There's a big-ticket event in Loughborough, and not even the latest Eddie Murphy comedy, Meet Dave, fresh from its Hollywood premiere and just starting a run at the town's Reel Cinema, can compete. Le tout Loughborough has turned out to meet another Dave, a politician seeking the highest office in Britain. This evening he'll speak in the town hall, in a room overlooking "Sock Man," a bronze figure naked except for one sock and a strategically positioned leaf. It's a monument to the hosiery industry in this central England town — not quite Berlin's Siegessäule, the portentous backdrop to Barack Obama's big foreign policy speech in July. David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party and (barring a dramatic reversal in the polls) Britain's Prime Minister-in-waiting, is wary of appearing hubristic.
That would be an easy mistake for this 41-year-old political prodigy, who rose with extraordinary speed from new Member of Parliament in 2001 to the pinnacle of his party just four years later. From the outset, Cameron conducted himself with the confidence of a veteran. Only three days into his job as Conservative leader, he faced then Prime Minister Tony Blair, one of the greatest natural politicians of the age, in the House of Commons. "You were the future once," quipped Cameron, his skin smoother and shinier than Sock Man's. His opponent suddenly looked old and spent. Now Blair is long gone, and the brief bloom of popularity enjoyed by his successor, Gordon Brown, has withered. Trailing Labour this time last year, the Conservatives are looking unassailable.
Labour's missteps and infighting account for some of this success. The rest is down to Cameron: his reinvention of his cantankerous party and his reinvention of himself as an avatar of the modern age. "David is comfortable with Britain as it is today," says shadow-cabinet member David Willetts. "It's essential for making the party more electable that you're not trying to re-create Britain as it was in 1958."
That's why there's such a buzz around the tall, sleek figure bestriding the podium in Loughborough. The town won't need much of a push to switch allegiance from Labour to Tory and neither will the country. A general election isn't due until spring 2010, and Cameron's 20-point lead in the opinion polls could yet sag if fate gifts Labour a game-changing event or an economic miracle. But for anyone who recalls the animosity toward the Tories that ushered Labour into power in 1997 and helped keep it there for more than a decade, and for anyone who has witnessed the old antipathies between Britain's lower orders and posh blokes like Cameron — and he is very posh, a direct descendant of King William IV — it's obvious that deeper political and social shifts are taking place.
To decode them, and to understand the Tories' widening appeal, the proper study is Cameron himself. In some ways, he's a deeply private man, but he also relishes being center stage and understands the art of public relations. "People like to meet you in person, get the measure of you, know what makes you tick and what you care about," he says on the train back to London after an hour of unvetted questions from the burghers of Loughborough. He's been pressing the flesh across Britain and regularly files a video blog that has included intimate footage of his family. He also allowed Dylan Jones, the editor of GQ magazine, to shadow him over a year for a book of interviews called Cameron on Cameron, in which he talks fluently about everything from high politics to low culture.
Yet despite such constant self-exposure, an easy affability that reads as openness and his willingness to perform without scripts or teleprompts, Cameron remains an enigma. Part of what makes him hard to categorize is that he's above all a pragmatist, priding himself on reasonableness rather than ideological fervor. During a wide-ranging interview at his Westminster office, he quickly dismisses the notion that his ideas amount to a political theology that might one day be known as Cameronism: "I think you just get on with it. It's the best thing to do in politics rather than trying to endlessly work out the definition of who you are or what you're about."
Introspection isn't his bag. "I'm a very simple soul," he insists. He's certainly a well-defended one. Francis Elliott spent 18 months researching and observing him as co-author of the biography Cameron: The Rise of the New Conservative, yet still finds him elusive. "I've come to think that the word that best describes Cameron's personality is glassy," Elliott e-mails. "Smooth, cold, so flawless and polished you forget it's a barrier — until you try to cross it."
In a world accustomed to the incontinent confessions of public figures, there's something refreshing about Cameron's ability to hide in full view. But it does raise questions about what lies beneath his debonair façade. "Over the course of the last decade, we've seen different leaders who are good at different things, and what they've demonstrated is there are some pieces you can't not have," says David Davis, runner-up to Cameron in the Tory-leadership contest and until June a member of his shadow cabinet. "David has got the key things. He's good in the House [of Commons]. He's good on television. He's pretty good at policy. He's pretty good at the diplomatic wing of leadership. There are no missing slots."
