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Could David Cameron Be The British Obama?

A few days before Christmas last year, I penned a piece for Jewcy outlining the similarities between the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, and the new British PM, Gordon Brown. The analysis was sound enough, but I trust you didn't put any money on the outcome. Hillary is dead and now merely awaiting burial, and Brown — well, more on him in a moment. The focus has now shifted squarely onto the men who will lead the opposition into the next elections, Barack Obama and the British Tories' David Cameron.

Despite the real difficulty in reading across from one political system to another, commentators can't resist looking across the Atlantic and trying to divine trends that might be replicated in their own backyards. Making comparisons is usually a mugs game but, watching the progress of the two young pretenders, it's hard to avoid the similarities between them. (And keep in mind, despite the notions that the Democrats are the "left" party and Conservatives the "right" party in their respective countries, that the Tories are well to the left of the Democrats on a range of issues.) Young, charismatic and photogenic, both have turned their relative inexperience — Cameron only entered the House of Commons in 2001 — into positive strengths by running as outsiders against the system, a common trick in the US, where "I'll go and clean up Washington politics" is a cry as old as the hills, but more innovative over here. (David Cameron, in his own small way, is fighting against prejudice, too; doubts persist as to whether 21st century Britain is really ready to elect a true upper-class toff as Prime Minister.)

In this regard, moreover, they have been fortunate in their enemies. After the best part of a decade as sidekicks to the men in the top jobs, both Hillary and Gordon have found it expedient to play up their experience when it suits them, and claim to have been mowing the lawn when it doesn't. So Brown built Britain's economic success, not Blair, but was careful to distance himself from the Iraq war; Hillary played a vital but unsung role in the Northern Ireland peace process, but behind the scenes she was fighting NAFTA tooth and nail, and so on. This is a fine balancing act, but the message has been spelled out time and again with shattering unsubtlety: We've been round the block more times than we care to remember, but our experience could make the difference in a time of economic crisis or national security emergency. These guys, by contrast, are just empty suits.

Both, however, have found the electorate less gullible than they had imagined. "The experience to deliver change" may have sounded cute in a strategy meeting, but voters have a reasonably cultivated nose for bullshit and saw right through it. Obama put it best when he said that "there are some in this race who actually make the argument that the more time you spend immersed in the broken politics of Washington, the more likely you are to change it. I always find this a little amusing." Cameron, too, talks incessantly of "broken politics", and of rebuilding the trust between government and governed.

Again, these are hardly the most original of tropes, but both Cameron and Obama find it much easier to talk this sort of language than their opponents, not just because they are untainted by the failures of previous generations of politicians to change the way politics works, but because they are naturals in a way that Tony and Bill were before them and that Gordon and Hillary clearly are not. Trying to attack them for lacking substance, as their enemies constantly do, is almost to miss the point. The same charge was levelled at Clinton I, Blair, Reagan and Kennedy. But all of those men had the force of personality to shape the political narrative around them and, crucially, all were running against opponents who were selling experience at a time when voters actually wanted to buy change. So when Conservative critics try to belittle David Cameron by scoffing that he is merely Tony Blair mark two, Labour fear that he might be exactly that.

Some Labour politicians are beginning to come to the view that the only way to defeat Cameron's Conservatives is to ditch the current incumbent and pick a new face unsullied by association with the past. Republicans have gone down a different route, but while their guy is hardly fresh, neither is he a standard establishment figure who represents business as usual. Whether Barack Obama's somewhat woolly charm will work against an unpredictable figure like McCain is anyone's guess, particularly given both candidates' appeal among independents. This time I'm making no predictions and keeping my money in my pocket.

Political analysts like to talk about "change elections"; 1980 and 1992 in the US, 1979 and 1997 in Britain. Both November 2008 and our own British election, whenever it comes, will be "change elections," all right. But in reality, every election is a balance between those who want change and those who do not; the laws of political entropy dictate that eventually the former will outweigh the latter. It is the joint misfortune of Hillary Clinton and Gordon Brown to be cast as establishment candidates in a time when anti-establishment feeling is running high, and that's why he will probably join her on the scrapheap before too long.

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