David Cameron is almost certain to be the next prime minister of Britain. With a double-digit lead in the polls, his Conservative Party looks sure to end 12 years of Labour rule in Britain's next election, which must be called by June. In four years, he's distanced the Tories from their Thatcherite past, edged them back to the center, softened their image, and expanded their appeal. Barring disaster, he'll be taking up residence at 10 Downing Street sometime next year.
So why aren't he and his party celebrating? When the Tories met in Manchester for their annual conference earlier this month, there were few signs of the ebullience that accompanied Labour's march to victory in 1997 and the "New Dawn" of Tony Blair. Champagne was banned at official events lest the Tories appear to be partying while the economy burns. But their anxiety goes deeper. Their likely triumph will be due as much to Labour's unpopularity as to their own appeal. Despite Cameron's attempt to rebrand the party as hip, young, progressive, and green, he has yet to capture the popular imagination: one recent poll found that only 32 percent of likely Tory voters "felt positive" about the party. Nor has he sketched out a philosophy coherent enough to satisfy many. And the prize he's likely to win may be a bitter one. As Britain's presumptive next leader, he'll head an inexperienced team hobbled by a weak economy and possibly a weak mandate. In his speech in Manchester, Cameron warned of a "steep climb" ahead. It may prove even steeper than he realizes.
Start by considering the math. While the Tories are dominating the polls, those impressive figures won't easily translate into seats. Because of the way Britain's electoral districts are drawn, as well as other quirks, the system is skewed against the Conservatives. In his first victory, Blair managed to win only 43 percent of the popular vote yet secured 64 percent of the seats in Parliament. That will be almost impossible for Cameron to replicate. Given the current makeup of Westminster, the Tories need to gain another 117 seats to form a majority. That's a "massive" challenge, says party chairman Eric Pickles—so massive no party has managed it since 1931. There's even a risk the Conservatives could beat Labour but without winning more than half the seats, forcing them into a minority government. This nightmare seems especially likely if an economic recovery boosts Labour's reputation for fiscal competence.
Even if the Conservatives do win convincingly, it will still be just the start of their problems. Gordon Brown will likely bequeath him the deepest hole in public finances in Britain's postwar history—a $285 billion deficit—and an unemployment rate of 8 percent. During Blair's first campaign, he took as his anthem D:Ream's catchy "Things Can Only Get Better." Cameron knows that in the short term, at least, they're likely to get worse.
Of course, he has been working hard to turn crisis into opportunity. At the party conference, his friend and adviser George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, played on the notion of solidarity in suffering—"We're all in this together"—and cast the Tories as responsible realists. In practice that means they're likely to implement a pay freeze for all but the lowest-paid public servants (and salary cuts for ministers) as well as a hike in the pension age, and to stick to Labour's plan for a new 50 percent marginal income-tax rate for the highest earners. So far, the polls suggest that the public will accept such austerity. But they've yet to feel the real pinch.
Then there's Cameron's party. Blair swept to power with a band of like-minded M.P.s who had backed him in the grand battle for Labour's soul. Old-timers groused, but the majority bought into Blair's reforms and his rejection of the party's commitment to socialist nostrums. Cameron's party may prove less unified—many Tories, including a big share of the prospective 2010 M.P.s, remain devoted to old Thatcherite orthodoxies, says Richard Reeves of Demos, a think tank. "It is not as if there is a fresh group that will be pulling the party to the left. There is an element that is profoundly unhappy with the new social liberalism of the front bench." This faction's size remains unclear—it has so far stayed silent in the interests of winning power—but it will likely make its influence felt once victory is secure.
Europe, in particular—that old Tory bugbear—is likely to reemerge as a dangerous divider. Cameron himself sometimes talks like a Euroskeptic, opposed to closer integration, but he's no anti-Brussels zealot. By contrast, much of his party is still leery of the very idea of British membership in the EU club. A recent survey of party members by the Tory Web site ConservativeHome.com found that 39 percent favored quitting the EU altogether—a flat contradiction of party policy. Hardliners are also pushing for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which they see as a dangerous step toward European federalism—even though Britain has already committed itself to the agreement. Were a Cameron government to turn against the EU, it could prove hugely embarrassing and complicate relations with France and Germany. Already the Tories have come under attack for linking up with some cranky far-right Europhobes in the European Parliament.
