Tories’ time to shine

2010-05-12 07:56

David Cameron, appointed British Prime Minister yesterday after days of uncertainty, will lead his Conservative Party back to power after 13 years in opposition but not with the overwhelming victory they hoped for.

For months in the run-up to the polls, the Conservatives looked certain to sweep into power by a comfortable margin, but they saw their lead ebb away in the final weeks and failed to win an outright majority of seats in parliament.

That weakened Cameron’s position and led him to seek a coalition with the third-placed Liberal Democrats.

Cameron, the youngest British prime minister since 1812, took over a demoralised party when he became party leader in 2005, months after the Conservatives’ third consecutive election defeat at the hands of the Labour Party.

The party of Winston Churchill had been torn apart by wrangling over Europe after the resignation of its long-serving prime minister Margaret Thatcher. A move to the right had failed to enthuse voters.

Cameron, a fresh-faced former public relations executive, broke with the Conservatives’ image as the “nasty party”, moving it towards the centre, stressing its commitment to defending the state-run National Health Service and giving it a pro-environment makeover.

He is a few months younger than Tony Blair was when he stormed to power in 1997, and is often compared to the former Labour leader.

Economic challenges

The self-confident Cameron is a Eurosceptic who wants the European Union to return some powers to Britain but he is expected to avoid early confrontation with Brussels while he deals with Britain’s pressing economic problems.

His privileged background and “posh” accent were seen by some as an electoral disadvantage in class-conscious Britain but Cameron reached out to the working and middle-classes in an attempt to broaden the party’s appeal.

The son of a stockbroker, Cameron was educated at Eton, Britain’s most exclusive private school, and Oxford University, where he joined the elitist Bullingdon dining club and gained a first-class degree in politics, philosophy and economics.

His wife Samantha, the creative director of a leather goods company, is the daughter of a baronet.

With Labour prime minister Gordon Brown’s reputation for economic competence undermined by a banking crisis, a deep recession and a huge build-up in government debt, Cameron focused his attacks on Brown’s handling of Britain’s finances.

While Brown argued that the economic recovery was too fragile to start cutting spending this year, Cameron said the deficit was the biggest danger to the economy.

Analysts say Cameron, in line with other party leaders, has so far set out only a portion of the spending cuts and tax rises that will be needed to make a significant dent in the deficit, forecast to reach $247 billion or more than 11% of GDP this fiscal year.

He will face a difficult balancing act meeting financial market expectations for deep deficit cuts while avoiding alienating voters who have just entrusted him with power.

Real change?

After becoming the Conservatives’ fifth leader in nine years in December 2005, Cameron tried to win back so-called “middle England” voters who helped Labour’s Tony Blair to three election victories before Brown succeeded him.

Copying Blair’s slick presentational skills, Cameron painted the Conservatives as compassionate, playing down their former stress on reducing the size of the state and low taxes.

Some question how deep the changes in the party run and whether rightwingers and hardline Eurosceptics could again cause fissures in the party after the election.

Cameron and Samantha suffered a personal tragedy in February 2009 when their six-year-old son Ivan, who suffered from severe cerebral palsy and epilepsy, died.

Cameron said his death left his family with a “hole in our life so big that words can’t describe it”.

They have two surviving children – Nancy, who is now six, and Arthur, four, and are expecting another baby in September.

He likes to portray himself as an ordinary 40-something dad, naming The Smiths and Radiohead among his favourite rock bands.

The family has homes in a fashionable area of west London and Oxfordshire and Cameron enjoys the upper-class pursuits of riding and shooting.

Cameron has refused to deny press reports that, as a teenager, he narrowly escaped expulsion from Eton for smoking cannabis. “Like many people I did things when I was young that I shouldn’t have done and that I regret,” he said.

After university, Cameron worked for the Conservative Party and was an adviser to then finance minister Norman Lamont in 1992 when the British pound was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, an economic disaster that became known as “Black Wednesday”.

Cameron then became a public relations executive with media company Carlton Communications.

He failed in his first attempt to become a member of parliament in 1997 but was elected as member for Witney in Oxfordshire in 2001, beginning his rapid ascent.

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