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SATURDAY ESSAY

Downfall

HERE’S one of the first things David Cameron will have noticed as the tawdry details of the Greensill debacle have emerged, drip by drip, over recent weeks.

Suddenly, the phone isn’t ringing with syrupy-voiced requests from the broadcast media to offer his thoughts on the budget, Brexit or the future of Labour after Hartlepool.

Rather he’s far more likely to be the subject of comments even more derisory than usual on Have I Got News for You or The News Quiz.

And perhaps calls from ‘acquaintainces’ — those who work harder at maintaining contact than you do — will start to dry up.

This is what happens as you slide from fame to infamy — and I remember it too well. Actually, in my case, it wasn’t a slide but a straight drop from one day to the next, rather like walking into a lift on the penthouse level and discovering too late it has no floor. You’re history.

I don’t expect Cameron will have the unhappy experience of his barber telling him he is no longer a welcome client, as my New York hairdresser told me days after scandal hit my husband, the newspaper tycoon Conrad Black, and myself more than a decade or so ago.

My photograph, having been featured on the salon wall for about 15 years, was then removed like Trotsky from those infamous Red Square podium pics back in the days of the USSR.

Worse, when I phoned my ‘good friend’ and manager of the Manolo Blahnik shop in New York and said I was after a pair of mood-lifting shoes, she retorted ‘You’ve got quite enough’ and hung up.

Even Ghislaine Maxwell snubbed me at a reception!

But what really hurt was when my old school, North London Collegiate, which boasted of me in my glory days as an editor and columnist working on both sides of the Atlantic, removed me from the roster of famous old girls.

Post Prime Ministership was never going to be easy for Cameron. His only real-world work experience was in the early Nineties with the media company Carlton Communications — he was Vice-President Corporate Affairs — which, when I visited back in the day, meant a meet-and-greet as he showed you in, always a pretty oily job.

Cameron is extremely articulate, the possessor of a First Class Honours degree from Oxford, but a man who cannot resist making absolutely everything he says sound EMPHATICALLY IMPORTANT. He’s just that sort of person.

Unfortunately, this need to deliver every statement as truly, deeply, sincerely significant makes him sound like a bit of a windbag. Just about bearable when in office; a hell of a handicap when you’re out and nothing you say seems to have substance any more.

And nothing showcased those qualities — plus the skills he learned as a PR, the obfuscation and need to ingratiate himself — than his earnest but slippery appearances before two select committees (Treasury followed by Public Accounts) on Thursday, during which he was subjected to four hours of grilling by MPs. He was accused of ‘stalking’ ministers and officials and of ‘demeaning’ himself and his position via the barrage of emails and texts he sent as he worked to secure access for Greensill to government Covid emergency loans.

I can’t get worked up over Cameron’s activities. Yes, he stood to benefit financially if Greensill prospered — reportedly telling friends that he would make $60m from his shareholdings after the company was valued at $7bn. And the wheedling desperation in the emails and texts made public this week were certainly undignified for a former British PM.

Barbara Amiel with her husband Conrad Black at a costume party

‘Call me Dave’ (the nickname conferred on him by Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn) now has a new soubriquet; ‘Love DC’ — the sign-off to some of those messages that he will not easily live down.

But as far as I can see what he did is not actually illegal and I leave it to others to speculate on where that will all go.

My interest extends only to what David Cameron and I share — the horrible experience of what happens when you’ve been ‘up there’ and then the roof falls in.

I can’t help feeling some sympathy for him. We’re all stuck with what nature and nurture gives us and in Cameron it’s provided something of a weak character. You need the right stuff to get through this sort of thing, which it is not too late for him to find. But it manifestly eluded him this week.

Dave was as well lit and powdered as a professional politician on Zoom could be as he endured his questioning: lovely really, but still the camera managed to hit that tell-tale bead of sweat.

Loss of power brings different losses to its erstwhile owner depending on what made them seek it out in the first place.

I understand Cameron’s problem of being the Sun King one day and a mere courtier the next — hence his need to wheedle telephone numbers from important people he once knew well, so he could call other important people who previously always called him.

It may sound trivial but this sidling around for contacts is deeply humiliating, which is why I went into social lockdown after Conrad was sentenced to six and a half years for fraud and obstruction of justice by a U.S. court in 2007 (for the record, ultimately all charges were vacated by the U.S. Supreme Court and then he was pardoned). I called absolutely no one for roughly 11 or 12 years.

Such a shutdown would never occur to Cameron who, even now, may not be totally aware of the wretchedness of his present situation. Friends will reassure him (and he will tell himself) that the Press is always horrid and unreliable and that this too will pass. Which it will. But not without some damage.

