Samantha Cameron: I thought 'how are we going to survive?'
Samantha Cameron is famously cool under fire — even with her husband’s reputation in question. But when her clothing label was hit by Covid, she admits: There were moments in the past year when I thought ‘how are we going to survive?’
- Samantha Cameron’s husband David has been in scandal about links to Greensill
- 50-year-old admits they weren’t prepared for pandemic but reacted very fast
- She is attempting to rescue her fashion brand Cefinn, with a summer collection
- She wore dresses almost daily throughout first lockdown at Oxfordshire home
Samantha Cameron and I meet at an exquisitely awkward time for her. The scandal over her husband’s links to collapsed investment company Greensill is gathering pace, and within days allegations of cronyism will threaten not only to tarnish his reputation but to engulf the Government in allegations of sleaze.
There’s no sign of David at their West London house, and when I ask where he is, Samantha apparently doesn’t hear me over the noise of her coffee machine. Her assistant firmly says Samantha doesn’t want to answer any questions about this. I am not surprised.
Indeed, sitting down at the kitchen table, she chats away as if nothing is wrong at all, about how David, 54, Prime Minister from 2010 to 2016, is coping now he needs reading glasses.
‘He forgets to go out with them and he does all the shopping, so three times he’s come home with what he thinks is mayonnaise but actually it’s hollandaise.
Samantha Cameron, 50, (pictured) who is mother to Nancy, 17, Elwen, 15, and Florence, ten, is also the boss of her fashion label Cefinn
‘You’re thinking why does this mayo taste so dodgy?’ she says, laughing.
Samantha, 50, could be very snooty indeed. After all, she spent six years hobnobbing with the likes of the Obamas and Angela Merkel. She could not come from more pukka stock — her father is Sir Reginald Sheffield, eighth baronet, while her mother Annabel (the couple divorced when Samantha was three) is founder of upmarket furniture chain Oka and now married to Lord Astor.
She’s also, as mother to Nancy, 17, Elwen, 15, and Florence, ten, not to mention boss of her fashion label Cefinn, a hugely busy woman.
Yet drinking coffee in the (extremely tasteful, high-end, contemporary) kitchen/living area of her Edwardian detached house with a small garden full of blossoming cherry trees, dressed in a black jumper and dark-blue patterned skirt, both from Cefinn, plus the whitest trainers I’ve ever seen, Samantha couldn’t be more seemingly down-to-earth.
Chatting away about how she tried to watch the Kardashians with Nancy, (‘I thought it would be a good bonding thing, but I kept falling asleep, it was literally like watching paint dry’), she could be any one of your girlfriends. Or that’s the impression she is skilled in giving, at any rate.
For example, when she arrived at Downing Street, she says she sometimes completely forgot her newly grand status.
‘I had literally no security and in my lunch breaks I liked to go out to the shops for some pottering, some me-time.
‘I’d quite often go into [department store] Fenwick to try things on. But then I’d get texts from Isabel [Spearman, her assistant] who’d been looking at Twitter, saying: “You’ve been spotted! Could you not come out of the changing rooms half dressed? You cannot end up in the papers in your pants and bra. Please been careful!” but I was always quite relaxed.’
Samantha is attempting to rescue her fashion business with a summer collection intended to revive Covid-hit fortunes. Pictured: Leaving No 10 with her family in July 2016
Life in the Cameron household is surely anything but calm right now, with the spotlight hotly on her husband. Although he insists he has not broken any rules, the Greensill affair centres on the questionable ethics of the former PM’s lobbying of government ministers on behalf of Australian financier Lex Greensill, whom Cameron hired as a Downing Street adviser while in office and went to work for after leaving it.
Meanwhile, Samantha is attempting to rescue her fashion business with a summer collection intended to revive Covid-hit fortunes.
In terms of what marketing people call ‘optics’, it probably doesn’t help that one of Cefinn’s major investors is none other than Lord Brownlow of Shurlock Row, who’s thought to have paid £58,000 towards the cost of Boris Johnson’s Downing Street flat refurbishment (although No 10 now says Johnson has met the cost personally).
The truth is, in the four years since it launched, Cefinn has never made a profit. That’s not unusual for new fashion companies, which reinvest much of their capital.
And then the pandemic struck. Like everyone in the fashion industry, Samantha, through no fault of her own, had a disastrous 2020, with demand for Cefinn’s speciality — outfits you could wear to the office, then on to a drinks party — non-existent. ‘It’s been very tough and like most people we weren’t prepared,’ Samantha says.
