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14 November 2023

The desperate return of the Cameroons

The adults are back in the room. It’s a shame they trashed it last time.

By Will Lloyd

The late AA Gill said there were two kinds of slum. “There are slums that grow out of too little, and slums that grow out of too much.” Sexy Fish, a restaurant that opened on Berkeley Square in October 2015, is a hysterical example of the latter.  

Masterminded by the billionaire clothing ’n’ clubs tycoon Richard Caring, Sexy Fish cost as much to build as a nuclear submarine, and instantly became the place la haute paid £350 for 50g of beluga. The Esmeralda onyx marble floor was shipped in from benighted Iran. Frank Gehry supplied an ornamental 13ft glossy black crocodile; Damien Hirst made a bronze bas-relief of a shark. Hirst’s fish hung above the strawberry-coloured lava stone bar. The slum was populated by many, many statues of glaring blue mermaids.  

Sexy Fish landed in Mayfair, but it might have been built for Macau. Tastelessly expensive and opulently global, thronged with Hey-Look-at-Mes and Don’t-You-Know-Who-I-Ams, nowhere in Britain better incarnated life under David Cameron.

The poor, good luck to them, got the Big Society; the rich got miso-glazed Chilean sea bass. One December night before Christmas 2015, when Brexit was no more than a spreadsheet on Dominic Cummings’s laptop, Sexy Fish was where Cameron’s power peaked.  

Two trash aristocracies filled it that evening. They were all in together: on one level the X Factor judge Cheryl Cole, with her ex-Girls Aloud bandmates Nicola Roberts and Kimberley Walsh, Little Mix’s Perrie Edwards and the Saturdays’ Rochelle Humes. Below them, in the Coral Reef room, was a party organised by Cameron’s big ideas chief, Steve Hilton, and his wife, Rachel Whetstone.  

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Hilton had not yet gone mad, abandoned nudge theory and joined Fox News. Whetstone was working for Uber, busily trying to sweep London’s black cabbies into the dustbin of history. They were joined by David and SamCam, George Osborne and his first wife Frances, and Tim Allan, the millionaire ex-Blair adviser and founder of the PR company Portland. Camilla Cavendish, the head of Cameron’s policy unit, was there, as was Ian Katz, the editor of BBC Two’s Newsnight.  

Weren’t Tory politicians supposed to spend their downtime shooting grouse, not smashing Krug with pop stars and New Labour flacks? Not any more. Influence, fame and wealth were the prizes. The two groups in Sexy Fish that night were bound together. They had more in common than the normal people who voted for Cameron, or the ordinary people who voted for Cole’s contestants on X Factor. Here was a bashful second-rate establishment every bit as patrician and blind as their Edwardian forebears had been. The only difference was that Edwardians ate ortolans at their silly parties, not Wagyu beef.  

[See also: Can Keir Starmer prevent mass resignations over Gaza?]

Like the Edwardians, the Cameroonian establishment were not bad people. Calling them a liberal metropolitan elite was always a slur – many of them also had homes in the country. But they were complacent, and that made them careless. Reading about the Sexy Fish party today, after Cameron’s dramatic return to front-line politics, is weirdly, almost unbearably poignant. If everything had gone to plan, Osborne would be in his second term as prime minister, and Cameron wouldn’t have needed Rishi Sunak to make him a lord.  

The Cameroons’ dreams were born of a comfortable sleep. Could the British be well fed on a diet of populist referendums, cruel reality-TV formats, paeans to “hard-working families” and complementary attacks on “benefits scroungers”, as long as they were fronted by rational managers in dark blue suits, or slit-skirted glamazons who could hold a high note? It’s hard to shake the feeling that this is exactly what the Sexy Fish set thought.  

But day-to-day life in Britain, by 2015, had more in common with The Jeremy Kyle Show than the viscerally Cameroonian Downton Abbey. The British were not cheerful and deferential; the British were downtrodden, divided and afraid of the future.  

Their leaders, whether in culture or politics, never understood that an infantile culture would one day conjure an infantile politics, too. They resembled the men in Philip Larkin’s MCMXIV, innocently queuing up to fight in the trenches, never registering the ease with which dreams transform into nightmares. When Cameron took power he was asked by a friend if his new responsibilities made him nervous. Back came the reply: “How hard can it be?” In 2015 it still looked easy, but the world was cracking beneath his feet.  

Now the Cameroons are crawling up through those same cracks. David Cameron is the Foreign Secretary. Perhaps he can solve the Israel-Palestine conflict once and for all with a referendum. His return is rumoured to have been brokered with Sunak by his old chum William Hague. George Osborne, along with his protégé and former chief of staff Rupert Harrison, has been providing the Prime Minister with freelance economic guidance since 2022. Harrison has already been awarded a safe seat to fight for at the next election. (It happens to be a rejigged version of Cameron’s old constituency.) Maybe Osborne will be next. The Cameroons’ court thinker, Daniel Finkelstein, I was told by Nadine Dorries on 9 November, is prepping Sunak for PMQs. The adults are back in the room. It’s a shame they trashed it last time.  

Sunak has, at least, definitely answered the question of whether he has any ideas. There aren’t any. In a few dozen Home Counties’ families, Aga-owners will be reassured to see that Sunak’s future looks like the Cameroonian past. The rest of us see decline.  

Not long before he died, AA Gill reviewed Sexy Fish, the same year Cameron partied there. He called it a “reward for people who have already been given too much”. You could say exactly the same about the return of the Cameroons.

[See also: Restoration of a loser]

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This article appears in the 15 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Desperate Measures

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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