The new conservative leader


Britain's Conservative Party members will be voting in mail ballots for a new party leader starting soon. The two choices are David Cameron, the 39-year-old shadow education secretary, and David Davis, the 56-year-old shadow home secretary. Davis was the early favorite but delivered what has been considered a disastrous speech at the party conference in Blackpool earlier this month. Cameron delivered, without text or notes, what was widely considered a dazzling speech, and he has been the heavy favorite ever since. Here's the delicious take on Cameron's rise from Matthew D'Ancona in the Sunday Telegraph. And here's a news story on Cameron's support among Conservative MPs rising to a majority of 100. For those hungry for more information on this race, I recommend prowling through the links on the websites of the Telegraph, and the Times of London.

I have a fairly wide acquaintanceship in British politics, and I once sat next to Davis at dinner. He's a bit of a bruiser, the kind of fighter who does well in the roughhouse atmosphere of the House of Commons. He has been on the right (which is to say right) side of key issues for most Conservative MPs and party members—Europe, tax, immigration and asylum, etc. He has an interesting life story: He was raised by a single mother on a council estate (public housing for us) and was successful in business. But like the three previous Conservative leaders—William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, and Michael Howard—he does not seem to have the kind of charm Tony Blair projects. David Cameron evidently does. He has the sort of upper-class background—Eton, Oxford, married to the daughter of a lord—that analysts of British politics have long thought was a liability in Britain's class-conscious politics. The last Conservative party leader with such a background was Alec Douglas Home, the loser in the 1964 election. But it evidently isn't such a liability anymore. Tony Blair was educated at Scotland's leading "public" (i.e., private) school, Fettes, and at Oxford, and it hasn't hurt him a bit. And it turns out that most of the current Labor cabinet members had posh educations.

One reason for this: The Labor government in the 1970s abolished the grammar schools, the public (here I really mean public) high schools to which children who scored well on tests could attend. Too inegalitarian, it was said. The result was that just about all the public high schools have become lousy, as just about everyone admits (the term "bog standard comprehensives" was, I believe, coined by a Laborite). So a hugely disproportionate number of talented people have had private school educations. Now Blair is talking about more public school choice—an idea, Cameron says, pinched from the Conservatives. In the past, grammar schools produced Labor leaders like Harold Wilson, who had political ambitions early: There is a photo of him as a boy standing outside the door of No.10 Downing Street. You can't do that today; there's a security fence around the place. But it's also harder for a state school student to make his way into No.10 as prime minister, when the Labor Party is headed by a graduate of Fettes and the Conservative Party seems very likely to be headed by a graduate of Eton.