A retail veteran — as chief creative officer of luxury stationery brand Smythson she earned £400,000 a year, more than twice her husband’s Prime Ministerial salary — she at least had some idea how to go into battle.
‘I’d lived through other financial crises, so we reacted very fast. We cut our orders back and cut costs quite dramatically, so we survived. But there were definitely sleepless nights.
‘I’m by nature optimistic, but I’m now more cautious about what the future holds,’ she continues. ‘I was first thinking [the lockdowns] were going to finish by September , then I thought by March this year.
Samantha (pictured) wore dresses pretty much daily throughout the first lockdown, which the family spent at their Oxfordshire home
‘We still don’t actually know if life will be back to normal this autumn and whether people will be going back to offices and to Christmas parties.
‘But we’ve just had some big orders come in for the first time in a year, so everyone’s feeling more confident.’
Her new collection is much less office-oriented than before, with plenty of work-from-home pieces such as cardigans and slouchy patterned jumpsuits that could almost pass for pyjamas.
There’s also an emphasis on relaxed feminine, floral dresses, less formal than her previous best-sellers but still a sign of confidence after a year in which demand plummeted for posh frocks.
‘Luckily, we’d recently gone into knitwear, shirting and skirts, and they still sold incredibly well.
‘But actually, just in the last two weeks, we can see people are really getting into dresses again and this time we’ve designed them to be more casual, for wearing to lunch in the garden.’
Unlike most of us slatterns, Samantha wore dresses pretty much daily throughout the first lockdown, which the family spent at their Oxfordshire home in David’s former constituency.
She always did her hair and put on make-up, but then she had to keep up appearances for non-stop business Zooms.
David took control of the kitchen (‘He’s like a cooking machine, he just loves it, so we ate like gods’) and, with Nancy, erected a chicken coop in the garden.
Samantha didn’t have to worry too much about homeschooling. Nancy’s GCSEs were cancelled, while Elwen, at a private school, received full-day lessons over Zoom. Florence, at a state primary, was supervised by their nanny, who moved in.
Samantha said she put on three-quarters of a stone when she hit 43 and suddenly couldn’t wear trousers. Pictured: With husband David Cameron
‘Even then there were moments when I just thought, “Oh God, how are we going to survive?” But if I ever mentioned to the children I was thinking of giving up work because it was all becoming too much, they’d be like, “No Mum, we love you but we don’t want you around all the time.”’
To Samantha’s knowledge, none of the family caught Covid, and both she and David have had their first vaccination.
Turning 50 last month came as a shock. ‘For someone like me who is quite young at heart it is something to get your head around that you’re in the second half of your life, combined with the fact your children’s friends think you’re really old,’ she says, laughing.
She celebrated her 40th with a ‘rave’ and buffet at Chequers, but this time celebrations were muted. (It will be the same with David and Samantha’s silver wedding anniversary in June.)
Still, she was determined to enter her sixth decade glowing. ‘I want to hit my 50s in almost as good shape as I hit my 40s.’
Tall and naturally slender, for a long time staying slim was easy.
‘But then I hit 43, I just put on three-quarters of a stone. Suddenly you don’t quite fit any of your things and I got really bloated. In Downing Street I used to wear trousers a lot and suddenly I couldn’t wear them any more.’
Again, it’s a slightly startling admission from someone so slim, but then you remember Samantha’s worked for years in fashion with its size-zero goals.
She attempted the 5:2 diet, where you eat normally five days a week, consuming just 500 calories for the remaining two.
‘I just couldn’t do it, I literally couldn’t speak in the evening, I had to go to bed at 7pm.’
Samantha (pictured) said for two days a week, she avoids drinking, eating sugar and eating carbs as part of the 5:2 diet
Recently, however, she’s adopted an easier version involving 800 calories twice a week.
‘I’m loving it, because it just means not drinking, not eating sugar, not eating carbs for two days and I can easily do that if I know I can have a cup of tea and Marmite on toast for breakfast the next day. And the bloating’s gone!’
Samantha’s long been disciplined about exercise, each week running five miles, completing one yoga session and another with a personal trainer on Zoom.
‘That’s it — those three things would be the max, but over the years I’ve been quite consistent about them.