Clever, articulate, well educated, socially adept, politically astute, photogenic, charming, charismatic, Cameron does fill all the slots — bar one. His charmed life (the gilded youth of this son of a wealthy stockbroker; the education at that most élite of British schools, Eton College, followed by Oxford University; the meteoric political advancement) has been very short of the character-forming struggles that garnish many a political résumé. While across the Atlantic the presidential contenders flaunt their personal stories, parade their families and brandish their scars, the Conservatives trust that buttoned-up Brits care less about such things. They are betting that class no longer determines electoral outcomes. They may well be right. But even some supporters fear that the making of Cameron could yet prove his unmaking. For now, though, his rise offers powerful evidence not just of his political prowess but also of how much Britain has changed.
Top of the Class
David Worth, fresh from the U.S. and in his first term as a postgraduate student at Oxford, had barely heard of the Bullingdon Club when in 1988 he was asked to join. Fellow students were impressed: founded in the 18th century, the venerable dining association confers membership to its ultra-exclusive ranks by invitation only. At his Bullingdon debut, Worth, wearing the distinctive tailcoat with ivory lapels that is required for all Bullingdon functions, caught a boat to Cliveden, a stately home turned luxury hotel. It was on board that he encountered Cameron. "There was a surreal Brideshead Regurgitated quality to the evening," says Worth, who went on to become a consultant and speechwriter for several heads of state. "I remember David quoting Winston Churchill extensively by memory — Churchill was a bit of a lush, so they were quotes about drinking — and he was very funny. A few people leaned over the side of the boat occasionally because if you've drunk two bottles of Champagne in an hour, your stomach is going to get queasy. I don't know if David had only sipped a bit, but he was articulate and lucid, and I always remember him like that — the center of attention."
There's a photograph of Cameron with Boris Johnson, London's patrician mayor, and other Bullingdon members in their toffy getup, taken a year before the Cliveden trip and widely reprinted in the British press last year. It has been withdrawn from circulation. Old friends stick together, and none more so than Britons bonded through the shared experiences of class and education. One sign of the narrowness of Cameron's natural world: his wife Samantha, although the daughter of a baronet, is widely credited with being her husband's conduit to a more plural society. She's the creative director of stationer and luxury-goods firm Smythson's and, says one of Cameron's close colleagues, "She's very down to earth. She's mildly bohemian. She's quite liberal. She has an eclectic bunch of friends, the sorts of people David wouldn't have met without her, and she humanizes him."
Cameron doesn't deny his past, but he's keen not to dwell on it either, even though the politics of envy — once a potent weapon for Labour — has lost traction. That was the cheering message Tories could take from their May by-election victory in Crewe and Nantwich, a constituency in northwest England. Edward Timpson, heir to a shoe-repair chain, won easily there, despite a negative campaign that burlesqued him as a "Tory toff." Likewise, concludes Iain Dale, a Conservative blogger and the publisher of Total Politics magazine, Cameron's background is no longer an electoral liability: "A lot of people like the fact that Cameron is quite posh. They think he's the right sort of person to govern."
But that doesn't mean that class is no longer an issue. Cameron's signature policies, the defining core of Cameronism — if, despite his protests, such a thing exists — are geared to improving social mobility and fixing what he calls "broken Britain." Like all Conservatives, he wants a smaller state and a disciplined approach to public finances. He also preaches a bigger role for the community and the importance of fostering a greater sense of social responsibility. His focus, he says, is on "welfare, schools and families. If you want to mend the broken society, these are the things you have to try to get right."
There's much debate about how broken Britain really is, but Cameron taps into widespread concern about deepening poverty, overstretched public services and a rise in violence, especially among teenagers. Champagne memories and social deprivation could make for an uneasy juxtaposition, especially in such tough times. Can someone marinated in plenty viscerally understand what it feels like to be poor or excluded? He brushes the question aside with visible irritation. "I don't have this deterministic view of life that you can only care about something if you directly experience it," he says. "You can't walk a mile in everybody's shoes."
Fair point: but that won't stop his opponents from questioning his powers of empathy. Cameron has endured precious few upsets. One came in 1997, when he failed in his first bid for Parliament. Still, his old job — as head of corporate affairs at media group Carlton Communications — awaited, and he was soon selected as Conservative candidate for Witney, near Oxford, where he has served since 2001.
