Two years after the Conservatives surged to a 20 percentage point lead over Gordon Brown's sputtering Labour government in the British polls
, 43-year-old Tory leader David Cameron finally became prime minister. But instead of an easy glide path to power, Cameron had to wait an agonizing five days after the inconclusive May 6 election
before he could make the symbolic pilgrimage to Buckingham Palace on Tuesday night to formally accept Queen Elizabeth's invitation to form a new coalition government.
Nearly 30 million British voters went to the polls in an election that left the Conservatives just 20 seats shy of a parliamentary majority. But ultimately it was just one voter -- the youthful Nick Clegg, the leader of the third-party Liberal Democrats -- who selected Cameron as prime minister in a coalition government. As part of the two-party agreement, unprecedented in post-war history, Clegg will serve as deputy prime minister.
Even though the earnest and historically ineffectual Lib Dems are a left-of-center party, Clegg, reveling in his sudden balance-of-power role, preferred from the outset to negotiate with Cameron and the Conservatives. Part of the public explanation for Clegg's preference was that the Tories had won 48 more seats than Labour. Last-minute parallel talks between Labour and the Lib Dems foundered over the problem of what to do with the discredited Brown, who ultimately offered to resign in favor of a new party leader after a three-month interval.
So Britain has its first seemingly solid coalition government (the Conservatives and the Lib Dems together hold a 37-seat majority) since Winston Churchill took over as prime minister during the darkest days of World War II. And it was Churchill, incidentally, serving in his second go-around at 10 Downing Street, who became the first prime minister of Queen Elizabeth's 57-year reign. Cameron, who was first elected to Parliament in 2001, is now the 12th.
Just as the British campaign adopted an American accent with the first national TV debates (which Clegg won) in British electoral history, the telegenic Cameron echoed American presidents in his first speech in front of the prime minister's residence. Channeling Barack Obama (who telephoned later in the evening to offer congratulations), Cameron invoked the mantra of "real change." But there was also the ghost of John Kennedy as Cameron spoke about building a society "where we don't ask what are my entitlements, but what are my responsibilities, one where we don't ask what am I just owed but what more can I give."
Like Presidents Kennedy and Obama, Cameron (and Clegg, for that matter) embodies a generational shift in national politics. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (who served as chancellor of the Exchequer) personified the new Labour Party, shorn of its union-dominated left-wing rigidity, when they took office in 1997. Now there is a burnt-out quality to the 59-year-old Brown, who said about his time in office after submitting his resignation to the queen, "I have been privileged to learn much about the very best in human nature, and a fair amount too about its frailties, including my own."
In his quest to become prime minister, Cameron softened the hard-edged conservatism associated with Margaret Thatcher and re-created the Tories as a far more moderate party than the Republicans on this side of the Atlantic. In his victory address outside 10 Downing Street, Cameron uttered a sentence that was the antithesis of Thatcherism: "I want to make sure that my government always looks after the elderly, the frail, the poorest in our country." The coalition with the Lib Dems will push the Conservatives further to the center as Cameron already has agreed to abandon his party's plans to slash the inheritance tax and has endorsed Clegg's proposal to lessen the tax burden on low-income families.
Before Blair, most British political leaders were reluctant to expose too many details of their personal lives -- and despite political efforts to humanize him, the dour Brown mostly fit that old-fashioned pattern. But Cameron transcended his elite upbringing (Eton and Oxford) through public suffering from the death last year of his 6-year-old son, Ivan, who suffered from cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Samantha Cameron, who accompanied her husband to Buckingham Palace to become prime minister, is visibly pregnant with the family's fourth child, who is due in September.
The precise details of the power-sharing arrangement between the Tories and the Lib Dems had only begun to trickle out by midnight London time. An American-style innovation appears to be that the new government will announce a fixed term for Parliament, abandoning a prime minister's traditional power to call a new election on short notice.
Despite widespread expectations that any government that emerged from the hung Parliament after last Thursday's election would be short-lived, the Cameron-Clegg accord schedules the next British general election for (set your timers) May 7, 2015.
The Liberal Democrats have long been fierce proponents of electoral reform because they have consistently won far fewer seats in Parliament than their share of the popular vote. This time around, the Lib Dems were supported by 23 percent of the electorate but won only 9 percent of the parliamentary seats. As a result, part of the agreement with the Tories includes the promise of a national referendum on the Alternative Vote
. This intriguing notion, which has supporters in the United States, would allow voters to designate their second-choice candidates and these selections would be factored in if no candidate won a majority with first-choice votes.
Ultimately what matters most is that -- after the most indecisive election in three decades -- Britain has somehow once again muddled through to create a stable government amid the political and economic chaos. With Britain facing a crippling budget crisis and the pound taking a battering, the new prime minister and deputy prime minister will offer a crash course in what a centrist government can achieve in difficult times.
The Cameron-Clegg accord may have created the most intriguing shotgun political marriage in years.