‘Obviously there’s a vanity aspect to it, but I think if you’re a working mum, exercise really improves your emotional and physical stamina, you need that extra gear of energy.
‘It’s the thing that gets me through the week and at the weekend, my children say: “Let her go for a run, she’ll be much better tempered afterwards.” ’
She’s not yet hit the menopause. ‘But I’m constantly thinking about it. The moment I haven’t slept or put on weight, “This is it!”. I talk with friends about it all the time, which I think is good, but when I asked my mum about hers, she said: “Darling, I think it’s best not to dwell on these things.” Mum is very open and cool, not old-fashioned at all, but her view is that you just get on with it.’
Samantha met David when she was 21 and married him when she was 26.
Four years later, their oldest son Ivan was born severely disabled with cerebral palsy and epilepsy. He spent his life in and out of hospital and died aged six, a year before David became Prime Minister.
‘An event like Ivan’s death definitely puts everything into very sharp perspective. Having experienced some really tough stuff like that, combined with Dave’s and my relationship being very robust, means we were definitely prepared for Downing Street,’ she says.
Samantha said she didn’t publicly announce quitting her job, because she didn’t do it because David was becoming Prime Minister. Pictured: Samantha with David Cameron
‘And it’s much easier doing that kind of thing when you’re older and have a family and job. You have a very strong sense of your own self, which really protects you.’
Samantha’s uneasy about the gossip surrounding Boris Johnson’s girlfriend Carrie Symonds, with the 33-year-old portrayed as the real power behind the throne. ‘I don’t like the way women get instantly blamed in that kind of Lady Macbeth way in these situations,’ she says. ‘Whether I’m right or wrong, I’m always biased and I will always defend the woman.’
Just before David won the 2010 election, she quit her job.
‘We didn’t say anything publicly, because I didn’t do it because of Dave becoming Prime Minister. It was partly because I was pregnant again and partly because it was a year after my son had died. But Dave was a bit ashen-faced at the news, I’d always worked since I’d known him and I think he worried I’d change or it would change our relationship.’ He needn’t have fretted because, once in Downing Street, Samantha bought a sewing machine and began creating the fashion line that had always been her goal.
‘My mum started her first business when she was 17 and I’d always wanted to be more entrepreneurial. I thought if I didn’t start now it was never going to happen.’
Her focus on behind-the-scenes preparations for Cefinn was a distraction from the family’s abrupt departure from Downing Street after the referendum.
‘When we came out the other side it didn’t feel my life had changed that much, I was still working hard, still looking after the children.’
Indeed, it was that image of her and the kids on the day they left Downing Street, all beautifully turned out, she in a £1,495 Roksanda Ilincic dress by David’s side, that came to symbolise the end of her husband’s era.
Samantha (pictured) admits she didn’t really want to be at Downing Street, but they had a happy family time there
Within eight months, however, she launched Cefinn.
‘I had this idea that I must do it before I was 45 and even though I definitely wasn’t exercising then and was answering emails at 4am, I’m glad I didn’t let the grass grow under my feet. But I was naïve about how tough starting a business would be. If I’d known I’m not sure I’d have done it.’
She made it work, in part, because David took on plenty of the domestic load.
‘We’ve always been a tag team, that’s always been part of our relationship, and we were lucky in the timing of our careers and that we could be flexible.’
Looking back at the Downing Street years, Samantha says it feels like a dream.
‘I didn’t really want to be there, but we had a happy family time there. The older children can remember quite a lot about it, Nancy was very keen to just go back and have a look and Theresa May very sweetly said she could. Florence definitely found it the most strange leaving because it was her entire world.
‘Our nanny would take her around all the offices and she’d get given sweets and biscuits and see Larry the cat. It was heaven, she thought everyone was her family.’
Celebrities were always coming in and out of the building, with the children’s biggest moment probably being meeting actor David Tennant. ‘He was Doctor Who then — their little faces as they gazed up at him!’
In turn, Samantha was most overwhelmed not by meeting President Obama (‘although Michelle is absolutely amazing’) or some Nobel Prize winner, but her teenage idols Debbie Harry of Blondie and The Edge from U2 at Downing Street charity functions. ‘The Edge turned up in a little beanie and I just kept saying “Oh my God! Oh my God!” ’
They must seem like halcyon days compared to now. With her husband’s reputation in question, Samantha is going to need all her optimism and undoubted grit to help the family through this tough new chapter.
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