If one event challenged Cameron, nudged him toward a more compassionate Conservatism, it was the birth in 2002 of his first son, Ivan, who is severely disabled, and the brutal introduction this gave the family to state health care and social services. Ivan suffers from cerebral palsy and epilepsy and needs 24-hour care. "David and Samantha love Ivan very much," says the close colleague. "There will be days when David comes in to work when he's been up all night in hospital because Ivan has had a fit."
Depending on the kindness of strangers as they tend to his son has changed Cameron. "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 says. "It shakes you a bit when it first happens. You learn to cope with it. It brings you into touch with a lot of people you meet in politics, but you meet them in a different way."
This realignment of priorities extends beyond politics. Andrew Feldman, a university friend of Cameron's and now chief executive of the party, recalls that "last year, when the polls were against David, I commiserated with him. But David was completely upbeat. Ivan had lost the ability to smile, and now they'd changed the medication, and he'd got his smile back. That was what mattered."
Nasty to Nice
The Tories are the traditional party of privilege, Labour the champions of the working class. But Margaret Thatcher, a radical Conservative, kicked against the establishment that tried to block her ascent; her policies appealed to aspirational working-class voters. Her successor, John Major, who came from a very modest background, nicely epitomized Thatcher's success. Blair, educated like Cameron at a private school and Oxford, won three terms as the leader of New Labour, a party as geared to middle-class interests as to workers' rights.
Meritocracy (and a touch of cronyism) was a key legacy of Thatcher, Major and Blair. But even before the three of them came to power, the high-born sons who once dominated British politics had lost their sway. Alec Douglas-Home left office in 1964, the last of 18 Old Etonian Prime Ministers. In recent decades, leaders were expected to show an affinity for voters, to be men — or, in Thatcher's case, a woman — of the people.
As he takes questions in Loughborough or chats to trainees learning to strip down truck engines at an apprenticeship scheme in the neighboring constituency, that's exactly how Cameron comes across. It's cleverly pitched. He doesn't conceal his heritage (or flatten his upper-class accent); he finesses it. His interlocutors don't feel patronized — they sense that he understands them and cares about what they care about.
Compassion and empathy were the last qualities associated with the Conservative Party when Cameron launched his leadership campaign. Labour had been able to capitalize on the benefits of harsh economic reforms pushed through by Thatcher while continuing to blame their human cost on her. In opposition, the Tories floundered, running through three successive leaders who all tried and failed to woo voters with populist, right-wing rhetoric.
It's a pillar of British political science that governments lose elections; oppositions don't win them. Cameron wants to topple it. "When a government is in trouble, an opposition party's main task is not to be unelectable. What David Cameron has achieved — and it's a massive achievement — is to make the Tories electable," says Peter Kellner, president of polling organization YouGov. "One of the things Cameron has understood better than his predecessors is that when people form judgments about politicians and parties, it's on the whole not a judgment about their policies; it's a judgment about what sort of people and what sort of party they are." And the pre-Cameron Tories, in the words of their then chairwoman, Theresa May, were seen as "the nasty party."
Too nice a person could never have transformed the nasty party. It required some iron in the soul for Cameron to face down traditionalists who accused him of betraying Conservative values. That metal is well concealed. Peter Sinclair, his Oxford economics professor, says, "We've had rather few Prime Ministers who've been as intellectually able as David," but recalls that his student (who, he says, won "a sparkling first") was "keen not to show up other people." A similar tribute comes from Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at Oxford: "He was one of the nicest and ablest pupils I ever taught."
But here's a different take, from his close colleague: "He's ambitious, competitive, there's an element of selfishness, all the things which are important if you're going to be Prime Minister. Ruthless. He's got all of those." He adds: "David is a natural No. 1. I would pity the person who had taken the Tory leadership and had to cope with David as their deputy."
Much of Cameron's strength derives from self-belief: not the fragile veneer of assurance acquired or affected by most politicians but a deep-down certainty that protects him from dark nights of the soul. "There's no massive thing I've done [where] I lie awake thinking I wish I'd never done that," he says. From a stable, loving family, sent to a school that instills a sense of entitlement in even its dullest pupils, Cameron seems never to have doubted that he was destined for great things. "He came to Oxford equipped with a much more complete road map of what he wanted to do," says Guy Spier, who also attended Sinclair's tutorials and now runs an investment firm in New York. He remembers Cameron as an outstanding student: "We were doing our best to grasp basic economic concepts. David — there was nobody else who came even close. He would be integrating them with the way the British political system is put together. He could have lectured me on it, and I would have sat there and taken notes and learned how British politics was put together."
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.
6 months ago