COLESHILL, England – David Cameron is fighting for his political life in Britain's election. But it sure doesn't look like it.
For much of the month-long campaign, Cameron has appeared relaxed — even disengaged. Critics say Cameron doesn't seem as hungry to win as Labour rival Ed Miliband.
Yet polls put Cameron's Conservatives and Labour neck-and-neck. Smaller forces from left and right are eroding both parties' support, and neither looks likely to win a majority in Parliament. If Cameron fails to win a second term as prime minister on Thursday, he will almost certainly be dumped as Tory leader.
"The poleax is hanging over his head," said David Seawright, senior lecturer in British politics at the University of Leeds, citing a maxim of Winston Churchill: If a leader is no good, "he must be poleaxed."
Cameron's apparent relaxation fits with the way opponents see the 48-year-old politician: as a privileged smoothie who hates to break a sweat. Cameron values work-life balance, spends as much time as possible with his wife Samantha and three children, and is depicted in the press as the PM who likes to "chillax."
In the final days of the race, Cameron worked hard to combat the impression that he was coasting. He addressed meeting halls and factory floors without jacket or tie, gesticulating emphatically, sleeves rolled up over meaty forearms.
In one speech, he said that talking to risk-taking entrepreneurs "pumps me up" — an echo of Arnold Schwarzenegger that made some listeners cringe. But he carried on emoting, trying to connect to voters with a more passionate pitch.
At a car-parts plant in England's industrial West Midlands, Cameron said Labour's accusation that the Conservatives only care for the rich "has driven me mad." He said his party had been left cleaning up "the most gigantic mess left by the Labour Party."
"It feels like you are the firefighter putting out the fire raging in the building, and the arsonist is standing next to you saying, 'Could you please do it a little bit more quickly?'" he said.
The audience of factory workers and local Conservatives laughed. It was a good line, classic Cameron — funny but possibly a bit insubstantial.Cameron is privileged but personable, charming but elusive. Observers have struggled to discern what he believes in, and what has driven him to the top of British politics.
James Hanning, co-author of the biography "Cameron: Practically a Conservative," said the Tory leader's government has focused on "presiding, not really talking about building a shining city on a hill."
"It's not about the vision thing," Hanning said. "He has never been able to answer the question that has been put to him several times — what is it that gets you bouncing out of bed at six in the morning? What is it you want to achieve as prime minister?"
Cameron has risen from lofty beginnings. The son of a stockbroker, he grew up in an affluent village and attended Eton, the country's most elite boarding school, which counts Princes William and Harry among its alumni.
At Oxford University, he studied politics, philosophy and economics — the go-to degree for aspiring politicians — but was not involved in student politics. He does not like to be reminded of it now, but he was a member of the Bullingdon Club, a rowdy dining-and-drinking society with a reputation for drunken vandalism.
After graduating, Cameron began work as a researcher for the Conservatives and rose quickly through the party, with a spell in PR for TV company Carlton Communications.
Cameron's privileged life has been touched by tragedy. His eldest son Ivan was born severely disabled and died in 2009 at the age of 6.
Cameron was elected to Parliament in 2001 and chosen as party leader in 2005, when the Conservatives had lost three successive elections to Tony Blair's Labour. There were many parallels between the two leaders. Both were young, attractive modernizers, pragmatic rather than ideological, with an emotional intelligence that appealed to voters. No wonder Cameron was branded the "heir to Blair."
In his first years as leader, he articulated a type of compassionate Conservatism. He used one early speech to argue that teenage miscreants needed understanding as well as punishment — a policy dubbed by the press "hug a hoodie." He posed with sled dogs in the Arctic to tout green policies ("hug a husky") and described his vision of a "Big Society" built on neighborliness and volunteering.
His government legalized same-sex marriage, despite the opposition of Tory traditionalists, and Cameron has spoken of his pride at the achievement. His administration also slashed public spending to curb a deficit swollen by the 2008 banking crisis, and cut welfare benefits to some of the country's poorest people.
"He means well," Hanning said. "It's not a burning fire-in-the-belly belief, but essentially I think he is decent. But he is in charge of a Conservative Party which is still, to many people, pretty toxic and pretty nasty."
Many on the right wing of the Conservative Party mistrust Cameron's social liberalism, and consider him tainted by his failure to win the 2010 election outright against unpopular Labour leader Gordon Brown. Cameron had to put together a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in order to govern.
The rise of the anti-immigrant U.K. Independence Party has emboldened Conservative traditionalists, and pushed Cameron to the right. He has promised a referendum on leaving the European Union if he is re-elected.
Cameron's re-election pitch is based primarily on the recovering British economy. Unemployment is falling, GDP is growing modestly and interest rates are low.
Cameron is banking that voters will back the Conservatives for financial security. His campaign message is: Trust me.
"We stick with the team that is turning the country around," he told staff at the Sertec auto-parts factory in Coleshill, which he held up as a symbol of British manufacturing success. "Or we put it all at risk with a party and a leader that would take us back to square one."
Some in the audience liked the messenger but were skeptical of the message.
"It was powerful, but who do you really trust?" said Jasvinder Singh, who works in logistics at the firm. "Both (parties) promise you everything, but when they come into power the promises aren't there half the time."
If Cameron's argument works, he will remain in 10 Downing St — although he has said he won't seek a third term.
If it doesn't work, Hanning said, he'll go down in history "as the man who couldn't beat Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband. That's pretty bad."
But Hanning said Cameron would likely emerge with his ego intact.
"I think privately he thinks, 'I've got there. I've become prime minister, which I wanted to do. I can hand over to someone else.' I think he thinks: 'I've done my bit.'"
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