Cameron's followers also lack experience. Blair was surrounded by fresh-faced neophytes when he took over—by 1997, Labour had been out of office for nearly 18 years—but leading "Cameroons," the coterie of like-minded types who have helped to reshape Conservative policy, look younger still. Many current Tory M.P.s have been in Parliament only since 2001 or 2005, and Reeves says that up to a third of all Conservative M.P.s elected next year will be newcomers to Westminster. Cameron's inner circle is also isolated, a small team of intimates, many from similar privileged backgrounds and with few grassroots ties. As Reeves puts it, "it is a very small tip at the top of a very big iceberg."
Cameron could still overcome these obstacles. He boasts plenty of the qualities required of a modern prime minister: he's clever, personable, telegenic, and blessed with the self-assurance that goes with a patrician background and an Eton-and-Oxford education. Deft handlers have assiduously fed pictures of Cameron the family man to the public. And he's been adept at maintaining party discipline so far, even dumping old allies when necessary. Alan Duncan, for example—a longstanding member of Cameron's shadow cabinet—was demoted last month after a too-public complaint over the treatment of M.P.s in the parliamentary-expenses scandal. Just as important, Cameron's efforts to rebrand the Tories—the sled rides in the Arctic to advertise global warming, the tieless suits and the cycling to work—do credit to his background in public relations. This is no longer the "nasty party."
Yet many feel that Cameron has still not provided a clear sense of what his Britain would actually look like—the kind of vision needed to sustain the public in the tough times ahead. In 1997, Tony Blair set out his goals on a five-point pledge card. Cameron has offered no similar promises to the public and his positions can look confused. Despite that first-class Oxford degree in politics, philosophy, and economics, he's more interested in problem solving than ideas. As a result, voters still have only a blurry sense of his vision. "The public thinks Cameron is this funny Tory who goes on about the environment and the poor but who doesn't make any connection with a political philosophy," says John Curtice, politics professor at Strathclyde University.
To be fair, Cameron has recently tried to dispel this reputation. In his hourlong oration at Manchester, he set out some basic principles. Thus we now know, for example, that Cameron believes "there is such a thing as society" but that "it's just not the same thing as the state." Yet even that message takes little decoding. Thatcher famously observed that "there is no such thing as society." This is Cameron's way of saying he's no Thatcher.
Such subtlety can be lost on the public or make his positions seem confused. Cameron claims to be an enemy of big government, and he's keen to promote personal responsibility and disperse power to local communities. Yet he is no small-state dogmatist. While he's eager to cut public spending, it's more in the name of efficiency than ideology. When it comes to the National Health Service, for example, he's spared it the axe altogether. He has yet to detail a distinct foreign policy, with no clear stances to separate his Conservatives from Labour, including on Afghanistan. The closest he's come to carving out a difference from Brown is to express an extra eagerness to build up ties to Washington as an alternative to Europe.
Skeptics say this all adds up to a muddle—or nothing at all. "Progressive conservatism is one of those phrases, like Tory democracy, that look quite good at first but seem glib when you look harder," says Geoffrey Wheatcroft, a historian of the Conservative Party. Others see an utter absence of conviction. Cameron was a relative latecomer to politics who showed none of the true believer's convictions as a student, says his Oxford friend turned libertarian columnist James Delingpole. "There isn't an ideological bone in his body." That hardly makes Cameron unique, however. His doctrine, if there is one, represents the latest stage in a long process of convergence that has seen Britain's major parties crib off each other. "Blair draped himself in blue; now Cameron clothes himself in red," says the columnist Jonathan Freedland. These days the parameters of political debate have narrowed. But even Thatcher never dared bring state spending much below 40 percent of GNP, close to the European average.
It may not matter that Cameron has no ideology. Historically, his party has thrived by switching positions in order to retain power. Policies have been developed to meet circumstances, not to fit with a philosophical program. Thatcher's 1979 manifesto made no reference to privatization, the policy later seen as her greatest hallmark. British voters expect and tolerate such pragmatism. When times are tough they look for competent managers, a traditional Tory selling point. "People don't vote for a Conservative government because they expect heaven on earth but because they need them," says Neil O'Brien of the think tank Policy Exchange. While the skies may indeed be gray at the Tories' dawn next year, that needn't doom Cameron's chances. In fact, it's the very reason he'll likely be elected.