British Conservatives' rising star

David Cameron could rally the party of Churchill and Thatcher back to prominence.

Some see him as the new Tony Blair. And certainly there are some intriguing similarities between David Cameron, the clean-cut rising star of British politics, and the man he wants to replace as prime minister.

For just as the Labour Party turned to a youthful, urbane, thoroughly modern figure to revive its fortunes in 1994, so the Conservatives are poised this week to choose the articulate, telegenic, young Mr. Cameron to rally the party back into contention after almost a decade in the wilderness.

A former public-relations executive and a father of two, Cameron will face a formidable task in the years ahead if, as expected, he defeats rival David Davis when results of a party vote are declared Tuesday.

The Conservatives may have ruled Britain for two-thirds of the 20th century and produced unforgettable leaders like Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. But in the eight years since they fell from power, they have badly lost their way, suffering from persistent infighting, regular electoral drubbings, and a lack of grand vision that appeals to the electorate. Four rather forgettable leaders have come and gone in rapid succession. The notion that Britain is a nation of inherently conservative people has been banished. The hope is that Mr. Cameron will stop the rot.

"He is fluent, articulate, and intellectually quick on his feet," says Bill Cash, a veteran Conservative MP. "Youth certainly does count in his favor."

He also has a suitable résumé. An alumnus of Oxford, he had been a special adviser to cabinet ministers and a director of a large British media group by the time he was 30. And he also boasts the appropriate lineage, coming from a long line of Conservative MPs.

But his beliefs are harder to pin down. An interview request was politely declined, and his numerous public appearances during a six-week leadership election campaign revealed a fuzzy impression of the man and his manifesto.

He says he believes in family values - but not in preaching to people about how they should lead their lives. He believes in personal responsibility, but not selfish individualism. He says he wants lower taxes, but not to foster greed or favor the rich. He wants to roll back the state - without leaving the weak exposed; he upholds national sovereignty - without international isolation. He wants better health and education for all. He even says he'll support Blair on some issues.

But populist though this message may seem, the task facing Cameron is far more intimidating than that which awaited Tony Blair in 1994. Then, the Labour Party, though in need of updating, was surging back in the polls and facing a demoralized Conservative government fast running out of steam.

Cameron will take charge of a party that, in his opinion, is out of step and in need of modernization, a party that still trails Labour in the polls, despite the public's growing disaffection with the government over issues like the Iraq war and Blair's leadership style. He will do so, moreover, as one of the most inexperienced Conservative leaders ever (he was elected just four years ago).

Some party members worry his lack of experience will work against him. Blair is a formidable orator, and Cameron will have to be at his sharpest to score political points against him.

"We have picked inexperienced leaders twice before in the past eight years, and now we have someone who has less experience than they had," says Damon Lambert, an accountant who joined the party 15 years ago. "We could be making the same mistake again." He also wonders whether Cameron is "in tune with normal people," given his upper-class background.

John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, says Cameron's chief aim will be to haul the Conservative Party into the 21st century.

"The Conservative Party needs to lose some of the baggage that makes it look out of date," says Professor Curtice. "There is no doubt that in social attitudes, we are a more liberal society. There are still limits when it comes to law and order and asylum seekers, but when it comes to abortion, gay sex, attitudes towards ethnic minorities, we are more liberal than 20 years ago."

Cameron has an advantage over his predecessors, however, in that he has the style to make an impression on the average, often apathetic British voter. He says the main thing the Tories [Conservatives] need is a leader "capable of commanding the attention of the public."

"It looks as though Cameron has the ability to do that," Curtice says. "Then, when people listen, there needs to be a message that they find attractive."

Many of his peers (two-thirds of Conservative MPs are backing him) say that his real attraction is that he appears determined to appeal to ordinary people. Stephen Dorrell, a Conservative MP and former Cabinet minister, says the hope is that he will bring the party beyond its internal bickering and pet issues to engage with the broader public.

When Blair took over the Labour Party, there were clear signs that the political pendulum was swinging in his favor. It may be the same with Cameron. After all, the Conservatives - like the Labour Party - have endured wilderness periods before and managed to reinvent themselves and attune their values to the national mood.

But Dorrell cautions against such complacency. "We've had an unpopular government seeking reelection at the last two elections. We could have been in power, and the reason we're not has nothing to with Labour and everything to do with ourselves."

And if Cameron fails to pull his party back in contention at the next election, the Conservatives' opposition stint will extend to at least 16 years. That hasn't happened since the early 1700s.

"If we can't do it with a young man who is bright enough to be able to work out the answers, then quite frankly the prospects aren't very good," warns Cash.

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