New Tory leader aims to change party image

Cameron, 39, has eye on next elections


LONDON -- Britain's Conservative Party anointed 39-year-old David Cameron as leader yesterday, hoping that the polished, clean-cut "old Etonian" will have the magic to lead it out of the political wilderness after three election defeats.

Virtually unknown in the country six months ago, Cameron outpolled rival David Davis by a 2-1 margin, taking 134,446 votes to Davis' 64,398.

He survived a leadership contest to succeed retiring leader Michael Howard that began with five hopefuls and went on for almost five months. Cameron gained momentum with his smooth, relaxed speech at the Conservative Party conference in October.

From a well-to-do family, raised in the Berkshire countryside and married to the daughter of a baronet, Cameron had been the odds-on favorite since then.

His greatest campaign challenge might have been standing up to reporters' questions about whether he had used cocaine while at Oxford University. (He avoided answering, saying politicians' past lives should remain private.)

With British voters having given Labor Party Prime Minister Tony Blair a third term in office in May, Cameron was expected to pledge to put the Conservative Party back in touch with ordinary people - just as the past three party chairmen have done. But it remains to be seen whether he will be any more successful.

The Conservative Party has been dogged by a perception that it is a declining club for white, elderly, hunt-riding, middle-class, rural and suburban southern Englanders who belong to the Church of England. (Cameron also noted yesterday that women are "scandalously under-represented," and he pledged to correct that.)

But changing the Tories' image is a daunting task, and Cameron's background could be a drawback. He has conceded he had a "hideously privileged" upbringing, including education at the highbrow Eton school. He has only four years' experience as a member of Parliament, though before that he cut his teeth as a young party worker and aide to Howard and former Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont.

The Tories made inroads in the May elections but still lost. Now, Cameron should have four years to hone his message before the next election, which probably will not take place until at least 2009.

John Daniszewski writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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