Meet Britain's Fresh-Faced Tory Chief

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Leader of the British Conservative Party David Cameron

After more than eight years in the political wilderness, Britain's Conservatives are excited—their party on Tuesday elected a new leader they believe can take them back into power after suffering three successive defeats by prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party. On the face of it, choosing 39-year-old David Cameron, educated at exclusive Eton College and Oxford, might seem a gamble: Although he served as a special adviser to two Tory cabinet ministers during the 1990s, he has comparatively little parliamentary experience for a party leader, having served only four years as an MP and joining the party's parliamentary leadership only last May. (Unlike U.S. presidents, Britain's prime ministers are sitting members of the legislature.) But Cameron won the three-month-long leadership contest by more than a two-thirds majority against his last remaining rival, the more experienced David Davis.

As the first patrician Tory leader since the early 1960s, Cameron won on a promise to modernize the way the Conservative Party looks, feels, thinks and behaves. "No more grumbling about modern Britain," he told supporters celebrating his victory. "I love this country—as it is, not as it was."

With Blair having moved Labor into the political center, cutting the ground from under the Tories with a long record of adopting their most attractive policies, Cameron faces a hard slog if he is to win the next election. Thus his baptism of fire on Wednesday, facing the assured Blair during parliament's weekly Prime Minister's Question Time. Britons prize debating skills and toughness of performance in the legislature as among the most desirable attributes for their leaders. To the relief of the Tories, Cameron—their fourth leader since Blair took office— handled his ordeal with ease and confidence. Although he says he want to move away from confrontational partisanship and promised to back Labor's education reforms, he delighted his party by responding to Blair on a policy disagreement, "I want to talk about the future—you were the future, once."

Cameron, married to seven-months pregnant Samantha (who sports a very modern tattoo on her ankle), has two children, one of whom was born severely disabled. He rides a mountain bike, likes indie rock music and appeals to young Tories. But does he have what it takes to get his party back into power?

Says John Curtice, professor of government at Strathclyde University, "He seems to have understanding of the problems his party has—he and his party colleagues have finally got the message that the Conservative brand is damaged and they need to change people's perceptions of the party, and it isn't all about policy-wonking and wonderful policies." It's also about delivery, says Curtice, and the question is how he is going to make these changes. Cameron does have the advantage of facing a Labor Party that has begun to shed support and only received 36% of the vote at the last election. Unfortunately for Cameron, however, he is not helped by Blair's biggest electoral liability—the war in Iraq, which the Tories supported.

Michael Heseltine, who served in the cabinets of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, told TIME last week that it would be very difficult for the Tories to win the next election, but that the result "could be a very small Labor majority or a hung parliament, which could provide a good platform for coming to power in six or eight years' time." Whether Cameron can succeed where the last four Tory leaders have failed, for the moment he has brought a refreshing fizz back to British politics.