JULY 1, 2009
To the unschooled eye, the photograph of the 1987 class of the Oxford University Bullingdon Club could be mistaken for a 100-year-old image. The ten young men crowding the frame are dressed in long tails and blue bowties and pose on marble steps, most of them studiously looking away from the camera. But this is a relatively recent photo of members of the aristocratic, and destructive, drinking club: Participants honor the unofficial motto--"I like the sound of breaking glass"--by getting drunk and trashing private property. It was reportedly taken before a rowdy escapade, which ended when members broke a restaurant window and six were jailed overnight.
Some two decades later, the picture became ubiquitous in the British press, thanks to the presence of one young man, standing in the upper left hand corner of the snapshot: He is David Cameron, who today serves as leader of the British Conservative Party and who is poised to move into Number 10 Downing Street if the Tories win the next general election, which will take place within twelve months. Cameron, who is just 42, had been the dark-horse candidate before he beat more seasoned Tory members in the 2005 leadership race. For a public eager to learn more about their potential PM, the Bullingdon picture seemed to fill in some blanks--and not in the Tory's favor.
Resentment toward those at the top of the ladder in Britain can be fierce. Accents and postal codes make one's rank instantly recognizable, and those born into the working class often feel looked down upon even if they ascend to professional jobs. Meanwhile, the "posh" can seem to lead effortless, gilded lives: Bullingdon members not only pay for the glass they break in cash, but also generally do so with high-denomination notes--an unmistakable cue that this crew has the status and deep pockets to play by its own set of rules.
The class dynamic is a major reason Conservatives had not been led by a blue blood in the four decades before Cameron emerged. Margaret Thatcher, the daughter of a grocer, is a better communicator of a free market and law-and-order platform than a "posh" politician, because she doesn't have to labor under the suspicion that she is merely safeguarding the interests of her class. Still, fielding leaders of relatively humble backgrounds didn't make Conservatives more popular: By the time Cameron took over, in 2005, the Tories were known as the "nasty party," in the words of the organization's own secretary of state for work and pensions. The party's emphasis on tax cuts and its rhetorical broadsides against welfare moms, gays, and immigrants looked retrograde and contributed to three consecutive general election defeats from 1997 to 2005.
So Cameron's rise signals a distinct shift, one made possible by the leader's careful presentation of class. Despite his Bullingdon baggage (rumor has it that Tory donors ponied up a substantial sum to have the photograph withdrawn from circulation), Cameron has managed to seem in sync with average Britons. A year and a half into his tenure, he stayed with an inner-city Muslim family and served as a teaching assistant in a public school for two days. He's pushed for policies that would allow parents more time with their children and publicly took parental leave after his second son was born.
Now, Labour has descended into a tailspin, the result of an economic crisis and a financial scandal that nearly cost Prime Minister Gordon Brown his office. The disorder is, of course, a boon for an opposition politician, but Cameron has also made his own luck. By pushing moderate policies and positioning himself as a modern, in-touch leader, he's made his party electable again. And perhaps most surprising is the fact that Cameron's blue blood may actually have helped.
There is a distinct "David Cameron is just like you" message woven into biographical nuggets the conservative leader offers to the press. In interviews, he has confided that he's a fan of "Desperate Housewives" and the band The Killers. In March 2008, he threw his home open to TV cameras, and footage of the politician feeding his daughter Cheerios was beamed across the airwaves.
Nonetheless, no one is going to confuse the politician for a middle-class bloke. Cameron is the son of a successful stockbroker; descended from King William IV, he graduated from Eton (one of the oldest and most prestigious boarding schools in the United Kingdom) before attending Oxford. Tall, confident, and polished, Cameron's countenance, framed by short brown hair, seems perpetually shiny. He owns a spacious home in London and an impressive country house in Oxfordshire. And he is surrounded by peers of equal standing: His wife, Samantha, is the daughter of a baronet; his second-in-command, George Osborne, is heir to a baronetcy and was a member of Bullingdon a few years after Cameron; and, at one point, more than a dozen of the leader's top advisers were Old Etonians.
Indeed, into his adulthood, Cameron enjoyed remarkable good fortune. As a fresh Oxford graduate, he was hired into the Conservative Research Department, which devises policies for the party and has long served as a training ground for ambitious would-be politicians. In 1992, Cameron worked on Prime Minister John Major's come-from-behind reelection victory, where the winning message portrayed Labour as hopelessly wedded to tax hikes. And the next year, he was serving as a special adviser to Michael Howard when the then-home secretary famously bellowed "prison works!" in his speech to the national Tory conference.
Soon afterward, Cameron commenced what would be his sole professional experience outside of politics, a seven-year stint as head of corporate affairs at the media group Carlton Communications. The Conservatives, meanwhile, went into eclipse. While Cameron won a seat in Parliament in 2001, his success was not shared by the party on a national level: In that election, they endured their second shellacking to Tony Blair-led Labour. After the Tories' third consecutive loss to the Labourites in 2005, Cameron was selected to head his party on a platform promising to fundamentally remake the organization. "I said when I launched my campaign that we need to change in order to win," Cameron declared in his acceptance speech. "Now that I have won, we will change."
