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A Question Of Character

9 minute read
Catherine Mayer

David Cameron is distracted. This is a politician who retains his composure amid the braying and baying that pass for debate in Britain’s House of Commons, but on the way to a campaign event in the Welsh capital of Cardiff, his attention falters. The leader of the Conservative Party, 43, is swigging tea from a mug emblazoned with his own mug. That same face, so preternaturally smooth that Cameron was forced to deny allegations that his campaign portrait had been airbrushed, garnishes reams of leaflets and acres of billboards. And at this particular moment it fills the television screens suspended along the length of his election bus. “I’m trying to concentrate, but I’m on TV,” he explains. “It’s a bit bizarre.”

In the run-up to Britain’s elections on May 6, not even Cameron can escape Cameron. With most polls predicting the Conservatives will overtake Labour, which has been in government since 1997, to become the largest party in Parliament, that ballot seems likely to cement his position at the forefront of British public life. His quest for an outright majority in the House of Commons — and hence the ability to govern without the support of minority parties — has him crisscrossing the country in coaches, cars, trains and a Dornier 328-100 turboprop.

(See pictures of the U.K. general election being called.)

The plane is nothing fancy — its décor, like dispirited, credit-crunched Britain, has seen better days — but the month-long charter is beyond the pockets of the Conservatives’ cash-strapped opponents. Campaign costs are borne by parties and candidates, and wealthy benefactors have abandoned Labour, while donations to the Conservatives are flooding in. As public dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Gordon Brown swelled a few months into his premiership in late 2007, Tory ratings soared like an executive jet. But the financial crisis the following autumn, which might have hurt Brown, who had been Britain’s Finance Minister for 10 years, didn’t have the expected effect. Brown handled the crisis with the calm of experience, the polls narrowed, and as the economy officially moved out of recession this year, Cameron’s lead eroded further. “It was never going to be easy,” says Cameron. “Inevitably at some stage the government was going to get some of its act together.”

The economy should be the key battleground in the election. But Britain’s bloated budget deficit, standing at 12% of GDP, gives the parties little room to maneuver, leaving them to squabble only over the speed and delicacy with which they’ll slash government spending. Tory plans to start cutting right away have been attacked by opponents who say this would threaten the fragile recovery. Cameron dismisses that. “The danger facing the U.K. is not dealing with the debt. It’s not dealing with the debt that’s the danger,” he told TIME in an interview on his campaign bus.

(See pictures of the financial crisis in London.)

Personality and Principle
All three main parties — Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, who hope to hold the balance of power in the Commons — admit that the postelection spending cuts will be more painful than anything inflicted during the iron regime of Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. That means there’s surprisingly little to distinguish the parties on the core issue. So questions of character — who the leaders really are and what they stand for — have developed real traction. This is an election about personality and principle.

As to which, Cameron has a problem and voters a puzzle. More than four years after his surprise victory in the Tory leadership contest and despite the remorseless scrutiny that comes with his position (this is a society that treats politics as a spectator sport), Cameron is still something of an enigma: affable, clubbable but strangely unfathomable. He’s young; were he to become Prime Minister, Cameron would be the youngest occupant of 10 Downing Street since the early 19th century. He’s posh — he went to Eton, the toniest of all English boarding schools — and his wife Samantha, creative director of luxury-goods brand Smythson, is posher still, a descendant of King Charles II. Most Britons seem prepared to forgive these accidents of birth (though they are notoriously chippy about issues of class) and allow Cameron and his wife to present themselves as just another young, metropolitan couple. The Camerons have two kids, with another on the way, and last year suffered the death of their severely disabled son Ivan, who was then 6.

(Read: “David Cameron: U.K.’s Next Leader?”)

That tragedy, and the experience of Ivan’s short life, helped reshape Cameron’s ideology. “It has a big influence on you if you have a disabled child and you spend a lot of time in hospitals with social workers and respite-care workers,” he told TIME in 2008. “It shakes you a bit when it first happens. It brings you into touch with a lot of people you meet in politics, but you meet them in a different way.” It is significant that amid all the bluster about belt-tightening, Cameron has quietly promised to shield Britain’s taxpayer-funded National Health Service.