He has lost the gravitas, so becoming in a former PM and essential to maintain one’s premier position in the world at large. Not quite so many doors will open to him in the future — accessibility to other powerful people being an essential marker of the powerful.

Stripped of power, you’re left buck naked, twisting in the wind. The people you shunted off to an aide to deal with, the letters you didn’t bother replying to, the sarky, clever-at-the time remarks that come back to haunt you. How many times I wished I had been wonderful to everyone and never lost my temper.

Cameron will find that nothing is as sweet to those he fobbed off as fobbing him back.

The most formidable loser in the power game I ever saw was Middle East fixer, arms dealer and business tycoon Adnan Khashoggi, friend of Arab potentates and U.S. Presidents. He was a shadowy, basically unattractive figure with the allure that three superyachts, a fleet of planes and homes around the world bring.

He had throngs of gorgeous women over whom he showered expensive jewels and powdered cocaine. The Economist magazine once estimated his lifestyle cost $250,000 a day at its peak.

But then Adnan lost it all after a scandal involving the Iran-Contra arms deal and he had to sell one yacht to the Sultan of Brunei who later sold it to Donald Trump who later sold it to Prince al-Waleed bin Talal — these yachts get around — and was reduced to about $8 million, which rather took him off-stage.

I wondered vaguely how his fall felt and could only come up with my own journey from Chanel to Zara with barely a stop in between — but that seemed an inadequate metaphor.

Defining power is a scholars’ game. I can’t understand a word of Foucault but the French philosopher writes tons about it. There’s political, economic, financial and social power and the power which Cameron is losing in the aftermath of Greensill has all these elements.

Influence and prestige are adjuncts but not the thing itself: Albert Einstein had prestige but not power, a policeman has power but not prestige. Karl Marx was one helluvan influencer but seriously, that beardy nerd sitting scribbling Das Kapital in the British Library couldn’t be described as a ‘powerful man’.

Power is not all about money, although the lack of it renders one invisible as I quickly found. Cheating cyclist Lance Armstrong probably misses the yellow jersey which gave him prestige and Harvey Weinstein must definitely miss the casting couch. I miss having the aura of power that compensated a bit for the lines in my face as I aged.

Depending on your sensitivity, you can distinguish between the looks of admiration and envy your power brings and the looks of derision and pointed indifference — backs turned sort of thing — when you publicly lose it.

I’m not certain that David Cameron will be sufficiently sensitive to such nuances. But when you have been a respected prime minister — and let’s not forget that in 2015 he delivered the Tories’ first outright election victory for 23 years — there is still an aura, diminished though it might be, after you leave office. Only so long as you behave yourself.

In Cameron’s case, the Niagara Falls of unpleasant revelations are swamping any teeny flicker of that.

Downfall has become something of a popular spectator sport as the #MeToo movement gathers speed.

I rather admired Kevin Spacey as a formidable actor, a marvel at the Old Vic with mantelpieces of awards including a KBE. His fall over 20 accusations of sexual harassment both in America and London is said to be terminal. Now he sits, somewhere, battered by affidavits, lawsuits and, I expect, the feeling of spiders crawling all over him — a feeling I came to know rather well.

But comebacks are possible. Richard Nixon was a power player who resigned from the presidency, drowned by Watergate. Ten years later, he addressed the annual luncheon of American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington.

He spoke for an hour on international affairs and domestic politics, giving predictions that turned out to be extraordinarily accurate. ‘He knocked our hats off,’ said Kay Graham, owner of the Washington Post, the newspaper that exposed Watergate. She ran a photograph of herself smiling broadly with Nixon on the cover of Newsweek, another of her publications. He was back.

It’s unlikely but not impossible that Cameron can do it, too. You need a thick skin — Nixon had that — and the determination that usually comes from fighting your way up from the street rather than strolling through life in a Bullingdon Club waistcoat.

Myself? At best I’m planning a very modest return — perhaps taking a couple of power suits out of mothballs. My husband, meanwhile, is way ahead of me as several of the bigger media power players — including the formidable Rupert Murdoch — have acknowledged.

I have no idea how Cameron sees himself these days. My vision was too acute for comfort as I watched our power and far worse, our reputations, dissolve. The regaining of any bit takes years, but one thing we didn’t lack is tenacity.

Tenacity may, at one point, have been all we had. I’d recommend it to the former PM.

■ BARBARA AMIEL is the author of Friends And Enemies: A Memoir

Pictures: Getty/PA