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Cover story David Cameron's Conservative Party is heavily favoured to triumph at the next British elections. But the mercurial Cameron remains elusive. Geoffrey Wheatcroft tries to take the measure of the man on the verge of inheriting the United Kingdom's multiplying woes.

After more than two years leading the polls, David Cameron's Conservative Party is heavily favoured to triumph at the next British elections. But the mercurial Cameron - the younger, softer face of the rebranded Tories - remains elusive. Geoffrey Wheatcroft tries to take the measure of the man on the verge of inheriting the United Kingdom's multiplying woes. On Friday May 7, the morning after the Thursday when the coming British general election will doubtless be held, it seems more than likely that the Conservative leader David Cameron will go to Buckingham Palace to kiss hands, in the sonorous phrase, and be appointed by Queen Elizabeth II as her First Lord of the Treasury. That's to say he would be - remarkably enough - the 11th prime minister to serve her, in a line beginning with Winston Churchill all of 58 years ago. As he knows, Cameron will inherit a land in woeful condition after 13 years of Labour government: a decade under Tony Blair and nearly three years under Gordon Brown. The effects of gravest economic crisis in 80 years have been worse here than in most countries; the British army has scuttled from Iraq but remains stuck in what increasingly looks an unwinnable as well as unpopular war in Afghanistan; and politics and politicians have never never stood lower in public estimation.  The shocking scandal over corrupt use of Parliamentary expenses that exploded last year implicated all the major parties, but it was arguably worse for Labour as the party in government. More recently, the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq War has done no favours for the government by reminding voters about the shameful way their country was led into war. As was easily foreseen, Brown has proved a most inept premier. A recent attempt to reinvent himself as a warm human being has gone badly wrong, first with an excruciating television interview in which he allowed himself to be asked about his sex life, and then with a foolish - but damaging - story about his appalling temper and his maltreatment of subordinates to the point of physical violence (his lieutenant Peter Mandelson's attempt to deflect this by cheerfully admitting that Brown was "demanding" and "impatient" - adding unimprovably that "Nobody in Number 10 would condone bullying, if it were to take place" - hasn't helped much). This election will therefore be as much a vote of no confidence in the existing government as a mark of approval for Cameron and his Conservative party. Though their poll lead has shrunk recently, the Tories have been projected the winners of this election for more than two years and every poll indicates that Brown's own approval rating is abysmally low. Most tellingly of all, in one recent poll, 82 per cent of British voters agreed that it was "time for a change" in government. But while Cameron, who has presided over a remarkable rebranding of the Conservative Party, is demonstrably the most successful Tory leader since Margaret Thatcher, there is an unmistakable lack of enthusiasm for him and his party. The British public still don't know who David Cameron is, or what his Conservatives stand for - and not surprisingly. A widespread perception that Cameron is inauthentic and insincere has not been allayed by misconceived and mishandled stunts all too reminiscent of what Tony Blair demanded from his own PR team: "eye-catching initiatives [that] I should be personally associated with." People remember the absurd episode when Cameron was filmed bicycling from his home in Notting Hill to Westminster in a good green way, which looked less convincing when a limo carrying his clean shirts was seen to be following him. Earlier this year, wags had a field day over what they called "The Poster" - a nationwide billboard advertisement to launch the Tory campaign that was derailed by allegations that Cameron's photograph had been heavily airbrushed. Such things register in the collective unconscious of the electorate. So has the succession of about-turns which has punctuated Cameron's leadership. When the financial crisis erupted in late 2008, the Tories were caught unawares (like most people), and didn't know how to react. Was the implosion good news for them or bad? On one hand, it was good, in that it gravely discredited the government and especially Gordon Brown. As Chancellor, he had presided over what he boasted was an economic miracle of unprecedented sustained growth - now revealed as an illusory bubble of private debt that has messily burst. But the crisis presented other problems for Cameron, since whoever takes office in May will be forced to take a series of difficult, painful and unpopular decisions - leaving little room for the expansive if vague programme whose promises of a softer Conservative Party helped put Cameron into the lead. Worse still, Cameron seems to be in the dark. First he spoke of the need for severe and immediate cuts in public spending - "You've got to make a start to cutting the deficit in 2010," he said while attending the Davos conference in January - but then he contradicted himself within days by saying there would be "no swingeing cuts" in his first year. There have been other embarrassing reversals. At one moment he says we must understand what makes violent young criminals the way they are, at the next he promises to build more prisons. First Cameron said the tax system would be changed to encourage people to marry, then said maybe it wouldn't. An old saw says that there are some politicians who seek office to put a platform into effect and some who look for a platform in order to obtain office. With his jackdaw tendency to pick up one modish idea here and then another there, Cameron too often looks like the latter kind. It has not been a performance to inspire huge confidence.

