Exclusive: Away from Domestic Pressures, British P.M. Cameron Chillaxes with TIME

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Elizabeth D. Herman for TIME

Catherine Mayer, TIME's Europe editor, and David Cameron speak during an interview in the TIME-LIFE building in New York on May 15, 2013.

David Cameron has a reputation for taking things easy. He plays games on his iPad; he revels in family life; an anonymous friend told his biographers Francis Elliott and James Hanning that “if there was an Olympic gold medal for chillaxing, he would win it.” If any chillaxing time was scheduled into his four-night, three-city tour to the U.S. last week, it was mostly on the executive jet that ferried Britain’s Prime Minister and an assortment of advisers and journalists—including TIME—across the Atlantic and from destination to destination.

In Washington, on May 13, he met with President Obama to discuss a range of issues including the G8 summit, which Britain hosts next month, and to relay soundings after a quick dash to Russia two days earlier to discuss Syria with President Putin. In Boston, Cameron met Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and toured the makeshift memorial to the Marathon bombing victims in Copley Square. In New York, at an event to promote Britain, he exited a red double-decker London bus with Prince Harry, to screams from the crowd.

(TIME: Read Catherine Mayer’s International Cover Story on David Cameron, Available to Subscribers Here)

He’s used to being screamed at, if not so appreciatively, in the House of Commons and by his own Conservative colleagues. Since 2010, Cameron has headed a coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Many Tories suspect he feels rather too comfortable in company with the Lib Dems and are outraged by his backing for gay marriage. On the left he is seen as a rightwing ideologue in liberal camouflage. During a visit to TIME’s New York offices editors asked him about these conflicting perceptions. “If you take both these criticisms and work out they can’t [both] be right, you end up with a very sensible, practical, hard-headed, proud Brit who does the best for his country,” he said.

The profile of Cameron in the new issue of TIME is based on that conversation, observations from within his traveling party and over seven years and six exclusive interviews Cameron has given the magazine since he became leader of the Conservative party in 2005. TIME has charted his emergence as the Conservatives’ brightest hope, through the early days of coalition, to this, the most challenging phase of his leadership. Sections of his party are in open rebellion, over single-sex marriage, and on the question of Europe.

(MORE: David Cameron and the hacking scandal)

The article explains how the internal politics of the British Conservative party have somehow become a matter of global importance that could lead to the U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union and to fundamental change within the E.U. Inevitably, much of the discussion with TIME editors focused on Europe—why he has promised a referendum that threatens to take Britain out of the E.U. and is now staking political capital on staying in the E.U.

(MORE: When Harry met David in New York)

But the conversation ranged across other topics too, from the Special Relationship (“I’m a huge admirer and respecter of the U.S.; you have many more opportunities than problems and I’ve no doubt that you’ll crack them”) to his coalition (“It helped to garner support for tough decisions”) to banking regulation (“Far from joining the sort of ‘let’s bash banks and financial services’, we want to get out there and say ‘[London] is still a great city to invest in’”). He talked further about inward investment and how “open and welcome” Britain is to foreign investors:

I said to the Chinese Investment Corporation the other day, ‘I’m not embarrassed that you own 10% of our biggest water company, or a big chunk of Heathrow airport.  I’m proud.  I think it’s absolutely great.  We want to be the destination for Chinese investment; tell the other Chinese investors, “Come to London; spend your money.”’  Of course if ever there were national security concerns, there are ways to raise those.

Of Jaguar Land Rover’s ownership by the Indian Tata Group, Cameron added:

Far from being embarrassed by that, I say personally to [Tata Group emeritus chairman] Ratan Tata, ‘Every time you come to London, feel free to come through the door of Downing Street, come and have a cup of tea with me and let’s talk about the British economy and how you can expand into even more of it. Because, frankly, you’re investing in our steel mills; you’re building our motorcars; you bought Tetley Tea: great. I couldn’t be more happy.’

On May 15, Cameron embarked for Britain and harsher realities than tea with visiting entrepreneurs. During his absence, more than a third of Conservative parliamentarians refused to back his government’s legislative plans in protest at their failure to enshrine his promise of an in-out referendum on Britain’s E.U. membership. On his charter jet, owned by a Greek company and operated by a Greek crew, heading towards turbulence, he looked cheerful and, frankly, chillaxed. There’s talk of ousters, and his opinion poll ratings are sliding. But as this week’s article explains, he’s already secured a legacy.

Click here to read Catherine Mayer’s in-depth TIME International cover story on British Prime Minister David Cameron, available exclusively for TIME subscribers.

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MORE: Cameron with TIME, ahead of an earlier U.S. visit

MORE: Cameron to China, India: We’re Open for Business