Posh Boys

David Cameron’s Toff Problem

The prime minister’s aristocratic image and blueblood pals are starting to become a political handicap.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Toff, (slang) n: a person of the upper classes; a swell, dandy; a good sort.—The Chambers Dictionary (1998 edition)

“In British English slang, a toff is a mildly derogatory term for someone with an aristocratic background or belonging to the landed gentry, particularly someone who exudes an air of superiority.”–Wikipedia

I’m Berlington BertieI rise at ten thirty and saunter along like a toff,I walk down the Strand with my gloves on my hand,Then I walk down again with them off.—from “Berlington Bertie from Bow” (1915), by British songwriter W.F. Hargreaves, as cited in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (2004 edition)

These are not ideal times for a politician to be viewed as a toff—but David Cameron has never really been able to shake the label. The British prime minister comes from a family line packed with pedigrees and is distantly related to the queen. (Cameron is her majesty’s fifth cousin on his father’s side.) He attended Eton and Oxford, naturally, and belonged to the latter’s version of Skull and Bones, called the Bullingdon Club. His wife is descended from King Charles II and is the stepdaughter of an Astor. The district Cameron represents in Parliament, Witney in idyllic Oxfordshire, boasts rolling hills beloved by equestrian enthusiasts and is an enclave of Tory power. At the heart of Oxfordshire, near the tony town of Chipping Norton, the Camerons live surrounded by powerful and wealthy neighbors such as James and Elisabeth Murdoch and TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson.

Cameron has often been frank about his roots, even defiant. “I am wealthy, I have had a wonderfully secure and fortunate upbringing, and I went to a great school,” he told the BBC in 2007. Still, neither Cameron nor the British voting public have, until now, seen his privilege as a particular hurdle for leadership. “I don’t think in our country today that should disqualify you from talking about issues and from making the changes you want to see,” Cameron told the BBC.

This attitude has often been seen as a breath of fresh air for a politician rising through the ranks in a country where class issues are a very sensitive point—even more so for a party whose opponents have long sought to associate it with free-market rapaciousness and an indifference to blue-collar suffering. At times, Cameron has seemed to turn the tables on critics who want to seize on his heritage, causing some hand-wringing in the country’s notoriously combative left-wing press. (“Is it ethical to make fun of toffs? Is it even ethical to call a toff a toff?” a Guardian columnist once wrote in a piece entitled “The toffs are back—and frankly no one gives a damn.”) Cameron was even heralded as “The Iron Toff” when he appeared on the cover of Newsweek in September 2010.

But in the wake of the ongoing phone-hacking scandal surrounding Rupert Murdoch (whose British newspapers helped push Cameron to a narrow victory in elections two years ago) and his U.K. media arm News International, Cameron’s elite ties are starting to weigh on the former PR man’s carefully calibrated image—potentially bad news as Britons head to the polls today for local elections across the country and for the high-stakes London mayor's race. And in recent months, his toff problem has been compounded by a number of government missteps that have put an uncomfortable spotlight on the prime minister and the fellow aristocrats and the so-called "posh boys" who surround him at the pinnacle of power.

The prime minister has packed his cabinet with fellow bluebloods—and for the first time in Cameron’s premiership, the aristocratic makeup of his associates is starting to turn people off. Even members of his own Tory party have dabbled recently in the rhetoric of class warfare. Last week, Tory M.P. Nadine Dorries accused Cameron and Treasurer George Osborne—another alum of Oxford’s Bullingdon Club, and Cameron’s main political fixer—of being “two arrogant posh boys who don’t know the price of milk ... who show no remorse, no contrition, and no passion to want to understand the lives of others.”

Those remarks came on the heels of a series of budget missteps that included a plan to end a century-old tax break for over-65s and proposed a tax hike on commodities such as cigarettes and breakfast pasties—all of which provoked a virulent backlash. The treasurer was accused of an “outrageous assault” on older pensioners and of stealthily targeting the middle class with a value-added tax on everyday items. Meanwhile, it was announced last week that the U.K. had slid back into recession even as Cameron and Osborne vowed to plow ahead with their hallmark austerity plan.

Osborne and Cameron are hardly the only ones under fire. In March, Cameron was forced to admit to an embarrassing cash-for-access scheme in which the Tory co-treasurer had allowed top donors to partake in secret lunches and dinners with the prime minister at Chequers and Downing Street. At least one of the donors in the cash-for-access scheme had previously called for some financial measures, such as scrapping the income-tax rate, which ended up in the 2012 budget.

Recently, M.P. David Davis told BBC Radio 4 that the Tories in general were having trouble connecting with working-class voters. “They think we’re toffs,” he said. “The truth of the matter is, they look at the front bench and they see them all very dressed, well turned out, well fed, and perhaps feel that they’re in a different world to them. The 'we’re-all-in-this-together' phrase is very important—but at the moment, it’s not working.”