An old jingle about wedding costume applies neatly to David William Donald Cameron: He is something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. The "something old" is his background, which would have been unremarkable for a Tory 50 years ago but now makes him stand out. His ascent to the leadership of his party was an astonishingly rapid one - maybe the one way in which he resembles Barack Obama. He was very much an unknown quantity when he succeeded Michael Howard as Leader of the Opposition in December 2005; then 39, Cameron had been an MP for about four years, and was barely even a name to the larger public. His resume is now rather more familiar, thanks in part to the slightly desperate tactics of the Labour Party, which at the end of last year reached for the politics of class resentment. The Tories have been derided as "toffs" - a curiously old-fashioned word that has made a comeback in the lexicon of political abuse - and Brown sneered, during Prime Minister's Questions, that Tory policies had been "dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton". That's undeniably the school where Cameron was educated, before he went on to Oxford. Nor is there any denying that his family are "folks with plenty of plenty", as Porgy sings. His father was a stockbroker (as well as chairman of White's, the grandest of gentlemen's clubs in St James's Street), and the family lived in a handsome country house in Berkshire. The Tory leader's wife, Samantha, has Sir Reginald Sheffield, a landowning baronet, for a father, and for a stepfather Lord Astor, as rich as his name sounds. From 1955 to 1964, three consecutive Old Etonians led Tory governments, and the cabinet in 1963 contained 11 Eton alumni, more than at any other time in the century. After they lost the 1964 election, the Tories took a hard look at themselves and changed radically, discarding the defeated prime minister, Alec Douglas-Home - the 14th Earl of Home, in fact - for the drastically plebeian Edward Heath. For the next 40 years no one who had been to a public school (as the English quaintly call expensive prep schools) was Tory leader - or prime minister of either party, with the ironical exception of Tony Blair.

Not that Cameron is an empty-headed fop. He took a "First" in politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, where he studied with Vernon Bogdanor, the constitutional historian, who has called Cameron one of the brightest students he ever taught. But the academic record of Cameron's varsity years has never been much of a topic one way or the other. What has caught the eye instead is the incendiary words "Bullingdon Club". This is an elite group of about 15 rich young blades - a grander version of the Skull and Bones at Yale - which makes an appearance in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. By tradition they dress up in pale blue tailcoats and get blind drunk. A most striking group photograph from those days shows Cameron and his undergraduate chums in full Bullingdon rig. They include Boris Johnson, his contemporary at Eton, Oxford and in parliament, a colleague and rival whom Cameron adroitly shoved from the Commons to be mayor of London. Lest anyone doubt that the Tories remain sensitive to jibes of elitism, the party moved to suppress the snapshot before it could make its way onto Labour campaign posters. Bill Clinton was at Oxford in the late 1960s, during the sex, drugs and rock generation, and famously if absurdly claimed that he had smoked cannabis but never inhaled. Tony Blair was at Oxford a few years later and played in a rock band but, maybe learning from Clinton's lesson, denied that he had ever touched any form of illicit drugs, which must make him unique among student rockers of that generation. No fuddy-duddy, Cameron was himself quizzed over rumours that he might once have had a taste for harder stimulants. But he managed to shrug the awkward questions off, and has succeeded in being accepted by the public as a devoted family man. But a lingering resentment against the traditional upper class remains - even though free-market capitalism has routed traditional socialism, and New Labour, in the celebrated words of Peter Mandelson, then Blair's consigliere, is now "totally relaxed about people who become filthy rich". Cameron has tried hard to "decontaminate the brand" of what was widely as a "nasty" reactionary Conservative party. He is so nervous about his own image that he has tried to discard any aura of privilege, giving up the pheasant-shooting he used to enjoy and resigning from White's. Time was when men and women who would later enter politics did a real job first: business, law or even journalism. In common with all too many aspiring pols nowadays, Cameron went straight "into politics" by way of joining the Conservative party's research department. That first job brought him bad luck when he ended up, in 1992, as an aide to Norman Lamont, the ill-fated Chancellor of the Exchequer. In September of that year, months after winning their fourth successive election, the Tories suffered the utter humiliation of "Black Wednesday". A speculative attack on sterling led by George Soros drove the pound out of the European monetary system, the precursor of the Euro, making billions for the speculators and crippling the Tories politically for years to come. As Lamont stood in front of the microphone in Downing Street to make his abject admission of defeat that day, the shadowy figure of young "Dave" Cameron can clearly be seen lurking in the background, this time in photographs he has been unable to suppress. After his unhappy political initiation, Cameron turned to "something new" - another trade entirely, and one of the few perhaps held in lower esteem than politics. His foes in the Labour party have picked the wrong "-on" when they mock him for Eton and Bullingdon. After all, he didn't choose where he went to school, and many of us would rather not dwell on the things we did at 20. A more damaging name is Carlton, a start-up television company which could kindly be called third-rate and which had a distinctly dubious repute. Cameron worked there as senior adviser - in practice, a PR flak - from 1994 to 2001. His own reputation among business journalists was mixed; at the least he was not always noted for his absolute veracity. "I wouldn't trust him with my daughter's pocket money", said Jeff Randall, of Sky News and formerly the BBC, when Cameron became party leader, and a former colleague recalls that in those days "no one would ever have predicted he could be about to run the country".

