David Cameron: Tory leader within grasp of power

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The sun shone on David Cameron as he cast his ballot in Britain's election Thursday, a vote that may well make him prime minister -- although without the parliamentary majority he covets.

The Conservative leader saw his double-digit lead over Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labour party shrink ahead of the campaign, but final opinion polls showed the Tories clearly on course to become the biggest party.

Although he is expected to fall short of the seats needed to control the House of Commons, making an alliance with smaller parties likely, he will have fulfilled his promise to bring the Tories out of 13 years of opposition.

Newspapers -- the majority of whom back Cameron -- painted the 43-year-old as a fresh start for recession-hit Britain, with The Sun comparing him to US President Barack Obama in a headline Thursday reading: "Our only hope."

It has been a rocky ride. Battling a dwindling poll lead, Cameron's performance in the first ever televised leaders' debates failed to provide the expected boost after being overshadowed by Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg.

Clegg stole the show for much of the campaign, seizing the Tories' message of change after a scandal over lawmakers' expenses and a deep recession.

But recent surveys suggest Cameron has pulled ahead once again, with the Lib Dems dropping back into third place, a vindication for the Tory leader who has sought to modernise his party since taking over five years ago.

Cameron was educated at Eton, Princes William and Harry's old school, and Oxford University, where he was a member of rowdy student dining society the Bullingdon Club alongside Boris Johnson, now mayor of London.

His background has led to accusations he is too privileged to understand ordinary voters' problems, and the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror pointedly put a photo of Cameron in tails and a bow tie on its front cover Thursday.

He earned a top degree and after graduation got a job with the Conservative Party, where he rose to become an adviser to finance minister Norman Lamont.

Cameron was by Lamont's side when he announced Britain was leaving the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on "Black Wednesday" in 1992, one of the most damaging moments in recent Conservative history.

He left politics to spend seven years working as communications chief for leading media company Carlton but in 2001 won the safe parliamentary seat of Witney, near Oxford in southern England.

Cameron swiftly rose to the top and became party leader in 2005 after the Tories' third straight election defeat since 1997 by Tony Blair.

His first task as leader was to "detoxify" what one Tory frontbencher once labelled the "nasty party", known for its strong views on issues such as immigration control and seen as unwelcoming to women and ethnic minorities.

Despite resistance from the old guard, Cameron was determined to make the Tories more centrist and populist, coining the phrase "compassionate Conservatism" to describe his outlook.

His emphasis on environmentalism -- he even visited a Norwegian glacier and posed with husky dogs in 2006 -- and fixing social problems in what he called "broken Britain" were among the clear breaks with the past.

He also managed to smooth over historic Tory splits on Europe -- a running sore since Margaret Thatcher's time -- notably by pulling out of the main centre-right group in the European Parliament and allying with fringe parties.

Although this decision caused consternation in Europe, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said this week he believed Cameron will be forced to abandon his euroscepticism if elected.

Cameron has also used his own family to show voters the party has changed. He was joined by his glamorous wife Samantha on the campaign trail and regularly talks about his disabled son Ivan, who died last year aged six.

The boy's cerebral palsy and severe epilepsy shaped his support for the state-run National Health Service (NHS), which Cameron has vowed to protect from the spending cuts he says are needed to slash Britain's record deficit.

© 2010 AFP

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