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Health care isn’t the divisive issue in Britain that it is in the U.S., but Cameron’s stated determination to make the health service his “No. 1 priority” and to lift the standards of state education echoes pledges that helped ensure Tony Blair’s first election victory. If there is such a thing as Cameronism, and Cameron says he’s not sure there is, it’s a melding of old-style Toryism — typified by its skepticism of European integration, plus bracing instincts toward individual effort and the size of the state — with modern, green-tinged, compassionate conservatism.

But that awkward straddle means opponents routinely depict Cameron as a plausible snake-oil salesman, all patter and no substance. Watching him address local voters at a discount store in Wales, it’s easy to see why that line of attack can be effective. The private man is focused, intense, sometimes irritable; guarded, not shallow. The public performer is smooth to the point of being glib. Standing in the store between rows of cookies and potato chips, Cameron talks about the need to cut waste at home and in government. He focuses on last year’s revelations about the way members of Parliament exploited a lax expenses regimen. “People aren’t just cynical about politicians. They’re pretty bloody angry,” he tells his audience. “I’m sickened by what’s happened in our politics.” In that scandal, which hurt the reputations of all parties, Cameron has spotted opportunity, proposing to reduce the number of MPs and give Britons California-like powers to recall politicians and trigger referendums.

(See the top 10 political gaffes of 2009.)

The American Connection
Referendums and recalls aren’t the only things that Cameron has borrowed from the U.S. His rhetoric has a familiar ring to it. “Change vs. more of the same is the big clarion call,” Cameron tells TIME. “The change we need, the change we believe in, change we can trust, change that happens — call it what you want.” He has taken more than slogans from Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign — the President’s former White House communications director and campaign adviser Anita Dunn, for one. Dunn, together with Bill Knapp, her partner in the Washington-based consultancy Squier Knapp Dunn Communications, is helping with preparations for three potentially pivotal televised debates pitting Cameron against Brown and Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader. Cameron hopes these jousts will help him finally seal the deal with voters, many of whom are still suspicious that at heart the Tories don’t really like the messy, multicultural, open and nondeferential society Britain has become since the Conservatives last held power. “People want to know two things,” he says. “They want to know that things really will change, but also they want reassurance that the Conservative Party itself has changed.”

And it has, to the extent that it is not surprising to see consultants associated with Obama helping the British cousins of the U.S. Republican Party. There’s a huge gap now between American conservatism and the touchier-feelier variety promoted by Cameron’s Conservatives. Thatcher, a hero to many on the U.S. right, laid the foundations of a long British boom that has only recently ended. But Thatcherite economic reforms came at a social cost that earned Conservatives a reputation — in the phrase of a party chairwoman — as “the nasty party.” So Cameron has been at pains not to embrace Thatcher’s legacy but to rid the party of it. Launching the Tory manifesto on April 13, he promised a return to an inclusive “one nation Conservatism” in place of the polarized and polarizing ideology of the Thatcher years.

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Despite Cameron’s best efforts, pollsters say Britons are sick of Labour but nervous about what life under a Cameron government would be like. There is still lingering uncertainty over what Cameron himself believes. Some things about him are unambiguous: his desire to push back the state, his resistance to greater European integration. But they can lead him in odd directions. Last year, fulfilling a bargain with his party’s hard-line anti-Europeans, he withdrew the Conservatives from the main center-right grouping in the European parliament, intensely annoying natural allies like Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel in the process. Cameron then formed a new alliance with an odd group of parties, some of which harbor distinctly premodern views on such issues as gay rights.

(Read: “Nasty no more? Britain’s Tories Reach Out to Gays.)

It was a telling moment. Cameron’s journey from well-heeled social conservative to proponent of diversity and defender of the health service seems heartfelt. Has he taken his party with him? Britons aren’t yet entirely sure.

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