Having unsuccessfully fought a parliamentary seat in 1997, Cameron was elected Member for Witney, north-west of Oxford, four years later. The Tories lost that election in 2001, and the one after in 2005. By then Cameron was an aide to Michael Howard, the Tory leader, and helped draft the party's tough-guy rightist manifesto - one more piece of his past he hopes has been forgotten when he tries to present himself as a gentle, caring kind of Conservative. In return Howard arranged his own departure in a way that helped Cameron defeat rivals for the leadership. That autumn Cameron gave an uplifting speech at the party conference, wowing the audience by speaking without notes or teleprompter, and combining John Kennedy with George W Bush: "So let the message go out from this conference: a modern, compassionate conservatism is right for our times." Weeks later he was party leader. Around the same time, at a dinner with journalists, Cameron suggested that he was "Blair's heir". That neat phrase was "something borrowed", and it was his first big mistake. For too long the Tories were hypnotised by Blair, and thus failed to sense the turning tide of opinion that should have been evident well before Blair departed in the summer of 2007 - by which time much of the public regarded the man who once seemed a fresh hopeful leader as a smirking, corrupt mountebank. In a manner all too similar to Blair and his much criticised "sofa government", the small Downing Street clique that engineered Britain's participation in the Iraq war, Cameron is surrounded by a private gang of intimate advisers - "Team Cameron" or "the Cameroons" (and it's hard to say which is the more irritating nickname). Some are politicians, but his media consultants, Steve Hilton and Andy Coulson, may be the most significant players. Coulson was editor of the salacious tabloid the News of the World until he was fired in a scandal, and to many Tories his seemed a grotesque appointment. But, then again, "many Tories" begs a question. England today is a demoralised country, and also a depoliticised one. Sixty years ago the Conservative party had an astonishing 2.8 million members, far more than Labour. Today the membership is under 200,000, elderly, reactionary and very much out of step with broader national opinion.

Governments in modern democracies rest on national political parties - "organised opinion" in Benjamin Disraeli's phrase - on which governments rely. And yet the support of party members alone isn't enough. Cameron knows that, but has fallen for a kind of false analogy, continually describing himself as occupying the "centre ground", a metaphor that itself stems from the misleading concepts of "left" and "right". But Attlee and the Labour party did not win their historic landslide in 1945 from the centre ground, and nor did Thatcher and the Tories in 1979. What a successful leader does need to do, as another Tory, Iain Macleod, said long ago, is to attract wide sympathetic support from outside his party, and that is very often in contradiction with pleasing the base. Although Cameron has long since dropped that foolish line "Blair's heir", he hasn't properly learnt the lessons of his inheritance. Although Blair was hated from the left, as Cameron is from the right, the real charge against "Blairism" wasn't that it was too left-wing or right-wing but that it had no ideological content at all - a charge against which Cameron is equally vulnerable. All Tories (and all of their Republican cousins in America) want nothing more than to be considered Churchillian - and Cameron too might fit this bill, though not in a manner he would find flattering. More than 100 years ago, it was the young Winston Churchill that the High Tory magazine National Review accused of "always playing up to the loudest gallery", calling him "the transatlantic type of demagogue" - "them's my sentiments and if they don't give satisfaction they can be changed".

