Sam Cam gives Tories street credibility

Aristocratic yet cool, the wife of Britain's opposition leader could swing vital votes as the UK goes to the polls.

Kagan McLeod for The National
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Samantha Cameron, as the story goes, was once asked by a journalist where she grew up. "Just outside Scunthorpe," she is said to have replied, referring to an unfortunate town in the English county of Lincolnshire, often and unfairly evoked in jokes as the archetypal grim town. It was quite true - though it did not, perhaps, paint the full picture of her childhood at Normanby Hall, a 300-acre estate that had been in the family since 1590.

Samantha Cameron's father is Sir Reginald Sheffield, a baronet and Lincolnshire landlord, and her mother is the former Sixties It Girl Annabel Jones, who has since remarried Viscount Astor. Her ancestors include Charles II's mistress Nell Gwyn. But her aristocratic provenance is not the whole story. Mrs Cameron, the wife of the British Conservative leader David Cameron, seems to embody many of the qualities that the modern Conservative party is seeking to capture. Yes, she's a toff, but she's a toff who plays it down. She's not a tribal Tory; she's young (38), attractive and she works in what politicians like to call "the real world".

She has a job, in other words - four days a week as creative director of the upmarket stationery retailer Smythson and a salary that most likely tops the £130,000 (Dh773,000) a year her husband earns as the leader of the opposition. "Sam Cam," as she has inevitably been renamed by the British press for headline purposes, is widely regarded as one of her husband's most important electoral assets. Actually, since the announcement of her pregnancy, she is regarded as two of her husband's most important electoral assets.

As another groomed, well-connected, professionally independent and politically bankable leader's wife, she is a natural foil to Sarah Brown, the prime minister's wife. Plus, although only the most cynical of persons would imply that the timing of her pregnancy was in some way a political stunt, it will undoubtedly do no harm to her popularity with the electorate. Her history also helps to give David Cameron - whose whole bearing speaks of a very traditional line of Tory entitlement, running from Eton and Oxford to the City, and whose whole face speaks of the careful application of moisturiser and hair products - a gentle edge.

That is, it should be stressed, a very gentle edge; she is unlikely to give Courtney Love any sleepless nights. But an edge nonetheless. She's what one friend describes as a "serious yoga babe". It's been reported that she went through a Goth phase in her teens. She went to Bristol University and then art school, rather than Oxbridge, and as a student used to hang out in more bohemian circles than her future husband.

She has a tattoo of a dolphin on her ankle, was friendly with the hip-hop star Tricky, and used to hang out, according to her husband's biographer, with "hippies, students and guys from the ghetto". Recent photographs - racy, at least, by the standards of Conservative leaders' consorts - emerged showing her lolling around on a sofa modelling a designer friend's clothes. She was, in sum, cooler than Dave. "She turned me down for a while because she didn't want to tell anyone she was dating a Tory," he has joked of their courtship.

At one point, the Conservative frontbencher Ed Vaizey speculated that she may have voted for Blair in 1997 - something later firmly denied. But her politics in her youth and 20s were of the liberal bent that might have voted for Blair - it's thought she actually voted Green - and that's the kind of liberal the Conservatives now seek to capture. Samantha was introduced to her husband on a family holiday in 1992 by her best friend, his younger sister Clare. She was 21 at the time, and David Cameron 26, and what began as a holiday romance grew into something more stable. They dated while she was at art school and married in 1996. Having put aside her ambition to be a professional painter, she went into interior design and achieved her present post as creative director of Smythson by the time she was only 25. The couple settled down conclusively, and relatively young.

"Dave and Sam were the first people to buy a house in W10," one of London's more desirable postcodes, says one friend who has known them a long time. "They were quite grown up even then. They were the ones that had plates that matched, and put the pictures up properly. "They're real homebodies - they don't like going out - and it was cosy and nice rather than interior-designy and poncey. They reconverted it from flats, and so we all thought it was rather nice round here. The point was, though, that it was the cheapest place back then that you could get a house near to central London."

Their first child was born in 2002. Ivan was severely disabled - he was born with cerebral palsy and epilepsy - and his care made the lifestyle change into parenthood even more abrupt and decisive. Two other children - Nancy and Arthur, born in 2004 and 2006 - were to follow, as was the tragedy of Ivan's death, in February 2009. There is much about Samantha with which voters might identify. "I'm a working mum," she has said. "We have to pay for childcare. I don't have huge amounts of spare cash to spend on designer clothing. I think all working mums are a bit like that."

Yet this working mum's political antennae are no less well-tuned than David's. Mrs Cameron is widely credited with having been behind her husband's decision to speak without notes at last year's Tory party conference. When she decided to watch that speech wearing a £65 dress from Marks & Spencer it created a flurry of media excitement, though a close friend who was present at the time denies that the choice of dress was a conscious contrivance.

Certainly, though, it is the case in modern politics that, for better or for worse, these things make an impact. Mrs Cameron - whose younger sister works on the fashion magazine Vogue - is far more frequently seen in clothes from Zara, Joseph or H&M than Prada or Armani. Until the arrival of Cherie Booth in Downing Street, the traditional role of the prime ministerial wife - and we can include Denis Thatcher in this category - has been to hang supportively at the prime ministerial elbow. They had hobbies - Mary Wilson wrote poetry, Denis played golf, Norma Major wrote a history of Chequers - but seldom careers and seldomer public ones.

Mrs Blair continued her high-profile work as a lawyer - indeed, three years after Labour took power she co-founded Matrix Chambers, a legal practice with a specialism in the human rights law that her husband's government brought in. Samantha Cameron can be expected to cleave to the Cherie Booth way of doing things, and that is distinctively in keeping with the way the new Tory party wants to be seen: she's a mother but a working mother, and the Cameron marriage is presented as a partnership of equals.

Mrs Cameron isn't as political as her husband - and certainly isn't as political as Mrs Blair or even Mrs Brown - but for the next few months, like it or not, she belongs to politics. Any private moment can suddenly be made public - a microphone left on at Tory conference, for instance, captured Cameron whispering to her: "Love you, babe". She is said to be shy of the limelight - and she appeared somewhat awkward when interviewed by Sir Trevor McDonald in a recent television special. But she is a determined woman. So with limelight now guaranteed, there's every reason to believe that the lass from Scunthorpe will learn to thrive in it.

* The National