If there's one thing the British people can't complain about now that the outcome of the May 6 general election has finally been decided, it's that they didn't get a good deal. After all, they demanded a new prime minister, and got exactly what they wanted — plus another one thrown in for free.
Britain's first twofer government since Winston Churchill formed his World War II coalition in 1940 is certainly an extraordinary spectacle to behold, especially when you consider that the not-quite-majority-enough Conservative Party, led by the royal-blooded David Cameron, has been forced to join forces with the diametrically opposed Liberal Democrats, led by Nick Clegg. This is a union with all the natural synergy of, say, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Richard Simmons. Or a Nancy Pelosi-Mitch McConnell presidential ticket in 2012.
Expectations aren't high for this "Dave New World" (as the Sun newspaper christened it), in spite of the "new politics" spin being put on the situation by the British media and the participants themselves.
But how did the British people land themselves in this astonishing muddle? And what can America learn from it, given that the unexpected rise of the once unelectable "Lib Dems" — descended from elements of the Whig Party in 1868 — has in some ways mirrored the surge in popularity of the "tea party" movement on these shores?
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The answers to both these questions almost certainly lie with Cameron, the more senior of the two new prime ministers (Clegg has the same title, but prefaced, for the time being, by "deputy"). I had more than a few dealings with Cameron when I was a business correspondent for the Times of London and Cameron was working as chief PR man for one of Britain's largest film and television companies.
That's right: PR man. It's enough to make Barack Obama's former job as a community organizer look weighty. Cameron's job of schmoozing young reporters was his way of gaining some "real world" experience after a privileged schooling at Eton and Oxford University. He later worked in the research department of the then-ruling Conservative Party, where he briefed John Major and advised Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont.
I've always found Cameron to be an intelligent and likable politician. Yet Cameron's lack of substance is indisputable. Even his age — he's just 43 — makes him the youngest prime minister since 1812. That's why, in spite of a massive early lead in the polls, the voters ultimately balked at the Old Etonian and left his party agonizingly short of a workable majority. They didn't trust his way of answering questions as though he were composing a press release, and they didn't have any record from which to gain reassurance. The same — times a thousand — goes for Clegg, who shot from nowhere to become the star of Britain's first-ever televised election debates. But he failed to translate his celebrity into a surge at the ballot box (a relief, perhaps, given that the Lib Dems' policies have always been drafted with the luxury of never having to be enacted).
The current drama in Westminster is about more than just the survival of this strange coalition of the unelectable. It's about the fact that if politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are to continue becoming younger and less experienced with every election, voters will be increasingly unwilling to trust them with any real power. All we can do now is hope that the two infants in charge in Britain don't hurt themselves, or anyone else, while learning to walk.