Britain's Leader in Waiting Can David Cameron Deliver on New Conservatism?

David Cameron, the leader of Britain's Conservatives, has radically modernized his party and is leading in opinion polls. But if he succeeds in ousting New Labour to set up residence in Downing Street will he be able to deliver on all his promises?


Britain's opposition Conservative Party leader, David Cameron.
REUTERS

Britain's opposition Conservative Party leader, David Cameron.

English musician Elvis Costello isn't exactly a religious man. And yet, according to the lyrics of one of his songs, he prays to the Lord that he will live long enough to see HER buried, so that he can "tramp the dirt down" on her grave. SHE being the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Many English musicians felt the same way as Costello did in the 1980s. In their songs they waged war on Thatcher and the Tories. Ed Vaizey, now shadow culture minister with the opposition Conservatives, was always in the front row at concerts given by the Thatcher haters, "among the best of the fans." Vaizey has no regrets today. "It was good music," he says.

Vaizey, a rising star among the Tories, is standing in his stockings in the kitchen of his row house in London's Shepherd's Bush neighborhood, making a pot of coffee. He places a mug on the table with the words "Dave, the Chameleon" printed on it, along with a caricature of party chairman David Cameron, 41, as a shimmering reptile. "A souvenir of the days when Dave was beginning to reorganize the party," says Vaizey. Many things were so unexpected at the time that they sounded contradictory, says Vaizey, explaining the chameleon jibe.

Vaizey can afford to make such jokes. He is a close friend of Cameron's and part of the so-called Notting Hill set, a small group within the Conservatives that has taken it upon itself to thoroughly modernize the party.

Notting Hill itself is more than just the place where Vaizey used to live and Cameron still lives today. The former slum in West London is now a place where Caribbean immigrants and yuppies from around the world live together in harmony, a vibrant, cosmopolitan slice of modern Great Britain.

The Return of the Toff

Cameron, who describes himself as "horribly privileged" and could easily live in a far more exclusive neighborhood, sought out the stimulating mix of people in Notting Hill, although there have surely been times when he regretted the decision -- for example when he recently left a supermarket to find that his bicycle, his preferred means of transportation in the city, stolen.

Cameron's lifestyle can put his upper-class upbringing in perspective, but it cannot conceal it. The son of a wealthy stockbroker, he spent his youth attending elite educational institutions like Eton and Oxford, where he was a member of the "Bullingdon Club," an exclusive drinking club whose members wear tailcoats with ivory silk lapel facings -- at €3,000 ($4,350) apiece -- to their annual dinner. The mission of these young dandies, British author Evelyn Waugh once wrote, was to "stone a fox to death with champagne bottles."

Someone like Cameron wouldn't have stood a chance with the Conservatives in the last 30 years. The era of the "toffs," or the upper class, seemed to have come to an irreversible end with the tenure of bland Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home. Margaret Thatcher, a grocer's daughter, and John Major, the son of a trapeze artist, opened up the Tories to include people from all walks of life, even the working class. Since then, being "posh" has been frowned upon among the Conservatives.

But Thatcher's harsh reforms and the endless scandals under Major led to a dramatic decline in popular support for the Tories. Former Labour leader Tony Blair successfully demoted it to the "nasty party" and dealt it three election defeats, the last one in 2005.

'Detoxifying' the Conservative Brand

When Cameron captured the party leadership after addressing the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool in 2005, his first prescription was a radical image makeover. A former PR man, Cameron sought to "detoxify" the Conservative brand. He replaced the blue torch, the traditional symbol of Britain's Conservatives, with an image of a small tree drawn in green, and he left few options unexplored in his quest to portray the Tories as competent on environmental and social issues.

Cameron successively completed the change of direction by taking a page from the book of Blair, the powerful former prime minister who condemned the Tories to more than a decade of political insignificance. Like Blair, Cameron supports augmenting the economic reforms of Thatcherism with modern social services.

Cameron also seeks the centrist "third way" favored by Blair, except that Cameron calls it "compassionate conservatism." Like Blair in his early days, Cameron tries to appear as pragmatic and non-ideological, setting aside the differences between left and right, the market and the state.

Too much government and too little individual responsibility, says the Tory leader, would have transformed Great Britain into a "broken society." He is convinced that the country must be reformed, from the bottom up: with less central government, more power at the local level and, most of all, more individual responsibility taken by each citizen.

On domestic security, Cameron is significantly more liberal than the party currently in power. He wants to abolish a law under which terrorism suspects can be held without charge for 42 days, as well as a plan by Blair's successor, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, to introduce identification cards that would include biometric data.

The only suggestion of a return to the uncompromising Thatcher days is his position toward the EU. Cameron believes that European integration is going "too far" and in the wrong direction. He opposed the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty.

With his upper-class roots and his frequently voiced concern for the poor, Cameron is predisposed toward the sort of British conservatism that Thatcher consistently mocked for harboring a pack of unprincipled softies. Nevertheless, his message has been successful. His party leads in the polls, with a 45-percent approval rating, while Prime Minister Brown's popularity has plunged to 25 percent.

Modernization Costs Money

And yet there are many observers who doubt whether Cameron will be able to implement his modernization program if he comes into power. When a party is in the opposition, a few pleasant-sounding words are often all it takes to modernize. But once a party is in power, it realizes that modernization costs money. Will a Prime Minister Cameron even be able to afford his claim to be a new Tory?

The offices of the Conservatives' leading think tank, Policy Exchange, are only three minutes away from the British Parliament. Three years ago, there were five tables in its reading room. Today there are 30. "We are gradually running out of space here," says Oliver Marc Hartwich, a German.

Hartwich, the chief economist at Policy Exchange, has provided Cameron with a few new ideas. But when he recently wrote that Great Britain is a country that has "first world prices" but "third world products and services," Hartwich fell out of favor with Cameron.

Cameron is reported to have said that Hartwich would be well advised to take a boat to Australia. Hartwich was unperturbed. He had already accepted a job with a well-known political think tank in Sydney. "Every time I land at Heathrow and the pilot says: 'Please set your watches back one hour,' I think to myself: 40 years would be more accurate," says Hartwich. He is convinced that Great Britain is fundamentally overvalued, because the country failed to invest in a sustainable way in its infrastructure during the boom years of the Blair era.

For these reasons, says Hartwich, little will remain of Cameron's lofty plan if he does move into 10 Downing Street in 2010. Until then, according to Hartwich, the country will probably show the highest budget deficit in the Western world. "With a gaping black hole in the budget," he says, "it will be tough when it comes to much-touted expenditures for things like environmental protection."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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