While a move to the center was arguably necessary if the Tories harbored hope of assuming power again, the potential drawbacks of making a "toff" the face of the Tories added urgency to the project. "When you have as many Etonians as Cameron does in his cabinet, you'd better have a plan to help working-class children get better educations," observes one London journalist. Cameron clearly took this lesson to heart. But the death of his oldest child, Ivan, earlier this year--the six-year-old had suffered from cerebral palsy and severe epilepsy from birth--also seemed to touch Cameron's politics. While conservatives have long been charged with harboring ambitions to dismantle Britain's socialized medicine system, Cameron points to his many midnight excursions to the emergency room with Ivan as proof that he would never starve the National Health Service (NHS) of funds. "When your family relies on the NHS all the time--day after day, night after night--you know how precious it is," he declared in his speech at the national Conservative conference three years ago.
This April, a month and a half after Ivan's death, I saw the leader give an address on the environment to a small group gathered at a nature reserve in Oxfordshire. Despite the personal loss he'd just suffered, Cameron came across as upbeat and energetic: He strode purposefully to the lectern and launched into an impassioned defense of the green agenda. But the subtext was unmistakably about establishing the politician's man-of-the-people bona fides. He periodically looked up from his text to flash a smile and laced the talk with long passages from Dr. Seuss's environmental parable The Lorax, the favorite bedtime reading of the two children he had after Ivan, Nancy and Elwen. "'Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,'" Cameron quoted in Seuss's trademark rhythm, "'nothing is going to get better. It's not.'"
As leader, Cameron has very carefully pulled together an agenda that bares a "this is not your father's Tory party" stamp. Indeed, on social issues, Cameron occasionally tacks even further left than the Labour party. He has vigorously attempted to erase from public consciousness the days when a prominent Tory politician alleged that single mothers were getting pregnant to obtain public housing: Last year, for example, he denounced a Labour proposal pushing parents on the dole whose children were at least a year old to commit to spending several hours a week in activities like putting together a resume. "[P]rodding, pushing, cajoling [mothers of young children into work] is wrong," he declared. Cameron has also directed a Tory turnaround on gay rights. While as recently as 2003 the politician supported retaining a provision that forbids local authorities and schools from presenting homosexuality in a favorable light, he now says he endorses civil partnerships for same-sex couples.
Perhaps what has received the most attention is Cameron's trumpeting of the green agenda. In the campaign before the 2006 elections, he crafted a new message for Conservatives: "Vote blue, go green," a surprising pairing, as the Tories were much better known for their tax policies than their recycling zeal. In addition to regularly delivering stemwinders on the perils of global warming, Cameron has announced that no new coal-fired power stations could be built under a Tory government unless they were outfitted with technology to bring their carbon-dioxide emissions down. The leader has also ostentatiously adopted a green lifestyle: His house sports wind turbines on its roof, and he bikes to work, a habit that caused him some embarrassment when it was revealed he'd been trailed by a chauffeur-driven car carrying his briefcase and dress shoes. Neil O'Brien, director of the center-right think tank Policy Exchange, notes that when he asks focus groups participants to pair Cameron with an automobile, about 80 percent of the time they choose a Rolls-Royce; in the remainder of cases, they select a bicycle.
While some Tory faithful have grumbled about the openness to gay partnerships and the downplaying of tax cuts, there seems to be an understanding that Cameron arguably had no choice but to "detoxify the brand." "Tactics are so dominant for them," says Tim Montgomerie, founder of the website Conservative Home, who served as an adviser to the Tory leadership when Cameron entered Parliament. "When you ask, 'Why are you proposing that particular tax scheme?,' they respond, 'Because it works with this particular class of voter.'" And it does seem to be working: Barring the unforeseen, the Conservative dry spell in general elections will come to a close by this time next year. "If you think of political parties as shops, before Cameron became leader, people weren't even looking into the Conservative shop window," says Peter Kellner, president of the YouGov opinion polling organization. "They are now."
What may have sealed the deal for some former Labourite voters this spring was how Cameron handled revelations that members of the House of Commons had looked to taxpayers to shell out for everything from fake mortgages to fancy toilet seats. While the tawdry expenses scandal horrified the British public, Brown was slow to respond, contributing to the bloodbath the party endured in the recent European Parliament and local elections. In contrast, when it was revealed that Tory members had asked to be reimbursed for moat-dredging, a duck island, and revamping servants' quarters, Cameron quickly pronounced himself "unbelievably angry" and disciplined the offenders. To be sure, Cameron did not emerge unscathed: At press time, questions were beginning to percolate about government contributions to the mortgage on his country house. Still, Cameron receives plaudits even from liberals for his decisiveness. "He showed he had his finger on the popular pulse," says Jonathan Freedland, an opinion writer for The Guardian. "He used plain, simple language, speaking the way people in pubs were talking about it."
Still, if he does move to Number 10 Downing Street, Cameron will become the nineteenth Etonian to have governed England. And there may be a reason for that. While the days when the upper class called the shots are gone, those at the top can still elicit begrudging respect from the public. "I don't know if people even admit it to themselves," says the pollster Kellner. "But hidden in the British psyche is this sense that we want our rulers to be more highly educated, and perhaps more competent, than ourselves." One of Cameron's most valuable calling cards may turn out to be his palpable self-assurance. After watching Cameron give his Lorax speech, Marcia Titcombe, a homemaker in Oxfordshire, said she wished "he would hurry up and get into" the prime ministership. Reflecting on his appeal, she gave this explanation: "There is something self-confident about him, don't you think?"
Alexandra Starr writes about politics and immigration for The New York Times Magazine, Slate, and The American Scholar.