Magazine article The Spectator

The Hell I Share with David Cameron

Magazine article The Spectator

The Hell I Share with David Cameron

Article excerpt

My daughter suffered two seizures the other night.

One was shortly after midnight, the other a couple of hours later. Having been away on business the previous night, it was my turn to get up to comfort her, to check that the fits were not life-threatening and, afterwards, to settle her back to sleep. Five hours later the alarm went off and, as my teenage son stomped into the shower, I popped back into her bedroom to check that she was still asleep -- and still alive.

This was a typical night in our house, and it was followed by a typical day of attempting to balance work and family while caring for a severely disabled child and engaging in a ceaseless battle with the bureaucracy of our public services. My wife endures a daily torrent of telephone calls and conversations with doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers and therapists, plus the whole allied panoply of respite carers and council staff.

This is the reality of life as the parent of a severely disabled child. It is a reality I entered 12 years ago with the birth of a child suffering complex epilepsy that has left her blind, unable to walk or talk and in need of 24-hour care. It has, inevitably, had an impact on my family, my friendships, my lifestyle -- and on my politics. My perceptions have been challenged, my views changed.

It is a reality that David Cameron, the emerging favourite for the Tory leadership, entered nearly four years ago with the birth of his son Ivan. As I know from a series of conversations with him since then, it has had a similarly profound impact on his life and on his politics. It helps explain his evolution from that cut-out-and-keep young Thatcherite turk who stood in the shadow of Norman Lamont on Black Wednesday to a more complex, compassionate figure who has gained an understanding of the failures of our public services and of his party in the most brutal possible way.

He is aware of the dangers of being seen to use his son's disabilities to further his political career. But to understand the man whom many believe could rejuvenate his floundering party, it is vital to appreciate the impact of this trauma. He may be comparatively untested politically, but he has survived a huge personal test which, given what takes place behind his front door, puts the daily ups and downs of politics -- or journalism -- in proper perspective. It is why those critics who dismiss him as a toff who has effortlessly risen without trace may be making a mistake; for once, the personal is deeply political.

We have both been thrust, unwillingly at first, into the world of the disabled, a land largely ignored by the rest of society. (If you doubt this, ask yourself when you last had dinner with a disabled person or what your true thoughts are when you see someone with severe disabilities. ) We have come to learn, from bitter personal experience, the human consequences of the scandalous closure of special schools. We have had far too much first-hand experience of the shocking state of our National Health Service from too many desperate nights in accident and emergency and too many dreary days in decrepit waiting-rooms. We know the frustration of repeating over and over again the most basic details of our child's condition to doctors and case workers who haven't bothered to read their notes. We have seen the failings of our social services and the paucity of respite provision offered to carers. We have felt the helplessness when confronted by uncaring local bureaucrats who hold the keys to a better life for our families -- and the immense gratitude to those who appreciate our travails. And we have come across the human cost of these failures by the state in destroyed families, mental health problems and alcoholism, all increasing the burdens on society.

This was not the world I envisaged that I would live in. My background was privileged, although my CV reads Ampleforth and Aberdeen rather than Eton and Oxford. In the weeks following the birth of our second child, we were on the high that follows childbirth. …

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