Here Comes The Junior Partner

Britain's new Prime Minister, David Cameron, talks to TIME about his first official visit to the U.S. Why the man and his politics are worth watching

  • Charles Dharapak / AP

    President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron walk with umbrellas in the rain as they arrive in Toronto for the G-20 Summit, June 26, 2010

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    Their ideological differences — one leads a right-of-center party, the other a left-of-center one — are unlikely to prove divisive. "There is no permanent affinity between Tories and Republicans, Labour and Democrats," Christopher Meyer, who served as Her Majesty's ambassador to Washington from 1997 to 2003, writes in an e-mail. "The temperature of the relationship is defined by the issues of the moment."

    Oil on Troubled Waters
    Some of those issues are bound to be fraught. There is BP, of course, and also an independent inquiry ordered by Cameron into allegations that British intelligence personnel were complicit in the torture of detainees held by other security services, including the CIA. But perhaps above all, there is economics. Britain is the largest world economy to have started unwinding its stimulus package and commenced fiscal tightening, but there is unease in Washington that such policies may so dampen demand that they will increase the dangers of a double-dip recession. Cameron says there isn't a choice between tackling budget deficits and going for growth. "You need to do both," he says. "For Britain, the moral of the story is very clear — that deficit reduction is part of ensuring good global growth."

    The cuts, it will be noted in Washington, include defense. For years the U.S. has been able to depend on Britain — on a scale unmatched by any other ally — to help it shoulder the global security burden. As part of a wider examination of Britain's global role, Cameron makes no secret of his aspiration to extract the 10,000 British troops currently stationed in Afghanistan by 2015. Britain, he says, "needs a realism about who we are, what we can achieve and what we need to do." That means "less grand diplomatic talk" and an injection of "a sort of gritty, commercial, businesslike realism to British foreign policy." Cameron's distaste for ideology-driven military adventuring seems almost visceral. He says he's a "liberal Conservative" in foreign policy terms, and the phrase is telling. "A liberal because I support the spread of democracy, freedom, human rights around the world ... but Conservative because I'm skeptical and questioning and practical about how possible it is to remake the world."

    Journey to Power
    The first of Cameron's three recent conversations with TIME was conducted in the back of a Jaguar being powered along narrow Cornwall country lanes at breakneck speed. Cameron appears little changed by power, which may be because he never really seemed to question that he'd be there one day, on the cream leather seat of a prime-ministerial limo. He was born to affluence and educated in the kinds of elite institutions (Eton, Oxford) that endow students with the expectation of success, and it took him only four years from entering Parliament, in 2001, to snatching the leadership of his party. He's got "mind-blowing confidence," a family friend told TIME. "He doesn't do doubt."

    This charmed existence was brutally interrupted in 2009 by the death of Cameron's 6-year-old son Ivan. The child had cerebral palsy and epilepsy and required 24-hour care. (Cameron and his wife Samantha have two other children, and she is expecting another.) Ivan's difficult life placed Cameron in an unfamiliar position of helplessness. It also gave him an intimate appreciation of Britain's state-funded health system, one of only two programs Cameron has pledged to protect from cuts (the other is foreign aid).

    Cameron briefly lost his mojo during the election campaign as it dawned on him that his party might not win an outright majority over all the other parties in the House of Commons. Yet since the Conservatives cobbled together a coalition with Britain's Liberal Democrats, he has relished every day in office "doing rather than saying." He also gives every appearance of relishing his partnership with the Lib Dems and with Nick Clegg, their leader, now Deputy Prime Minister.

    If the idea of Conservatives and Lib Dems working harmoniously still boggles the minds of the British voters who brought the parties together, it seems even more surreal in the U.S., where liberal mutates into a term of abuse in the mouth of a Conservative and conservative routinely summons up night terrors for liberals.

    Even in Britain, strategists in both parties worry about what will happen when the partners find they cannot agree on a core issue. But inside Westminster's famous chattering classes, there is a growing conviction that love is blossoming in Britain's marriage of political convenience. Usefully for Cameron, the Lib Dems are sharing the flak for the swingeing cuts. But there's more to it than that. With every passing week, it becomes clearer that coalition government is allowing Cameron to edge his party away from its old habits of social conservatism toward some of the metropolitan attitudes he holds himself. He recently told the online news service Pink News that "commitment through marriage was equally valid whether between a man and a woman, a man and a man or a woman and a woman," though, tellingly, he is quite happy to sate his right wing by allying with European parties who hold old-fashioned views on homosexuality. Cameron is above all a pragmatist, not an ideologue.

    He is, however, leading an experiment that may yet bring a sea change in British politics as profound as any ideologically driven transformation. Liberal conservatism might prove to be an oxymoron; Britain's flirtation with consensus politics may quickly founder. But it hasn't foundered so far, and in just a few hectic weeks the coalition has already done some serious business: the budget, setting up the torture inquiry, issuing an apology for the killing by British paratroopers of 13 unarmed demonstrators on Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland 38 years ago, proposing a radical restructuring of the national health system. That is why Americans could do worse than study the British delegation soon to arrive on their shores — and not only for clues on the direction of U.S.-U.K. relations. They might learn that when confronted with the manifold challenges that face the developed economies, a polarized politics isn't the only way forward.
    — With reporting by Nick Assinder / London

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