her.