A Question Of Character

Britain's Conservative leader, David Cameron, is ahead in the race for 10 Downing Street. But the electorate still isn't sure who he is or what he stands for

  • Leon Neal / Reuters

    Britain's opposition Conservative Party leader David Cameron addresses supporters near Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament in central London April 6, 2010.

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    Health care isn't the divisive issue in Britain that it is in the U.S., but Cameron's stated determination to make the health service his "No. 1 priority" and to lift the standards of state education echoes pledges that helped ensure Tony Blair's first election victory. If there is such a thing as Cameronism, and Cameron says he's not sure there is, it's a melding of old-style Toryism — typified by its skepticism of European integration, plus bracing instincts toward individual effort and the size of the state — with modern, green-tinged, compassionate conservatism.

    But that awkward straddle means opponents routinely depict Cameron as a plausible snake-oil salesman, all patter and no substance. Watching him address local voters at a discount store in Wales, it's easy to see why that line of attack can be effective. The private man is focused, intense, sometimes irritable; guarded, not shallow. The public performer is smooth to the point of being glib. Standing in the store between rows of cookies and potato chips, Cameron talks about the need to cut waste at home and in government. He focuses on last year's revelations about the way members of Parliament exploited a lax expenses regimen. "People aren't just cynical about politicians. They're pretty bloody angry," he tells his audience. "I'm sickened by what's happened in our politics." In that scandal, which hurt the reputations of all parties, Cameron has spotted opportunity, proposing to reduce the number of MPs and give Britons California-like powers to recall politicians and trigger referendums.

    The American Connection
    Referendums and recalls aren't the only things that Cameron has borrowed from the U.S. His rhetoric has a familiar ring to it. "Change vs. more of the same is the big clarion call," Cameron tells TIME. "The change we need, the change we believe in, change we can trust, change that happens — call it what you want." He has taken more than slogans from Barack Obama's 2008 campaign — the President's former White House communications director and campaign adviser Anita Dunn, for one. Dunn, together with Bill Knapp, her partner in the Washington-based consultancy Squier Knapp Dunn Communications, is helping with preparations for three potentially pivotal televised debates pitting Cameron against Brown and Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader. Cameron hopes these jousts will help him finally seal the deal with voters, many of whom are still suspicious that at heart the Tories don't really like the messy, multicultural, open and nondeferential society Britain has become since the Conservatives last held power. "People want to know two things," he says. "They want to know that things really will change, but also they want reassurance that the Conservative Party itself has changed."

    And it has, to the extent that it is not surprising to see consultants associated with Obama helping the British cousins of the U.S. Republican Party. There's a huge gap now between American conservatism and the touchier-feelier variety promoted by Cameron's Conservatives. Thatcher, a hero to many on the U.S. right, laid the foundations of a long British boom that has only recently ended. But Thatcherite economic reforms came at a social cost that earned Conservatives a reputation — in the phrase of a party chairwoman — as "the nasty party." So Cameron has been at pains not to embrace Thatcher's legacy but to rid the party of it. Launching the Tory manifesto on April 13, he promised a return to an inclusive "one nation Conservatism" in place of the polarized and polarizing ideology of the Thatcher years.

    Despite Cameron's best efforts, pollsters say Britons are sick of Labour but nervous about what life under a Cameron government would be like. There is still lingering uncertainty over what Cameron himself believes. Some things about him are unambiguous: his desire to push back the state, his resistance to greater European integration. But they can lead him in odd directions. Last year, fulfilling a bargain with his party's hard-line anti-Europeans, he withdrew the Conservatives from the main center-right grouping in the European parliament, intensely annoying natural allies like Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel in the process. Cameron then formed a new alliance with an odd group of parties, some of which harbor distinctly premodern views on such issues as gay rights.

    It was a telling moment. Cameron's journey from well-heeled social conservative to proponent of diversity and defender of the health service seems heartfelt. Has he taken his party with him? Britons aren't yet entirely sure.

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