RSS
David Cameron: The new face of England
At 43, Cameron is the youngest British prime minister in 200 years. How did he rise so far so fast?
 
Cameron: Not your father's Tory
Cameron: Not your father's Tory
Getty

How did he get his start?
While David Cameron is often said to have the “common touch,” he’s a Tory through and through. His mother comes from a long line of prominent Conservative politicians, and his father was a wealthy stockbroker. His childhood, therefore, was one of classic, British upper-class privilege, with fox hunting and skiing among his youthful pursuits. Though not technically an aristocrat, Cameron has a family tree with royal roots. He’s directly descended from King William IV—albeit through the king’s mistress—and he’s Queen Elizabeth’s fifth cousin twice removed. His mother is the daughter of a baronet, and so is his wife, Samantha. His education could not have been more elite: He attended an exclusive private elementary school, where Princes Andrew and Edward were his schoolmates, and then went on to Eton and Oxford, where he studied philosophy, politics, and economics.

Was his posh background an advantage?
Politically, no. In the context of national British politics, having gone to elite schools can be an impediment, since opponents can paint you as a snob who can’t relate to ordinary voters. But Cameron clearly has that intangible quality known as charisma. Critics say his ability to connect with voters merely reflects skills he honed during a seven-year stint in public relations for a media conglomerate. Friends, though, say Cameron is sincerely unpretentious; he has always gone by “Dave,” for instance, and, in sharp contrast to longtime Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher, seems to genuinely like children and young people. Cameron and his wife lost a son to cerebral palsy at age 6—and the experience is said to have “softened” him and sensitized him to the challenges facing everyday people. The couple have two other children, and are expecting another child in September.

Did his child’s illness affect his politics?
Yes. Cameron was a very traditional Conservative in his youth, supporting Thatcher’s staunch free-market policies, including fierce opposition to the National Health Service, Britain’s single-payer medical system. But Cameron says his conversations with the families he met in waiting rooms during his son’s many hospitalizations changed his thinking. “My family is so often in the hands of the NHS, and I want them to be safe there,” Cameron told his party conference in 2006. “Tony Blair once explained his priority in three words: Education, education, education. I can do it in three letters—NHS.” No rising Conservative politician had ever dared make such a statement, and it quickly established him as a new kind of Tory.

When did he enter politics?
Cameron worked for the Conservative Party as soon as he left Oxford, and spent almost his whole career there. His first run for office, in 1997, failed, but he was elected to Parliament in 2001, representing a traditionally Tory constituency near Oxford. His star quickly shot up. Conservative leaders felt that Cameron, with his youth, energy, and good looks, was just the person to rebrand the party, which had languished for more than a decade in opposition. The Tories were seen as an out-of-touch old-boys network that had stayed firmly on the right while the rest of Britain moved leftward. The party had come to be known as the “nasty party” because of its anti-immigrant, anti–European Union stances. When Cameron was elected party leader, in 2005, he pledged to transform that image, even using the phrase—first popularized by George W. Bush—“compassionate conservatism.”

How has he changed his party?
He has dragged it toward the center. Cameron took direct control of choosing which candidates would run in which constituencies—a change that offended old-school party activists, who felt that local party members should get to choose who represented them. But Cameron wanted to literally change the face of the party, and he insisted that many more women and minorities be put forward as candidates for Parliament. His social policies are more liberal than Tory stances in the past: He has embraced both environmentalism and civil partnerships for gays, for instance. In an interview last year, he said: “If our Lord Jesus was around today he would very much be backing a strong agenda on equality and equal rights, and not judging people on their sexuality.”

What’s on his agenda now?
His more liberal social positions notwithstanding, Cameron’s main goal is classically conservative: reducing the size of government. Under Labor, the government expanded social-welfare programs and ran up a record deficit, and Cameron campaigned on a promise to reverse that course. For instance, he wants to cut jobless benefits for workers who turn down job offers, and to abolish the mandatory retirement age. On other fronts, he has already canceled an initiative to create national ID cards, citing concerns about government becoming “too authoritarian.” And he wants to overturn the ban on fox hunting and to re-establish limits on the hours that bars may serve alcohol. “I want to help build a more responsible society,” he declared. “One where we don’t just ask what are my entitlements, but what are my responsibilities?”

An uneasy coalition
Because Britain’s recent elections gave no party a clear majority, Cameron’s Tories had to invite the left-leaning Liberal Democrats to form Britain’s first coalition government in decades. Liberal Democrat head Nick Clegg, a man Cameron once called “a joke,” is now his deputy prime minister. Merging their clashing party platforms into coherent policy will be an ongoing struggle. Indeed, on a dozen front-burner issues, including banking and electoral reform, the new government has pledged to “form a commission”—in effect, conceding that the two parties have been unable to agree. Still, the two have found common ground on some matters, including tax relief and nuclear policy, spurring talk that an entirely new party may be in the early stages of gestation. Some wags are even calling it “the Liberal Conservatives.”

 

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week