Accused of fighting a lackluster election campaign, British Prime Minister David Cameron has turned up the passion in its dying days but risks having left it too late to convince voters.
Opinion polls suggest Cameron’s center-right Conservatives may not have done enough to stay in power on May 7, potentially putting him out of a job at the age of 48. That would be a rare failure in the life of a man whose privileged background has led to accusations from critics that he cannot identify with the lives of most Britons.
Going into the campaign, it looked like Eton and Oxford-educated Cameron held most of the trump cards. His coalition government, which took power in 2010, led Britain out of a double-dip recession and the Conservatives built their campaign around their “long-term economic plan” for recovery. He was also facing an opponent, Labour’s Ed Miliband, whose geeky image had failed to connect with voters.
But as the polls remained stubbornly at level pegging, criticism grew that the Conservatives were fighting a sterile, safety first campaign, while Miliband showed a new self-assurance on the stump. In the final days, Cameron has literally rolled up his sleeves for a series of apparently unscripted, high-energy speeches, vowing to “work the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life” for victory.
“Let’s not write the prime minister off just yet. Cameron has, in the past, been able to turn it on for the big occasion, and might still be able to do it again,” Tim Bale, politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, wrote this week.
The son of a stockbroker, Cameron was educated at Eton, the school later attended by Princes William and Harry, and Oxford University, where he was admitted to the Bullingdon Club, a hard-drinking, socially exclusive student group. After university, Cameron worked for the Conservatives as an adviser before a stint in public relations, which ended when he was elected to parliament in 2001.
Cameron rose swiftly in the Conservatives—then struggling badly against Tony Blair’s Labour government—and was elected leader against the odds in 2005. After winning the leadership at the age of 39, he tried to “detoxify” the party brand by avoiding traditional rightwing issues like immigration and stressing a more liberal agenda. He posed with husky dogs at the North Pole to highlight his green credentials, while his respect for public services was underlined by the care his disabled son Ivan received from the state-run National Health Service (NHS).
Ivan, who had cerebral palsy and severe epilepsy, died aged six in 2009. Cameron is married to Samantha, a design executive, and the couple has three surviving children.
At the 2010 general election, Cameron became Britain’s youngest prime minister in 200 years but the Conservatives did not win enough seats to govern alone. Instead, they had to team up with the centrist Liberal Democrats for Britain’s first coalition government since World War II.
At home, the coalition has been defined by unpopular spending cuts, while foreign policy was dominated by wrangling over Britain’s role in the E.U. Abroad, following long military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, Britain played a smaller role on the world stage under Cameron.
Cameron is often accused of being an “essay crisis” leader—one who leaves it to the last minute to tackle problems, like a student staying up all night to finish a piece of work on time. His career is dotted with examples of him snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, most recently when he offered the Scottish Parliament extra powers to fend off a “Yes” vote in the independence referendum.
But even if he does make this trick work one more time by keeping his job after May 7, the clock is already ticking on his career. Cameron said during the campaign that he would not carry on as prime minister beyond 2020 and identified several possible successors. These included the charismatic London Mayor Boris Johnson, ironically a contemporary of Cameron at Eton and Oxford, who some Conservative M.P.s hope will appeal to more voters.