You think choosing a new Pope is a long-winded process? Well, try electing a new Prime Minister in the U.K. Over there, the parliamentary system works on a first-past-the-post basis, meaning that, in order to stick its man in Downing Street, a political party has to win over half of the 650 seats in the House of Commons. No outright majority, no keys to Number 10.
So, six days after the country went to the polls, a puff of white smoke has appeared above the rooftops of the Palace of Westminster and, the journalists are finally proclaiming, “Habemus Primum Praetorem!*” And it’s a 43-year-old bloke called Dave.
David William Donald Cameron’s upbringing and education (Eton–he is the school’s 19th British PM– followed by Oxford University) would suggest a man of privilege, out of touch with the man on the street, and as good a reason to start a class war as any (the C word being our peculiar obsession). That’s not the whole story, however. He’s clever–he graduated with a First Class degree in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics–clubbable, and gossipy. Possessed with the knack that every good politician needs: a photographic memory for names and faces, and an ability to recite speeches without notes, Dave has, since he won the Tory party leadership race in 2005, managed a feat that was seen as well-nigh impossible: to detoxify the Conservatives.
And now they’re back in power, after 13 long years of sitting on the opposition benches. Hurrah! you might think, chuck us a canapé, will you? But it’s not going to be that easy. As the Tories failed to get a majority, the new Prime Minister has been forced into a coalition, with a handful of Liberal Democrats holding seats in the cabinet. Add those skirmishes to the national debt, unemployment (something outgoing PM Gordon Brown is about to discover) and what looks to be an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, and you can see the difficulties he’s facing.
Britain, it can be argued, has one of the most combative parliamentary systems in the world. The Right Honorable Members (as the MPs are styled) sit on tiered benches that run down each length of the debating chamber of the House of Commons, the government on one side, its opponents facing them down. It’s argumentative, quick-witted stuff–it’s also very funny at times, and can be a joy to watch–that is not built for coalition politics. If Dave can keep the Liberal Democrats–in many ways they are further to the left of Labour, and Tories and they are not natural bedfellows–happy and/or under control, the next year will, undoubtedly, bring a new style of politics to the U.K. Whether it stands or falls, however, will depend on the new PM’s political skills, keeping the internecine rivalries to a minimum between the two parties in government, and making sure that Labour remains weak and in opposition. Not all juggling acts need balls–but in order to keep this bipartisan circus on the road, a rather large pair will be required over the next five years.
If anyone is up for such a challenge, however, it is David Cameron. The third of four kids in an extremely close-knit family, he and his two elder siblings see competition as a virtue. Whether it was tennis, card games, tiddlywinks, or creative knitting, the three of them have always vied among each other for position of top dog. And now he really is.
Why he’s not like us: On the day of Dave’s interview for a research job at Conservative headquarters reports the BBC, the powers that be received a phone call from Buckingham Palace, the Queen’s residence. “I understand you are to see David Cameron,” said the caller, an unnamed male. “I’ve tried everything I can to dissuade him from wasting his time on politics, but I have failed. I am ringing to tell you that you are about to meet a truly remarkable young man.” Apocryphal, maybe, telling, certainly.
Why he is: Wife Sam (she is the creative director of Smythson) is a working mum who is pregnant with the couple’s fourth child. Their eldest, Ivan, was severely disabled and died last year at age six. “When we were first told the extent of Ivan’s disability,” Cameron said, “I thought that we would suffer having to care for him but at least he would benefit from our care. Now, as I look back, I see that it was all the other way round. It was only him that ever really suffered, and it was us–Sam, me, Nancy and Elwen [the couple’s youngest kids]–who gained more than I ever believed possible from having and loving such a wonderfully special and beautiful boy.” It is said that his son’s death almost made Cameron turn his back on politics.
Why he’s not like us: The journalist behind the Sunday Times’ annual Rich List claims Dave and Sam’s are worth over £30 million. “Both sides of the family are extremely wealthy.” A more realistic report pegs it at around ten times less–£3 million.
Why he is: He cycles to work every day–although that probably stopped last week–does the family shop at Tesco supermarket–that probably stopped yesterday–and daughter Nancy goes to state school in London. Wife Sam claims he has “irritating habits,” such as being messy around the house.
Why he’s not: He’s Britain’s youngest Prime Minister for 200 years. How many of you have been a target for Double Agents R Us, the KGB’s recruitment agency? Approached by a pair of English-speaking Russians during a visit to Yalta in his gap year, he was told it was “definitely an attempt” to put the Да into David. His tutor at Oxford, Vernon Bogdanor, described him as “one of the ablest” students he’d ever taught.
Why he’s Britain’s Obama: Most important similarity is probably the detoxification point. While Barack has been put on this earth to, among other things, detoxify the U.S. in the eyes of the rest of the world, Dave has had to do it with his political party. It also took him 20 years to quit smoking. There are, scurrility fans, rumors of a marijuana-Dave interface in the past, but in true political fashion, Dave has batted the question away, merely saying, “I did lots of things before I came into politics which I shouldn’t have done. We all did.”
Why he’s not Britain’s Obama:“Too many tweets make a twat.”
Well, there’s got to be a bit of wiggle room somewhere, hasn’t there?
*Primum Ministrum would translate as First Wine Waiter, useless fact fans.
[Full disclosure: David William Donald Cameron, a mammoth fan of the Undertones back in 1984, is my first cousin. Waiting for the invitation to the new pad whenever you’re ready, Dave.]