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Britain’s Boy Wonder

5 minute read
Catherine Mayer

Britain’s leader of the opposition isn’t a typical alpha male. He’s the kind of guy who pauses before biting into a muffin. “I really shouldn’t,” he says during a day of campaigning in Scotland. “I’m fat.” That’s not true, but like many an Englishman who ingested stodgy food at boarding school, David Cameron, 40, the leader of Britain’s Conservative Party, lacks sharp angles. His telegenic appeal has propelled the Tories to a consistent lead in opinion polls for the first time since Tony Blair’s 1997 victory. That has infused Britain’s Conservatives with a sensation so unfamiliar, they barely recognize it: optimism. Giddy at this turn of fortune, some are already mythologizing the man behind it. Iain Dale, who writes a Conservative blog, speaks of Cameron’s “Kennedyesque glamour.” Cameron and his wife Samantha–the daughter of a baronet, who sports a tattoo of a dolphin on her ankle–are among London’s most sought-after party guests. Says Gregory Barker, a Tory M.P. and member of Cameron’s campaign team: “People sniff Camelot.”

Actually, Cameron has more in common with a certain British pol than he does with J.F.K. Whether nodding sagely to recovering drug addicts at a rehab center north of Aberdeen or charming Scottish journalists on the serpentine train journey to Edinburgh, the person whom Cameron resembles more than any other is a young Blair. He has the same brow-furrowing desire not only to understand his interlocutors but to empathize with them; the same rootless accent that in Britain indicates an easy start in life (in his case, school days at Eton and a degree from Oxford). And like Blair a decade ago–when he was dumping his party’s traditions to appeal to a wider constituency–Cameron inspires suspicion as well as excitement. One Labour Party campaign depicted the Tory leader as a chameleon.

Yet the time might be ripe for Cameron. Blair has said he’ll step down before the fall. His presumptive successor, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, is saddled by a more leaden style, a darker visage and a government that is losing popularity, largely because of the mess in Iraq. But Brown does not have to call an election until 2010, so Cameron can’t rely on the war to deliver 10 Downing Street to him. Every second week he makes a foray from what he calls “the Westminster bubble” to some farther-flung outpost of the kingdom, meeting as many people as possible. “Obviously,” he says, “in politics, people want to have a look at you and understand who you are and what makes you tick.”

That’s where the trouble begins. It’s easy enough to locate Cameron’s heart; that’s with his family. He and Samantha have three children under 5–the eldest is severely disabled–and he says he spends most of his home life “knee-deep in nappies and wailing children.” When his staff urged him to start his trip to Scotland early because of a forecast of gales, Cameron refused, insisting he had to put his children to bed.

The wellsprings of his political conviction are harder to trace. If a Kennedy inspires him, it’s Bobby, the “wonderful orator,” not his big brother. Unlike Blair and Brown, Cameron doesn’t exude a strong affinity for the U.S. And in a departure from his predecessors, Cameron rarely invokes the name of the Tories’ biggest icon: Margaret Thatcher. “To me, Mrs. Thatcher–it’s all a long time in the past,” says Cameron. “People are voting at the next election who were born after Mrs. Thatcher left office.”

Many Tories of Cameron’s generation believe that their party needs to reclaim the middle ground so brilliantly colonized by Blair and distance itself from the fiercely ideological course it charted during the Thatcher era. “We’re seen as the nasty party,” says Barker. To revamp that image, Cameron has engaged in conspicuously un-Tory-like behavior, traveling widely and posting a confessional blog at www.webcameron.org.uk He’s promoting a doctrine he calls “modern, compassionate Conservatism,” which is “about helping those people who can get left behind.” In a nod to a nation where opposing global warming has become a semireligious duty, he claims to be more environmentally friendly than Labour. Cameron’s slogan in local elections last May was “Vote blue, go green.”

That sort of talk has worried some of the party faithful, but Cameron wants his big ideas to appeal across party lines. “You have to do what Bill Clinton did and build a big tent,” says Dale, paying respect to a man whom an older generation of Conservatives dismissed as a pot-smoking, skirt-chasing lefty. But even Dale would like Cameron to signal to traditional Tories that “the old issues will be treated as seriously as the new ones.” That might mean an overt reiteration of the Tories’ traditional claim to be the party of low taxation. Or–always a favorite with the right wing–blaming the European Union for Britain’s ills.

So far, though, Cameron has avoided making many explicit policy statements, relying instead on warm and fuzzy ideas like a belief in “social responsibility” that he says will empower business, individuals and local government. But in Britain’s red-meat political and media landscape, warm and fuzzy is rarely enough. Popular attitudes to politicians are still set by the tabloids, which take no prisoners. And so far, the red tops aren’t convinced. “I can’t get to grips with Cameron, and I don’t think the electorate can,” says Trevor Kavanagh, the longtime political voice of the Sun. Here’s a warning for the conservative comer: if the Sun thinks you’re not substantial enough, that’s a weight problem to worry about.

To read the full interview with Cameron, go to time.com/cameron


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