The phone-hacking scandal, meanwhile, keeps unearthing embarrassing revelations about Cameron’s government. Since July, the Leveson Inquiry and two police investigations have uncovered a torrent of information about alleged wrongdoing at Murdoch’s now-shuttered News of the World and his bestselling Sun tabloid—leading to a recent parliamentary grilling of Murdoch and his son James in which the lead counsel suggested a “failure of governance” at the company; to a damaging report by MPs this week in which Murdoch was declared “unfit” to steer his media holdings; and to even more damaging revelations that officials in Cameron’s government may have conspired to help pass News Corp.’s bid for a majority stake in pay-TV behemoth BSkyB.

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Long before the dam burst, though, the trouble for Cameron began when the prime minister’s top PR man—and former News of the World editor—Andy Coulson resigned in early 2011 amid mounting allegations that he had been aware of phone-hacking practices at the tabloid. It was the first inkling that Cameron might be too close to Murdoch’s family and top deputies. Over the past year, more leaks began to spring up: there was Murdoch’s admission to Parliament in July 2011, just as the phone-hacking scandal was erupting, that he was asked to enter Downing Street by the back door—in order to avoid photographers—just after the 2010 general-election win with Cameron. There were the meetings, detailed in records published by the government, that Cameron met James Murdoch for a lunch just before Christmas in 2010 to discuss the handling of the BSkyB bid. There were the other recorded meetings with top Murdoch deputies from the Sun and News of the World.

But the relationship most fraught with potential peril for Cameron may be his purported friendship with Rebekah Brooks, Rupert Murdoch’s flame-haired deputy, who resigned in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal and who has since been twice arrested by police in investigations into phone hacking and alleged payments made to public officials and over allegations of attempting to pervert the course of justice. (She was released after questioning both times.) It was Brooks’s and Cameron’s relationship that precipitated “Horsegate” this past spring, when it was revealed that Cameron went riding on a retired police horse lent to Brooks’s millionaire husband Charlie (nicknamed “Champagne Charlie”), a fellow Etonian and a close schoolmate of Cameron’s older brother. Cameron has previously described Charlie as a “good friend for many years,” and the Brookses invited Cameron to their 2009 wedding. (Cameron is also reported to have signed letters to Rebekah with the informal “Love, David,” suggesting a close relationship.) It was revealed over the weekend that Brooks was prepared to release emails and texts between herself and Cameron to the Leveson Inquiry. Both Brooks and Coulson, it was announced today, will appear before the Leveson Inquiry next week.

The question of how much influence Cameron’s rich associates have had on his government’s actions reached a head last week when evidence produced by Murdoch for the Leveson Inquiry revealed what seemed to be a secret back channel between a senior News Corp. lobbyist with an elite-sounding name— Frédéric Michel (though he goes by “Fred”)—and Cameron’s culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt. Michel was in regular contact with a senior aide to Hunt, who even provided confidential information that he admitted was “absolutely illegal.” At the time of these communique’s, News Corp. was seeking to dissuade antimonopoly regulators from stopping its BSkyB bid. Hunt had “quasi-judicial” authority over ruling on the BSkyB proposal, which was expected to pass before it was scuppered by the hacking scandal. Hunt—the son of a former second-in-command of the British Navy and an Oxford alum—has denied that the Murdochs had a back channel of influence to his office, and has insisted that the aide—who resigned when the scandal erupted last week—has said he acted without Hunt’s authorization.

Another Oxford-educated member of Cameron’s cabinet, Education Secretary Michael Gove, has been vociferously defending Hunt in the wake of the allegations, though his defense has been portrayed as tone-deaf. (Gove enthusiastically told the press that Hunt is “a superb Latin dancer and his lambada is something amazing ... he has a sprung dancefloor in his house in London to enable him to practice. If you ever want someone to liven up your party ... then Jeremy is the man to invite.”) Gove himself met with James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks, according to Rupert Murdoch’s statement to the Leveson Inquiry, to discuss “education reform.” Gove also had dinner at Murdoch’s house, Murdoch said. (In a twist, Murdoch now seems to be trying to distance himself from Cameron’s and his "posh boys." He recently sent a trio of recent tweets attacking his “enemies, old toffs and right wingers”—seemingly a jab at the prime minister and his cabinet.)

The waves of scandal have had their effect on Tory poll numbers—Conservatives have been falling in the polls with devastating rapidity lately, dropping below 30 percent for the first time since 2004, according to a poll published this weekend in the Sunday Times. “Worse still, the prime minister is no longer a clear asset to his party,” the chief pollster said. "His net rating is minus 31. Only Gordon Brown can match such a drop in popularity. It is not a happy precedent.” The timing for the Conservatives couldn’t be worse as voters cast their ballots today.

Ironically, Conservatives have looked to the London mayor’s race as a potential saving grace, offering a swell of good news and suggesting that the recent troubles may just be a bump in the road. The candidate? The office’s current inhabitant, who is often considered to be the country’s most popular politician and a possible successor to Cameron, both for the Conservative Party and the country at large. Boris Johnson went to Eton, attended Oxford at the same time as Cameron, appears in Bullingdon group snapshots with the prime minister, and is descended from a German prince. In other word, he is a toff among toffs—proving, perhaps, that while Cameron may one day go, the toffs might be here to stay.