In Anthony Trollope's novel Phineas Redux, Mr. Daubeny, a prime minister modeled on Benjamin Disraeli, proudly announces, "See what we Conservatives can do. In fact we will conserve nothing when we find that you do not desire to have it conserved any longer." It's a credo that Prime Minister David Cameron appears to live by.
Among a crowded field of contenders, Cameron may be the slipperiest Briton ever to have successfully climbed the greasy pole. We read his name in the papers. We see his face on our televisions and computer screens, yet nobody is quite sure who he really is or what he is doing. Buying muffins for his children? Tending to weighty matters of state? Conscientious servant? Rank opportunist? He has been at the forefront of British public life for almost a decade, yet all definitions slide off him. He has been prime minister for nearly four years, but his agenda remains no more than an aspiration. As the journalist Alex Massie recently asked, "What is David Cameron for?"
We used to think we knew: "Dave" was a modernizer. In 2005, when Cameron first rose to prominence, the British Conservative Party seemed ruined. The Tories had lost several elections in a row. They were distrusted, reviled, "the nasty party." They needed a savior: in breezed Cameron. Only a few months earlier, nobody outside Westminster Village--London's equivalent of the Beltway--had heard of him. His only brush with the big time had come in his twenties when he worked as a special adviser to Norman Lamont, the chancellor of the exchequer, and then Michael Howard, the home secretary. In the footage of "Black Wednesday," September 16, 1992, when Britain announced the withdrawal of its currency from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, you can see the twenty-six-year-old Cameron, his hair and suit unruffled, standing behind Lamont as he addresses the cameras outside Downing Street with the momentous news.
Cameron went on to have a successful career as a pr man at the media firm Carlton Communications, where he fine-tuned his genius for news management. He returned to politics as a member of Parliament in 2001 and quickly emerged as a first-rate public speaker, the outstanding figure among a group of young center-righters on a mission to "detoxify" the Tory brand and drag their party into the twenty-first century. He went to great lengths to appear as un-Tory as he possibly could. He wore Converse trainers and quoted Gandhi. He promised "compassionate conservatism" and talked about sharing the proceeds of growth. Politics, for him and his camarilla, was about "achieving progressive ends through conservative means," whatever that meant. He bicycled around London and preached about the environment. He changed the party logo from a flaming torch of liberty to a green-and-blue tree. He lauded gay marriage and sneered at the "headbangers" on his right.
There were grumbles from the old guard. Peter Hitchens (brother of the even more famous Christopher) accused Cameron of having "mopped up the last-remaining puddles of moral, social and cultural conservatism." Lord Saatchi, the advertising guru and former Conservative Party chairman, called Cameron's entourage the "say anything to get elected" Tories. But most British right-wingers--a practical more than an ideological bunch--were cheered by the thought that, finally, the Conservative Party had found a winner. Cameron bested his rival David Davis, a more robustly right-wing type, took his party by storm, or at least by the neck, and instantly established himself as a popular public figure.
There was another aspect of Cameron that everyone understood: he was privileged--not an aristocrat, exactly, but upper-middle class enough to be seen by almost every voter as "posh." An Old Etonian and Oxford man who mingled among a circle of similarly smart and successful friends--the "Notting Hill set"--he seemed almost typecast from one of those soppy Richard Curtis comedy films such as Love Actually, in which English toffs roam around London being self-deprecating and charming.
Experts suggested that Cameron's elite background meant he would never hold mass appeal. They were wrong. In the middle of the last decade, Britain was feeling affluent and strangely unburdened by notions of class. Cameron's poshness was a good joke, and it infuriated committed socialists, but the public didn't feel put off. Indeed, the media, even on the left, were infatuated by Cameron's glamour. Successful journalists in Britain tend to have liberal values and come from the richer parts of London, so even if they despised Tories they could at least identify with Cameron--someone who came from money but tried to be enlightened. The Cameroons--Cameron's immediate circle--had tailored their message specifically to placate the BBC and the Guardian, Britain's most important lefty institutions. Meanwhile, the new-look Tory combination of enthusiasm for free markets and progressive social attitudes--mixed with social pedigree--made the party attractive again to the power brokers at News International, Rupert Murdoch's empire, who had fallen for Tony Blair in the 1990s. This particular alliance turned out to be acutely toxic--following the great phone-hacking scandal--but in the last decade it was still considered invaluable...