David Cameron, 39 years old and after just four years in Parliament, has been elected leader of Britain's Conservative Party. Cameron took the lead after his speech, delivered without notes, at the Conservative Party conference in October, and he finished first of the five competitors among Conservative MPs. He faced the second-place finisher, David Davis, shadow home secretary, in a mail ballot, and won 68 to 32 percent.
Cameron is the fourth Conservative Party leader since 1997. John Major resigned the position after the landslide victory of Tony Blair's Labor Party in the May 1997 election; he was succeeded by William Hague, who resigned after Labor won by a similar margin in May 2001; then came Iain Duncan Smith, who was forced out after two years and was followed by Michael Howard.
Labor's margin in popular votes and in seats in the House of Commons was cut in the May 2005 election, and Howard announced the next day that he would resign but would stay until a successor was chosen. In the 20th century, up until 1997, only one Conservative Party leader, Austen Chamberlain, failed to become prime minister. In the 21st century, there have been four Conservative leaders who have not yet become prime minister; Duncan Smith and Howard certainly never will be, but Cameron might, and I suppose there is a chance that Hague, who is only 44 and whom Cameron appointed shadow foreign secretary, might ascend to that office too.
For more than a dozen years after Margaret Thatcher was forced from office, the debate in the Conservative Party was between Thatcherites and "wets," those who saw her as their lodestar and those who were glad she was ousted. Hague and Duncan Smith were chosen largely because they were seen as more Thatcherite than more experienced rivals. Howard, who served in Thatcher's cabinet and in John Major's, was a more unifying figure. But in this contest, the Tories finally got over relitigating 1990. Cameron especially emphasized forward-looking themes (not much in the way of specific policies, though) and got the party thinking about the future rather than the past. After all, he was only 24 when Thatcher was given the boot.
Cameron's victory was announced Tuesday afternoon. Here is his graceful acceptance address, delivered, like his conference speech, without text or notes.
Here's an insightful column by the Telegraph's Matthew D'Ancona. Money quote: "In electing this remarkable politician, the Tories have explicitly embraced risk, opted for novelty and demanded change."
Interestingly, the left-wing Guardian in its leader (Brit for editorial) took a similar view. On Wednesday, Cameron announced his shadow cabinet, including Hague as shadow foreign secretary, Davis as shadow home secretary, George Osborne (a key Cameron ally who is only 34) as shadow chancellor of the Exchequer, and Liam Fox as shadow defense secretary. As it happens, I've met all four of them and rate them as pretty formidable politicians.
Cameron on Wednesday also faced Tony Blair for the first time in the prime minister's question session. Prime ministers used to do this twice a week; Blair, who has always tried to depict New Labor as a consensual creed, doesn't like the adversariness of parliamentary debate very much and reduced PM question time to once a week. Cameron, in his acceptance speech, decried the "Punch and Judy" atmosphere of Westminster politics and started off by supporting at least some of Blair's education program, which is unpopular with many Labor MPs. Cameron is engaged in something like triangulation, I think, supporting Blair's reforms that provide more choices in public services while depicting Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the Exchequer, who will become prime minister some time before the next general election, as a voice from the Old Labor past. Here's the Times's account. Here's an even more pungent account from the Telegraph. I can't resist quoting:
David Cameron has faced Tony Blair for the first time as leader of the Conservative Party and emphasised the areas in which they agree.
In a calm and measured performance at Prime Minister's Questions, Mr. Cameron told Mr. Blair: "The first issue that you and I are going to have to work together on is getting the good bits of your education reforms through the House of Commons and into law."
Faced by a wall of jeers and calls of "resign" from the packed Labour benches, Mr. Cameron turned on Hilary Armstrong.
"That's the problem with these exchanges: the chief whip on the Labour side shouting like a child! Have you finished?" he asked her.
"We both agree that schools with greater freedom produce the best results. Will you confirm all of the freedoms for schools in the White Paper [very unpopular with Labourites] will survive into the bill?"
Mr. Blair replied: "Yes. It is important we give schools the freedoms they need. I am delighted to hear that you support these reforms. I assume therefore the Conservative party will be voting for them?"
Mr. Cameron responded, to more Labour jeers: "Yes."
Flanked by his defeated leadership rival David Davis, 39-year-old Mr. Cameron made clear from the outset that he wanted to present himself as a new style of Conservative leader.
By highlighting areas of agreement with the Prime Minister, Mr. Cameron is expected to press his claim to be the true "heir of Blair" and to brand Chancellor Gordon Brown as the main obstacle to necessary reforms.
However, despite his calls for an end to the "Punch and Judy politics" Mr. Cameron still landed a couple of blows on his opponent.
Asked by Mr. Blair whether he could clear up the Conservative position on school admissions, Mr. Cameron replied: "It's only our first exchange and already you are asking me the questions."
He added: "This approach is stuck in the past and I want to talk about the future. You were the future once."
That last line must have hurt. "You were the future once." Blair is 52.
Here's one last comment, from Daniel Finkelstein in the Times. Finkelstein notes that Cameron once worked, as he did, in the Conservative Party's central office in Smith Square (a grand old Georgian square; the party headquarters has been moved to an anonymous modern office building in Victoria Street a few blocks away). Essentially, Cameron started off as something like a spin doctor-cum-campaign consultant. Judging from the material quoted above, he's pretty good at it.
The spin doctor risen to power.