In one respect Cameron's problem is obvious. Labour won three general elections under Blair, who had accepted the whole Thatcherite economic settlement, appropriated Tory policies on education, health and crime, and bowed down before international high finance. Before the end of his premiership he could be plausibly described as a conservative leading a Labour government, and as standing to the right of every postwar prime minister apart from his role model, Margaret Thatcher. So what can the Tories do to distinguish themselves from the party that has (in one more of Disraeli's phrases) stolen so many of their clothes? The answer, appropriately for a party that became the most successful political grouping in European history by regularly reinventing itself, is that they must do so again. Along with their missteps and mishaps, Cameron and his team have shown real flashes of insight. The phrase "red Toryism" - a kind of communitarian conservatism associated with the academic Philip Blond, which purports to eschew both unregulated free-market capitalism and the total welfare state - remains a little too cute, and Cameron should really embrace "something blue", rooted in authentic Tory tradition. He is right to emphasise the need to build a new politics from the bottom upwards, starting with Edmund Burke's "little platoons": family, neighbourhood, community. No one honest can deny that Lady Thatcher's government had great achievements to its credit by way of addressing larger structural economic and industrial problems. But her greatest crime was her assault on local government: its resuscitation would be a golden opportunity for her successor but four to make amends. Another is foreign policy. In his weird testimony to the Chilcot Iraq inquiry, Blair said that he couldn't let himself be outflanked by the Tories in his support for Washington and the Iraq war. It was true that many Tories were gung-ho for war seven years ago, though a significant minority of the party, including at least five former cabinet ministers, was opposed, and the Conservatives have certainly had the opportunity to repent at leisure since. While Cameron voted for the war in parliament March 2003, he knows just how calamitous it has been, and how much disliked by the electorate. Less than a year after he had become party leader, he gave a speech on foreign policy. To be precise, it was on September 11, 2006, and the anniversary date itself offended some Americans when they realised that Cameron was criticising Blair's obsequious support for Washington. "We have never, until recently, been uncritical allies of America," he said, before adding that the relationship should be "solid but not slavish". "Thanks for the Monday morning quarterbacking," the Wall Street Journal snorted, appalled to see Cameron distancing himself from the failures of the Iraq war and from what he called "neoconservative thinking" with its belief "that pre-emptive military action is not only an appropriate, but a necessary component of tackling the terrorist threat". On a visit to Pakistan two years later, he amplified his position, saying wisely that "we cannot impose democracy at the barrel of a gun" and "we cannot drop democracy from 10,000 feet and we shouldn't try". Even so, the Tories are still impaled on a dilemma of their own making. Bitter divisions over Europe nearly ruined the party in the 1990s, and there is to this day a powerful tendency animated by loathing of the European Union. And yet even those jingoes and xenophobes must by now see that it was not the hated Jacques Delors, nor Herman Van Rompuy, who took British troops into what most British voters now see as a needless, illegal and disastrous Iraq war. To any Tory with a spark of true patriotic pride, even membership of some terrible federal Europe might seem marginally preferable to the dismal reality of serving as an American client state. Of course, all this may be by the way and in the air. Given the circumstances under which Cameron is likely to take over, such questions will not merely be overshadowed but entirely determined by the lamentable state of the economy. Most British voters don't want to continue the war in Afghanistan, and plenty of sensible defence experts think that the Trident nuclear missile is now a pointless luxury. A Tory government might yet bite both bullets - withdraw the troops and scrap Trident - on the simple ground that neither can any longer be afforded. If the electorate do send the Conservative leader to Downing Street it will be a leap in the dark. No, we don't know quite who David Cameron is, or what his party believes in, nor whether he and his colleagues will do a better job than the government still feebly hanging on to office. But given what the historian Perry Anderson correctly calls "the pit of contempt into which New Labour has fallen, in the closing stages of the tawdriest regime in postwar British history," could they really do worse?

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the New York Review of Books and Harper's Magazine. His books include The Strange Death of Tory England, and Yo, Blair!: Tony Blair's Disastrous Premiership. He is writing a book about the cult and posthumous legacy of Winston Churchill.