But if every poll and pundit in Britain is united in the certainty that the wealthy and upper-class Cameron is the winner, few have much idea what he stands for, and where he intends to take the party -- except back to power after eight years out of office. On policy issues, he has been deliberately vague, and on strategy, he has said little except that under his leadership the Conservatives will recapture the center ground.
Youthful, fresh-faced and enthusiastic, he looks a bit like the Tony Blair who took over the dispirited Labor Party a decade ago, and charmed and spun his way to power by seeming to embody a new a centrist leadership at a time when the Conservative government had outlived its welcome with the voters. Cameron may now be able to turn the same trick, after Labor's three successive election victories have left it looking tired, jaded and almost out of ideas.
And like Blair, Cameron seems to be lucky. He could hardly have asked for a better launch pad for his elevation to the leadership Tuesday than the British headlines Monday. One said, "Brown halves U.K. growth forecast," which means that Cameron's almost-certain rival at the next general election, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, the man who runs the British economy, has had to slash his expectations of growth in the British economy from 3.5 percent to 1.75 percent this year -- the worst performance since Labor came to power, and one that puts a dent in Brown's hitherto strong reputation for financial competence.
The other big headline read, "U.K. offers more funds to EU budget," which means that the Blair government has finally surrendered Thatcher's hard-won rebate from the overpayments Britain makes to the European Union. This will cost British taxpayers at least $1.5 billion a year. No wonder the tabloids called it "The Great Betrayal" -- and it gives Cameron an opportunity to hit the ground as a leader punching heavily at a vulnerable Blair.
That will help, but as soon as Cameron starts attacking Blair, he will be up against a prime minister who has become a master of the House of Commons and formidable performer at the dispatch box -- a crucial skill in British politics, where party political morale depends on success at such jousts. And Cameron faces the instant challenge of picking his shadow Cabinet, with widespread grumbling about plans to demote his defeated Thatcherite rival David Davis.
Americans and Europeans alike will be watching the opening moves of the man who could be Britain's next prime minister because he is such an unknown quantity. So there was a lot of interest in Washington last week when Norman Lamont, who as chancellor of the exchequer back in John Major's government in 1991-92 was Cameron's first boss and political mentor, assessed the new Tory leader.
"He represents a reversion to a traditional pre-Thatcher conservatism, but more Harold Macmillan (premier from 1957-1964) than Ted Heath (premier from 1970-1974)," Lamont said. "He once observed that Thatcher was needed in her day, but times have changed and so have the challenges."
American conservatives gathered at the Hudson institute to hear Lamont quickly bridled, noting that no modern Republican would be so cavalier with the memory of Ronald Reagan. But they were somewhat reassured when Lamont went on to stress that Cameron would be strongly pro-American, and a moderate skeptic on Europe, no admirer of Brussels or federalist ambitions to create a European superpower, but not one of the root and branch opponents who wanted Britain to withdraw from the EU.
"He will be pragmatic, and in many ways his views are not yet fully formed," Lamont noted. "When I said exactly that on a TV program in Britain I ran into Cameron outside the studio, and he thanked me for saying it and indicated that he rather agreed."
One important influence on Cameron, Lamont suggested, was his experience raising a handicapped child, which had given him an unusually intense experience of, and an admiration for, Britain's public health and social services. Cameron believed in these services, and wanted public spending on them to grow at the same pace as the economy as a whole, and not more slowly, as the economic conservatives around Thatcher had preferred.
"He really is a compassionate conservative," Lamont said. "He's a one-nation conservative, who believes we are all in this together."
Cameron, who worked for the Carlton TV group until he was elected to Parliament in 2001, was as fluent a media performer as Blair, Lamont said. Indeed, he came from nowhere in the party leadership campaign, impressing the party conference in October with a brilliant speech that convinced the party they at last had a challenger who could be a match for Blair. Until that speech, the front-runner had been Davis, whose own less dazzling performance doomed his chances, and opened the way for a new and much younger generation to seize the leadership.
Cameron has already pulled off one striking success, in terms of British social change. He went to the elite private school of Eton, and then to Oxford, a classic upper-class progression that was deemed since the 1960s to spell doom for a political career. It was said of Thatcher that she came to power with a Cabinet full of Old Etonians and from her preference for self-made men, entrepreneurs and families of immigrants who had succeeded in Britain, she left it full of Old Estonians. One of them was Michael Howard, son of Romanian Jewish immigrants, who was Cameron's predecessor as Conservative leader. So Lamont's characterization of Cameron as "a reversion to pre-Thatcherite" Conservatism looks precise.
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