By Anthony Faiola
Friday, April 30, 2010; A10
STOCKTON-ON-TEES, ENGLAND -- The man gunning to bring the Conservatives back to power in Britain grabbed the microphone at a town hall meeting in the heart of the English rust belt this week, firing off some tough promises that would make Margaret Thatcher proud.
In his upper-crust accent, the 43-year-old Oxford man vowed to slash welfare rolls, cap immigration and shrink big government. But into the same microphone, before a rapt crowd in a high school gym, he rattled off the other pledges that define his "modern Conservative" movement. Is he a defender of gay rights? Absolutely. Will he fight global warming? Enemy No. 1. Universal health care? Cross his heart, no more right-wing plots to dismantle it.
That is David Cameron's gambit. The front-runner in May 6 elections that could usher in the biggest change in Britain's political landscape in generations, Cameron is running as a sort of anti-Sarah Palin. Cameron's pitch to the British electorate: His Conservative Party is no longer so conservative.
In class-obsessed Britain, his problem isn't so much the message as the messenger. On the campaign trail, Cameron has courted disenchanted Labor Party voters with a pint-in-the-pub image of rolled-up shirt sleeves and jeans. But when they look at him, many here still see only the "posh boy" who is a distant cousin of Queen Elizabeth II.
Like his top aides, he hails from a privileged class and attended Eton prep school, a beacon for derision among the common folk. Blistering faux pas -- he tried to prove his "green" credentials by bicycling to work, only to be photographed with a limo toting his briefcase -- have not helped.
At the same time, Cameron is being derided by some on the right for abandoning elements of the core Conservative line. Cameron insists that he is a harbinger of change.
"I think conservative parties the world over are on a journey and need to change to reflect society as it is today," Cameron said in an interview with The Washington Post. "If you want to stand up for everybody in your country, then you shouldn't have two nations, black or white, urban and rural. If you believe that, then, as a conservative, you have to stand up for gay rights, you must be in favor of making sure that the excluded are included."
In many respects, Cameron is tearing a page out of the playbook of Tony Blair, whose shift from left to center with "New Labor" brought down the last Conservative prime minister, John Major, in 1997. In a nation where the Conservatives had became synonymous with polo-playing, ascot-wearing elitists, Cameron's shift is also seen as pragmatic -- perhaps the party's only road back to power after 13 years
Even with a revamped line, the Conservatives are facing an election battle that is turning out to be far tougher than they anticipated. Cameron is squaring off against an unpopular Labor prime minister, Gordon Brown. Already sinking in the polls, Brown stumbled badly this week after he was caught on microphone calling an English widow a bigot for complaining about immigration.
But over the past three weeks, Nicholas Clegg, the straight-talking leader of the usually also-ran Liberal Democrats, has surged in the polls after stellar performances in Britain's first U.S.-style, prime-time debates.
With a platform of denuclearization and higher taxes on the rich, as well as strong record on social issues, Clegg is stealing Cameron's thunder on the issue of change. In Stockton-on-Tees, a part of northeast England heavily dependent on government jobs and where many vividly recall Thatcher's Conservative war against unions, Cameron's pledge to move faster than his rivals to slash public spending has left some traditional Labor voters leaning toward Clegg.
"I do believe that the Conservative Party has changed with Cameron," said Norman Douglas, 63, a retired businessman who attended Cameron's town hall meeting Sunday. "And with the mess this country is in, there is no way I'm voting Labor again. But I'm just not sure the Conservatives have changed enough. It makes you think about Clegg."
The race is now so close that polls indicate no single party may win a majority for the first time since the 1970s. That could result in a fragile minority or coalition government and a paralyzed Parliament, which in heavily indebted Britain could spark a run on the pound or British bonds.
Sensing the front-runner's weakness, Clegg and Brown are painting Cameron's move to the center on social policy as a ploy to win votes. But as Cameron tries to sell voters on a new party image, his own Conservative brethren have proved to be some of his biggest enemies.
His point man on domestic issues, Chris Grayling, was caught during an interview supporting the rights of British bed-and-breakfast owners to bar gay men and lesbians from their establishments. Conservative politician Nicholas Winterton, meanwhile, railed against rules requiring lawmakers to travel in economy class, saying it would force him to associate with "a totally different type of people."
Deeds have also hurt Cameron's pitch of a more moderate party. In the European Parliament, the British Conservatives last year withdrew from a union with the ruling parties of Germany and France, aligning instead with a far-right alliance seen as anti-gay and anti-Semitic.
"I think the evidence is overwhelming that the Conservatives haven't changed, or that the changes are cosmetic, only skin-deep," said Ben Bradshaw, Brown's culture and sports minister, who is openly gay. "I think this is more about their attempts at decontamination, of changing their image as the nasty party. . . . But the problem is, they really are still nasty."
Still, Cameron's policies defy easy political definition. He wants to bring back fox hunting -- the closest thing to a right-to-bear-arms issue in Britain -- but extend a marriage tax break to gay couples. He wants smaller government -- including schools run by private companies -- but is also pledging to levy a "green tax" to help fight global warming.
Cameron, first elected to Parliament nine years ago, has said the Conservatives were wrong to spend so many years attacking the National Health Service (NHS), Britain's costly universal health-care provider. He came to that realization after talking with families of all social classes while his young son, who died last year of a rare illness, spent years in and out of public hospitals.
"My family is so often in the hands of the NHS, and I want them to be safe there," Cameron told his party conference in 2006. "Tony Blair once explained his priority in three words: education, education, education. I can do it in three letters -- NHS."
In that same speech, Cameron made history by becoming the first Conservative leader to broadly support gay rights. Last year, Cameron issued an extraordinary apology for a ban on what the Conservatives during the Thatcher era called the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools. Besides vowing now to include gay couples in his marriage tax breaks, he has pledged to combat homophobia in British schools and professional soccer clubs. The Conservatives kicked a Scottish candidate off their parliamentary ticket this week for calling homosexuality "not normal behavior."
"What he has tried to do is broaden the Conservative appeal rather than fundamentally change it," said Tim Montgomerie, an influential Conservative activist. "There are the things he has done on gay rights, civil liberties and green policy. But conservatives are still a party of euro skeptics, lower taxation and tough immigration. You could say we used to play only some of the instruments in the orchestra when trying to reach voters. But with Cameron, we've got the whole band playing."