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Saturday, May 15, 2010

UK's Cameron: Previleged, but with a Common Touch

Seattle Times

LONDON — Conservative leader David Cameron walked into No. 10 Downing Street on Tuesday night as Britain's new prime minister, ending five days of political limbo and 13 years of Labour Party rule after forging a historic coalition that spans the country's political spectrum.

The deal that brought Cameron to power after indecisive elections last week united the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in Britain's first coalition government since Winston Churchill's war cabinet in the 1940s.

Cameron, a self-described conservative "modernizer" who has embraced gay rights and green policies, agreed to give the post of deputy prime minister to the Liberal Democrats' leader, Nicholas Clegg, a champion of the poor. The Liberal Democrats, who actually lost seats last week, also won four other cabinet posts and prevailed in their demand for a referendum on broad electoral reform that could aid their party in future elections by giving more weight to the overall popular vote in deciding Parliament seats.

Voters gave the Conservatives more votes and more seats than any other party, but not the majority they needed to govern alone. The Liberal Democrats finished third, behind outgoing Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labour Party, which suffered its worst defeat in 80 years.

Brown tendered his resignation to Queen Elizabeth II even before the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had completed their negotiations. Cameron then followed Brown in meeting with the queen, and in a swift handoff that contrasts dramatically with the long transition between presidential administrations in the United States, Cameron spoke for the first time as prime minister eight minutes after leaving Buckingham Palace.

President Obama called Cameron, at 43 Britain's youngest prime minister in nearly two centuries, to congratulate him. The new government is unlikely to bring major changes in transatlantic ties. Though Clegg has sought a more independent line with the U.S. and vowed to bring British troops home from Afghanistan within five years, the Liberal Democrats have not advocated an immediate withdrawal, and the key post of foreign secretary went to William Hague of the Conservatives, who are staunch backers of the special relationship.

Despite their victory, the parties making up the new coalition are the strangest of political bedfellows.

The Liberal Democrats conceded on Conservative plans to begin slashing Britain's yawning budget deficit this year and signed on to a plan to keep and upgrade Britain's nuclear deterrent.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, agreed to offer tax relief to some of Britain's poorest citizens and scrap a plan to offer inheritance-tax breaks to some of its wealthiest.

Yet sharp differences remain in other areas, particularly on the issue of relations with Europe. The Conservatives have vowed more independence from the European Union, a position the Liberal Democrats strongly oppose. As part of the deal, Clegg reportedly agreed not to press for a switch from the pound to the euro during the term of the coalition, but broader ties with Europe still appeared set to be a lightning rod.

Their leaders appear to share a measure of chemistry; Cameron, for instance, is generally seen as standing to the political left of his base and Clegg to the right of his. But far-right Conservatives and fiercely progressive Liberal Democrats were grumbling Tuesday about an unholy union that some analysts say may not survive the five-year term ahead.

"Margaret Thatcher would have kittens," the Conservative-leaning Telegraph newspaper declared about the prospect of a deal.

"It's going to be a very interesting and hairy ride," said Steven Fielding, director of the Center for British Politics at Nottingham University. "We've got a set of politicians who aren't used to coalition government and who are going to have to learn on the job, in the midst of one of the worst economic crises we've ever lived through."

One thing Cameron does have is flexibility, said Peter Snowdon, author of "Back From the Brink: The Inside Story of the Tory Resurrection."

"He's more pragmatic than ideological," he said. "He was brought up in rural England and he considers things like family life and the state of the British union very important. But to him, most things are up for debate, for framing and discussing and forging positions on."
Stat Sheet:

David Cameron
Age: 43, the youngest prime minister since the 2nd Earl of Liverpool ran the government in the early 19th century.

Background: The third of four children, Cameron had a privileged childhood in a small Berkshire village. His father, Ian, was a stockbroker and the chairman of the London gentlemen's club Whites.

Education: When he was 7, Cameron was sent to Heatherdown, a prep school whose alumni include Princes Andrew and Edward. Cameron then went to Eton, the traditional finishing school for Britain's ruling classes, where it was reported that, as punishment for getting caught smoking marijuana, he was made to copy 500 lines of Latin text. At Oxford, he was a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club, whose agenda consisted of getting dressed up, getting drunk and getting out of trouble by paying off the people whose things were destroyed in club bacchanalias.

Family: He is married to Samantha, whose father is a baronet and whose stepfather is a viscount. They have two young children. A son, Ivan, was severely disabled and died last year and the couple are expecting another child in the fall.

Career: When he was 21, Cameron began a series of political jobs with the Conservative Party, starting in its research department. He then spent several years working as head of corporate affairs for Carlton Communications, a media company. He first ran for Parliament in 1997. He lost, but was elected four years later, to the safely Conservative seat of Witney in Oxfordshire. After he was elected leader, he aggressively sought to bring more women and minorities into the party and into Parliament. He promoted environmental issues and spoke out in favor of gay rights and civil partnerships.

Campaign: The big idea of his campaign was something he called the big society, the notion that rather than depending on government to provide their needs, people should look to community and volunteer organizations.