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The Tory with a heart

I sympathize with people who see signs and portents strongly suggesting that the End of the World is at hand. I mean, Al Gore has become a movie star; Hillary Clinton is buddies with Rupert Murdoch; the Who (well, the two still breathing) appeared live at Leeds again. And now the head of the British Conservative Party is going around talking about help for poor children, fairer taxes, and saving the planet.

Is it ice dancing season in hell?

David Cameron, the new leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition (as the Conservatives are formally known in Parliament) has become a youthquake sensation: indeed, just the sort of youthquake sensation Tony Blair was in 1997 when the Labor Party came to power after nearly two decades. Cameron is not yet 40 and has telegenic teeth and good hair. He's a New Man, too: He shares household chores with his wife, Samantha, creative director of the posh stationery firm Smythson's, and has described being present at the birth of his three children as the most significant moments of his life. He rides a bike to the House of Commons every day. "I like to be green," he says.

Green? Whatever happened to True Blue? Margaret Thatcher would be spinning in her grave (except she's still alive). I lived in Britain from 1980 to 1990. Back then the only green the Tories cared about were, 1. Money; and 2. The fields they rode over while fox hunting. Clearly, this is not your father's Tory Party. Nor is it Thatcher's party, not any more. She ruled like an unholy hybrid of Jeb Bush and Gordon Gekko, consolidating power in her office, decreeing that the welfare state was to be starved and the unions broken.

Cameron, trying on the mantle of "compassionate conservative" (George W. Bush take note), has distanced himself mightily from the Iron Lady and her acolytes. The aversion is mutual. Recently, he appeared on a BBC talk show and laughed off questions of whether he'd ever harbored schoolboy erotic fantasies about Mrs. T.: "in stockings, perhaps," said host Jonathan Ross. Wilderness-dwelling Thatcherite loyalists didn't merely attack the BBC as "obscene" - they do that a couple of times a day - but turned on Cameron. Lord Tebbit, who refers to the erstwhile Tory leader as "the Blessed Margaret," thundered that Cameron had made an "awful mistake" by appearing on the program. Yet Cameron is as much a child of Thatcher as any British politico under 55. He was at Oxford when she was at the height of her premiership (and during the time when the university refused an honorary degree to its most famous daughter); he studied politics and economics and would have been framing his conservative philosophy partly in opposition to hers.

Full disclosure: In the 1980s, David Cameron and I were at the same Oxford college, Brasenose. I was a graduate student when he was an undergraduate. I knew him very slightly - we were sometimes at the same parties. An Old Etonian, he belonged to the Bullingdon, a sporty, upper middle-class university dining society (think Skull and Bones) as well as the Phoenix Common Room, a Brasenose outfit which had, in the 18th century, been called the Hellfire Club. Alas, I have nothing scandalous to report. Unless it's scandalous that a 21st century Tory can be to the left of a 21st century Labor Prime Minister.

If Cameron is obviously and emphatically not a Thatcherite, to what extent is he a Blairite? Both Cameron and Tony Blair came from relatively privileged backgrounds (private school, Oxford), both got into politics young, and both keep trying to lose the baggage their parties still drag around with them. For Blair and Labor, it's the heritage of socialism, trade unionism and a dysfunctional command economy in the 1970s. For Cameron, it's the legacy of 1980s conservatism: xenophobic, jingoistic, intolerant and corrupt. There's some topsy-turvy thing going on, though: Just about every speech Cameron gives, on global warming, social justice, the poor, the plight of the inner cities, or whatever, could have been given by Blair - or at least Blair in his first, fresh term.

In 1997, when Labor won its historic landslide, pundits said that Blair had incorporated Thatcher's talent for creating a strong economy with a right-on commitment to social welfare: the National Health Service, public transportation, etc. But what had brought the Conservatives down was the spectacular sleaze in which they were mired: ministers with multiple mistresses, illegitimate children, and dodgy financial deals.

Now in 2006, the deputy prime minister has lost most of his portfolio over an affair with his secretary, and it has been alleged that the Labor Party traded peerages for campaign contributions. As if that weren't enough, the prime minister's approval ratings are about the same as George W. Bush's, his policies are in tatters, yet he won't hand the job over to Gordon Brown, his designated successor, because they loathe each other.

As the philosopher John Lennon said, strange days indeed. The next British general election is at least three years off: eons in politics. I wonder what Blair will do: try to make himself look as monumental as Margaret Thatcher, or try to keep the despised Brown from power and so fracturing the Labor Party that he'll effectively cede the nation to Cameron, a man who often looks like his cooler little brother?

At Cameron's first question time as Tory leader, he faced Prime Minister Blair across the dispatch box. "You were the future once," he said.

Diane Roberts, a former Times editorial writer, is the author of Dream State, a book about Florida.

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