Cameron Faces Challenges Beyond His Coalition

Sarah Lyall|The New York Times

The Conservative Party that David Cameron inherited in 2005 was a disoriented shadow of its once mighty self, riven by ideological disarray, wounded by endless power struggles and facing the bleak prospect of long-term unelectability.

David Cameron
Getty Images

As leader, the smooth, self-assured Mr. Cameron, who became Britain’s new prime minister on Tuesday, moved swiftly to weed out the old guard, replacing the party’s mean-spirited image with a kinder, more socially progressive philosophy that he called compassionate Conservatism. That he succeeded is a reflection of his toughness, acumen and resolve.

He will need those qualities now. As prime minister in charge of Britain’s first coalition government in 65 years, Mr. Cameron will have to contend not only with the tensions within his own party, but also with the dueling demands of his Liberal Democratic partners. He will also face an electorate likely to respond unhappily to the deep and painful budget cuts the government will need to impose to fix Britain’s ailing finances.

“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 Mr. 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,” Mr. Snowdon said. “He’s not a strong-conviction politician the way Margaret Thatcher was. In many ways, he’s an old-fashioned conservative with a small c. 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.”

The European Debt Crisis - See Complete Coverage

David William Donald Cameron was born Oct. 9, 1966, which makes him, at 43, the youngest prime minister since the 2nd Earl of Liverpool ran the government in the early 19th century. Likable, quick on his feet, informal, self-assured, his easy charm a vivid contrast to the tortured, self-lacerating intensity of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Mr. Cameron seemed at times to be gliding into power, so effortlessly did he take to the cut-and-thrust of British parliamentary politics.

The third of four children, Mr. Cameron had a privileged childhood in a small Berkshire village. His father, Ian, a stockbroker and the chairman of the London gentlemen’s club Whites, met personal adversity — badly deformed legs that have since been amputated — with old-fashioned British perseverance.

“My father always used to say that nothing in life is fair, but both he and Mum were very much of the view that you had to muck in and get on with things and deal with the difficult stuff that comes your way,” Mr. Cameron told The Daily Telegraph recently.

When he was 7, Mr. Cameron was sent to Heatherdown, a prep school whose alumni include Princes Andrew and Edward, and whose attitudes toward class were clear: on field day, the portable bathrooms were designated Ladies, Gentlemen and Chauffeurs. (When Mrs. Thatcher was elected prime minister, the school celebrated with an impromptu student-staff cricket match.) Mr. 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.

During the campaign, he played down his background, as well as that of his wife, 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 are expecting another child in the fall. By all accounts, Mr. Cameron is a hands-on father and was so distraught at 6-year-old Ivan’s death that he considered leaving politics.

When he was 21, Mr. 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. Even as the Tories floundered on, unable to recreate the glory years of the Thatcher era and losing election after election, Mr. Cameron rose through the party ranks. But it was a huge surprise when he was elected leader — the fourth in eight years — on a program of party detoxification, as some called it.

Amid grumbling from old-school Tories, Mr. Cameron 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.

He has been accused of having an autocratic style and of limiting his decision-making to a small circle of advisers, many of them old friends, like George Osborne, who in opposition was the shadow chancellor of the Exchequer.

Mr. Cameron provoked anger from Tory old-timers by publicly rebuking the party grandees caught in last year’s scandal over parliamentary expenses — the ones who charged taxpayers for items like buying manure, getting moats cleaned and fixing swimming pools (many of those particular legislators were successfully dissuaded, by Mr. Cameron, from seeking re-election).

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.

But his party squandered a huge lead in the polls that would have produced a large parliamentary majority. That they failed to win a larger share of the vote in the end reflects in part the electorate’s confusion about what the Conservatives, and their leader, really stand for, and in part people’s fears that they have not changed as much as Mr. Cameron says they have.

But Anthony Seldon, a political biographer and the master of Wellington College, said he admired Mr. Cameron’s approach.

“He’s been very impressive in the election campaign, in quite an unexpected way,” Mr. Seldon said. “He hasn’t tried to be what he’s not. He speaks to a country as it is at the moment, when it needs to recover its belief in politics.”