UK’s Cameron marks 10 years of uneasy Conservative leadership
Prime Minister David Cameron marks 10 sometimes difficult years Sunday as leader of Britain’s Conservative party, whose members have come to accept him as an electoral asset despite deep disagreements on issues like Europe.
A pragmatist leading a centre-right party with a strong ideological base, the telegenic 49-year-old led the Conservatives to their first clear election win since 1992 in May, earning fresh kudos from the party with a result few predicted.
But with a referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union likely next year, the divisions which have long dogged the party of Margaret Thatcher could be on the brink of getting even worse.
Peter Snowdon, co-author of “Cameron at 10”, a study of his leadership, said the prime minister had “never been loved” by the Conservatives.
“He has had a rocky relationship with his party. There has not been that base of affection but he is the best leader they’ve got without any clear rival,” he told AFP.
Matthew Ashton, a politics expert at Nottingham Trent University, added: “A big chunk of the party, a big chunk of the cabinet even, want to campaign for Brexit and that’s going to be a direct challenge to his authority.”
Cameron scores the highest satisfaction rating among Britons of the main party leaders, according to pollsters Ipsos MORI.
But the words which opponents most commonly use to describe him include “arrogant”, “smug” and “over-privileged”, adds YouGov, which may help explain why this year’s “Piggate” scandal — about a a prank in which Cameron allegedly participated as a student at Oxford — received such extensive coverage.
– More respect than ever –
Few could have predicted Cameron would now be on track to become one of Britain’s longest serving prime ministers when he defied the odds to become Conservative leader in 2005 aged just 39.
Early on, he preached “compassionate Conservatism”, stressing strong public services and environmental issues. He even travelled to the South Pole and posed for photos with husky dogs to underline his green credentials.
Cameron became Britain’s youngest prime minister for 200 years in 2010 but had to team up with the smaller Liberal Democrats in a coalition to get enough seats to govern.
Faced with the aftermath of the financial crisis, Cameron abandoned much of his modernising agenda and imposed austerity cuts, supported by most Conservatives.
But the fault lines remained and in 2012, many Conservatives were upset when Cameron announced he would push through a law allowing same-sex marriages despite deep ideological objections within the party.
After the Conservatives under Cameron won May’s general election outright, his reputation within the party received a major boost, though.
“He won in 2015 and for that reason, he commands more respect within his party now than at any point in the last ten years,” said Snowdon.
– Clock ticking on leadership –
As he himself has acknowledged, Cameron does not have “the luxury of unlimited time”.
The EU referendum must be held by the end of 2017 and Cameron, who is married with three young children, has said he will not serve beyond the next general election in 2020.
He wants to stay in the EU as long as he can secure concessions over Britain’s relationship with Brussels.
But some of his closest allies and a large chunk of the parliamentary party and membership want to leave. Even Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has warned that Britons “will not be fobbed off with a set of cosmetic alterations”.
How Cameron handles this delicate balancing act could help shape his legacy, experts say.
“I suspect that after the referendum is finished, the conversation will quickly turn to whether David Cameron will stay for the whole of his second term or whether he will step aside earlier to allow a new leader to establish themselves before a new election,” said Duncan O’Leary, research director of political think-tank Demos.
“Being on different teams during the referendum campaign and coming back together afterwards can be a difficult process.”
The main candidates to replace Cameron are already clear — they include his finance minister and right-hand man George Osborne, Home Secretary Theresa May and London Mayor Boris Johnson.
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