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.
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.
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.
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.