David Cameron: UK's Next Leader?

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Amelia Troubridge for TIME

KING OF THE CASTLE: From the balcony of his office next to the Palace of Westminster, Cameron surveys the streets below

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"What he's got is mind-blowing confidence. He doesn't do doubt," says Nick Marcq, a filmmaker and godfather to the Camerons' youngest son. Another defining characteristic, says Marcq, is Cameron's formidable willpower. He recalls that Cameron once challenged him to an underwater race in a 50-m-long swimming pool during a family holiday. "I must have got 10 m before I came up because my heart was about to pop. He went all the way to the end."

That determination to see things through is now being applied to his own party. "David took a much stronger line than I did in [the leadership contest]," says David Davis. "He would use a word like detoxifying the party. He thought that was the predominant mission, and arguably he was right." That meant Cameron ditching some of his own bred-in-the-bone leanings toward social conservatism. In 2003 Cameron opposed the repeal of 1988 legislation banning local authorities and schools from "promoting" homosexuality. He now says his earlier stance was a mistake.

Pollsters say voters buy the idea of Cameron as a warm and caring man but aren't so sure about his party. The Conservatives have to persuade voters that they all abjure outdated and moralistic views. That's why Cameron is quick to crack down on signs of prejudice in his own ranks. He removed Patrick Mercer as a shadow minister after the ex-army officer suggested in an interview that "some ethnic minority soldiers ... used racism as a cover for their misdemeanors." A Tory insider says Cameron "rushed to judgment." Mercer, however, is magnanimous: "I completely support the mainstream changes that David Cameron has brought about in the party."

The World Is His Oyster
IT'S TIME FOR CHANGE, CHANGE YOU CAN TRUST — it's hard to miss the similarities between Cameron's slogans and Barack Obama's variations on the change theme: THE CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN, THE CHANGE WE NEED. They share a rhetoric based on the same assumptions that "the national mood isn't to have an old lag who's been around in politics for 20 years. People want generational change." That's Willetts describing Cameron, but it might just as well be Joe Biden talking about Obama.

Just as Obama's critics question the substance behind the change message, Cameron has come under pressure to provide a clearer picture of what that change might entail. "The public wants a song to sing," says Bogdanor. "They want to know what sort of theme would be the main theme of the Conservative government."

Fuzziness is a prerogative of a party in opposition — why commit yourself before it's necessary? — but it's also a function of Conservatism. Cameron may harp on about change, but the changes he envisages are incremental. Discussing Thatcher's impact with TIME, he talks of "an enormously important revolution," then immediately corrects himself. "I'm a Conservative. I don't believe in revolutions ... An enormously important development."

Cameron once described himself as "the heir to Blair." The comment, over dinner at the 2005 Tory party conference, horrified hard-line colleagues who suspected his brand of Conservatism concealed a dangerously liberal core. What he meant, says Cameron, is that "politicians have to understand what has come before." That includes recognizing strengths — and weaknesses. Cameron voted, with reluctance, for military action in Iraq and later sent constituents copies of a speech Blair made in support of the invasion. "The problem with Blair is that he was a liberal interventionist without a hand brake," says Cameron now. "There was no limit to his ambition." That led, in Cameron's view, to a serious imbalance in relations with Washington. "Blair was too much the new friend telling you everything you want to hear rather than the best friend telling you what you need to hear." What Britain should be to the U.S., says Cameron, is "the candid friend, the best friend."

The Tory leader's own world is now crammed with new friends eager to get close to the coming man. The Conservative Party conference at the end of this month has been overwhelmed with applications to attend. For much of the past decade, these annual conventions have been downbeat affairs, sparsely attended convocations of fleshy men in gold-buttoned blazers. "Success breeds success. When we were in the doldrums, nobody but the diehards would break bread with the Tories," says Cameron's close colleague.

Amid the flattery and the flummery, what truths might a candid friend impart to Cameron? Here are a few thoughts:

— Winning matters, but what you do afterward matters more. "The crucial ? period if we win will be the first two years in government," says Willetts. "You only really get rid of doubts when in government you have performed."

— You're riding high now. When your popularity starts to slip — and if you do a good job of governing, your popularity will slip — issues you may consider resolved will come back to haunt you. Let's take one such issue: class. Most Britons seem pretty relaxed about you and your posh colleagues taking charge. But if you pick up the keys to 10 Downing Street while Britain's economy is still tanking, your period of grace could be painfully short.

— Your preternatural confidence has always been an asset. As Gordon Brown vacillates, you appear determined and assured. But in power, you will no longer be viewed just in counterpoint but also in isolation. Don't be surprised if your clarity of purpose begins to read as haughtiness, your self-belief as arrogance.

— If everything goes wrong, there's a life after politics.

This last piece of advice is redundant. While Cameron is one of the most focused and determined politicians that Westminster has ever seen, he has an extraordinary gift for perspective, for balancing his public ambitions with his family life. "The thing about David is, he's not a political obsessive," says Tory chief executive Feldman. "If it all ended tomorrow, he'd pick himself up and start on something different." It's an admirable ability but one that seems unlikely to be tested in the near future.

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