As the history of his time in government begins to be written, David Cameron must have been hoping the “Notting Hill set” would be largely forgotten. The term was used, normally pejoratively and in sneering tabloid articles, to describe the tight-knit group who, in the early years of his leadership, would gather at the Camerons’ Notting Hill home to discuss policy over pizza. Entering Downing Street some years later, Cameron was accompanied by friends from those gatherings. Some you have heard of, such as George Osborne and Michael Gove. Others, you won’t have: namely Kate Fall, who spent more than a decade as “the most influential woman in British politics”, according to the Times journalist Alice Thomson.
Fall was at the centre of the Cameron project: she was his deputy chief of staff from his first day as Conservative leader to his last as prime minister. Described by Cameron as his “wingman”, she sat at the desk directly outside his office. Deciding who could and couldn’t have access to the PM, she became known as the “gatekeeper”. This book is her account of that time, an insider’s view of David Cameron’s journey to power, and what it was like when they got there.
Unwittingly, Fall’s memoir may well revive the Notting Hill set as an important framework for understanding the rise and fall of Cameron. This is unfortunate for Cameron and co, of course, because it speaks to a sense of upper-class exclusivity: many of the set are old friends whose connection pre-dates politics.
Kate Fall’s drama plays out across a series of grand houses – London pads, the official residences of the great offices of state, the team’s own country homes (giving rise to another grouping, the “Chipping Norton set”). She emphasises that the personnel come “from very different beginnings”, although Osborne – an ex- Bullingdon Club member in line to inherit a baronetcy – is, in her words: “George, whose parents set up a wallpaper company”.
At its most damning, one might describe Cameron’s method as governing by clique. But Fall captures, eloquently and importantly, the profound sense of personal loyalty underpinning the enterprise. These people, who entered government as a unit, are close family friends. They eat and drink together at weekends and are godparents to one another’s children. Much is made of the strong rapport between Osborne and Cameron as forming the bedrock of effective governance in these years. The Gatekeeper shows it was not an isolated relationship, but one of several that created a foundation for effective, smooth operations.
Fall writes well, with an eye for human detail and a journalistic sense of what is interesting. Her depiction of life at the height of an election campaign or inside Downing Street is pacy and glamorous, and could be the basis of a Netflix drama set in No 10. About herself, however, she is deeply private, and almost absent from the text at many points.
A friend once told me that people write what they really mean in parentheses. After 100 pages depicting the drama of the 2010 election campaign, Fall makes a rare use of brackets: “Three marriages break down after the 2010 election (including my own).” This is a woman who is entirely loyal and utterly without ego: even in her own book, she does not become the story.
And speaking of advisers who do or do not become the story, Fall, in her gentle, diplomatic way, displays a tacit awareness of the current political context. In an early description of the Notting Hill gatherings, she notes that after Michael Gove joins, “the meetings begin to appear in the Spectator, which is unfortunate”. Only 100 pages later, when most readers will have forgotten the remark, do we learn who she believes is probably responsible: Dominic Cummings, then Gove’s adviser.
Ultimately, it is Gove, rather than Cameron, Osborne or Fall herself, who is the most compelling character in The Gatekeeper. In the early sections, he is wheeled out as a benign source of comic relief; a valued member of the inner circle who eats his breakfast in cabinet meetings, is a terrible driver and takes orders from his wife, who “is used to proactively managing her husband”. The friends laugh at Chequers one weekend, when one of the Gove children “runs into breakfast saying, ‘Isn’t it true this house will be ours when Dad’s prime minister?’”
The signs are there. In the third and final section, “Europe”, Gove quickly turns from clown to villain. He decides to campaign for Leave in the EU referendum, without informing Cameron. “Over the decade that David has led the party, he has been supported by and supportive to a few close friends who he trusts and respects,” Fall writes. “No one else – other than George – could have landed him such a blow as Michael Gove.”
Within the world of The Gatekeeper, the betrayal by Gove – the “arch-assassin”, as Fall describes him – feels like the death knell of the Cameron project, before the referendum defeat. Gove betrays the deep bond of loyalty underpinning the whole thing, and the project immediately topples. Fall’s book is worth reading for many reasons, but perhaps most of all as an exploration of this strange, fascinating deployment of friendship as political strategy: how it works, and how it fails.
HQ, 272pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 04 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Inside No 10