Britain's New Tories: More women, more minorities _ and maybe _ more troublemakers?

PENRITH, England (AP) — There's a feisty chick lit author, the Muslim son of a bus driver and a swashbuckling ex-diplomat who braved the Taliban to hike across Afghanistan alone.

Conservative Party leader David Cameron 's crop of new candidates are a group of young, multiethnic professionals who he hopes can shed the Tories' image as a "nasty party" stuffed with rich, aging white men from privileged backgrounds.

The aspiring legislators vow to stir up Britain's sometimes staid politics, and perhaps unsettle their leadership — with hard-line views on Europe, immigration and climate change that often don't stack up with Cameron's message of a more compassionate, greener conservatism.

Their views may be on the verge of becoming a lot more important: After Cameron's strong performance in the last debate of the campaign, it looks increasingly likely his Conservatives can capture power for the first time in 13 years.

Many of the new Tories cite right-wing icon Margaret Thatcher as their inspiration, which may spell trouble ahead for the 43-year-old Cameron, intent of pushing a reformist agenda if he wins power.

The candidates include Louise Bagshawe, an opinionated 38-year-old author of books aimed at young women, and Phillipa Stroud, a respected activist against urban poverty. Both are favored to be fast-tracked into a future Cameron government.

So, too, are Kwasi Kwarteng, a 34-year-old former investment analyst born to Ghanian parents, and 40-year-old businessman Sajid Javid, whose family emigrated to Britain from Pakistan and who's likely to become his party's first Muslim lawmaker in the House of Commons.

"They are not carbon replica copies of traditional Conservative candidates," said Tim Montgomerie, founder of ConservativeHome — a grassroots Web site — and a former party aide.

Cameron's efforts to overhaul his party have been aided, rather than set back, by a scandal last summer over lawmakers' outrageous expense claims. The furor caught Tory stalwarts attempting to bill the public for an ornamental duck house and work to clean the moat around a plush country estate.

It focused attention on the Conservatives' elitism, but has helped clear Cameron's ranks for new blood.

Parliament's largest upheaval since World War II — as about 150 lawmakers quit and with dozens more likely to be ousted — will see more women and more minority legislators sit on the green leather benches of the House of Commons.

But one candidate who promises a new approach, and may eventually lead the new Conservative generation, appears cast in a decidedly traditional mold.

Rory Stewart, a 37-year-old Harvard professor of human rights policy, was — like Cameron — educated at the proudly exclusive Eton College, and boasts a resume that would be the envy of some world leaders.

A former diplomat, army officer and tutor to Princes William and Harry, Stewart was a deputy governor in southern Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, founded a charity in Afghanistan and has made the New York Times bestseller's list with a book about his hike.

He's already regarded as a possible successor to Cameron, even though he only joined the Conservative Party last summer.

Yet, only last year, Stewart thought a political career was out of reach.

"Before the expenses scandal all the seats were lined up for the election," Stewart told The Associated Press during a tour of the vast, rural northern England district he hopes to represent in Parliament. "So basically it was too late, I'd left it too late in life."

He benefited from Cameron's decision to call for people from all walks of life to replace disgraced politicians, made in response to an erosion of public trust in politics and in hopes it would accelerate attempts to remold his party in the image of modern Britain.

But even if the Tories win the 326 House of Commons seats needed for an outright majority in Britain's May 6 election, Cameron's party won't yet be truly transformed. Only about 60 Conservative legislators will be women, up from 17 now, and there will likely be 14 lawmakers who are black or from an ethnic minority, up from a current figure of two.

The incumbent Labour Party is fielding about 44 ethnic minority candidates, and has long had more female lawmakers than the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats have no ethnic minority candidates, but a number of female legislators.

Though some have modest backgrounds, many of Cameron's new school were educated at his old school, Eton, or the country's elite universities.

And a poll by ConservativeHome of about 150 new candidates found many hold traditional views. About two-thirds reject Cameron's emphasis on tackling climate change, and just 4 percent back his plan to allow the international aid budget to escape spending cuts. About one-third said they didn't agree that gay couples should have the same rights as married heterosexuals.

"The truth is that there are lots of policies they share with Cameron," Montgomerie said. "But there are tensions ahead on climate change."

Stewart has also delivered an uncomfortable message for Cameron, questioning U.K. and U.S. wisdom on the Afghan war, with a call for NATO to sharply reduce troop numbers.

"We've got some responsibilities, some obligations, some interests in Afghanistan, but they're not huge and they're not worth plunging 100,000 troops in to," said Stewart, who has held talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Gen. Stanley McCrystal and Gen. David Petraeus. His views are in sharp contrast to Cameron.

Kwarteng, campaigning for a seat just outside London, acknowledged that the public now want lawmakers who'll stand up to party leaders. "They want them to be local champions, rather than instruments of the leadership," he said.

In the pretty village of Hesket Newmarket, close to England's border with Scotland, Arthur Walby, 56, tells Stewart he won't vote Conservative, but sums up the public fury. "I'd like to see a hung Parliament, especially the Labour Party — hung from every bridge in London until they rot," Walby said.

Stewart, who supported Brown's Labour in his youth, hopes it means the public will allow their representatives to shake off the shackles of slick party machines, and express their personal — if sometimes contentious — views.

"In Britain, there is more tolerance for people speaking out of turn, getting in trouble, creating headlines and scandals, but still somehow giving a sense of authenticity," he said.

Stewart also, if a little coyly, acknowledges there's a chance he could one day lead the Conservatives — and Britain.

"I'd much rather be an effective, respected, serious member of Parliament, than I would a kind of prime minister who was seen as an apparatchik," Stewart said.

"There's not much point in being prime minister for the sake of being prime minister, but I think this is a very interesting opportunity to see if it's possible to take the risk — because I think it is a huge risk — to try to be a little bit more honest and explicit."


On the Net: