Cameron: The next Britain PM?

April 6, 2010 12:00 am

, LONDON, Apr 6 – David Cameron, who is aiming to become Britain\’s first Conservative prime minister for 13 years, is a slick moderniser who dragged his party into the 21st century.

Since Cameron took over in 2005, he has transformed his centre-right Conservatives from a "nasty" party which lost three straight general elections into a dynamic alternative to Prime Minister Gordon Brown\’s incumbent Labour.

The 43-year-old has smoothed over historic splits on Europe — a running sore since Margaret Thatcher led the Conservatives — and outflanked Brown on issues like a scandal over MPs\’ expenses.

But there are still questions over whether Cameron can oust Brown, whose party has chipped away at the opposition Tories\’ poll lead since January, when data showed Britain had finally emerged from recession.

Some critics accuse him of being too privileged to understand the problems of ordinary Britons, while others say he lacks substance, experience and a clear ideology.

Cameron was educated at Eton, Princes William and Harry\’s old school, and Oxford University, where he was a member of rowdy student dining society the Bullingdon Club alongside Boris Johnson, who is now mayor of London.

Although he took little interest in student politics, he earned a top degree and after graduation got a job with the Conservative Party, where he rose to become an adviser to finance minister Norman Lamont.

Cameron was by Lamont\’s side when he announced Britain was leaving the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on "Black Wednesday" in 1992, one of the most damaging moments in recent Conservative history.

He later left politics to spend seven years working as communications chief for leading media company Carlton but returned to Westminster in 2001 when he won the safe rural seat of Witney, near Oxford, in southern England.

Once a member of parliament, Cameron swiftly rose to the top. He joined the shadow cabinet in 2004 and became party leader in 2005 after the Tories\’ third straight election defeat since 1997 by Tony Blair.

Cameron\’s first task as leader was to "detoxify" the Conservative brand.

The Tories — once labelled the "nasty party" by one of his front benchers — were known for their strong views on issues like controlling immigration and seen as unwelcoming to women and ethnic minorities.

Cameron was determined to make the party more centrist and populist, coining the phrase "compassionate Conservatism" to describe his outlook.

His emphasis on environmentalism — he even visited a Norwegian glacier and posed with husky dogs in 2006 — and fixing social problems in what he called "broken Britain" were among the clear breaks with the past.

Labour accused him of gimmickry, saying that he wanted people to "hug a hoodie" — slang for a young thug wearing a hooded top.

The new leader also used his own family to show voters the party had changed.

He invited the cameras into his home to see him with his wife Samantha and three children, including his disabled son Ivan, who died last year aged six.

Cameron has spoken publicly about how Ivan\’s cerebral palsy and severe epilepsy shaped him, in particular his support for the state-run National Health Service (NHS) which treated his son.

The Conservatives\’ emphasis changed after Britain\’s recession hit in early 2009, though.

Cameron\’s talk of supporting public services turned into an acknowledgement that quick cuts are needed to reduce record state borrowing by contrast with Brown, who wants to delay them.

Labour has sought to exploit concerns about Cameron\’s relative lack of experience, particularly in the face of such economic difficulties, and warns that underneath the smooth surface, the Conservative leader lacks substance.

But Cameron has held firm, showing the same calmness that steered him through a crisis last year when he U-turned on a "cast-iron guarantee" to hold a referendum on the European Union\’s Lisbon Treaty, despite the threat of revolt from Eurosceptics.

Cameron argues that he can offer a fresh start in a political landscape badly damaged by the scandal over lawmakers\’ extravagant expense claims, which has seen record numbers step down.

"Politics is broken," he said at the turn of the year. "Let\’s make 2010 the year for a new politics."


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