Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- British Prime Minister David Cameron has emerged as the most admirable of anomalies: the budget-cutter as leader of conscience.

If relocated to America, Cameron's program of austerity would make him an unrivaled tea party darling. What serious American has made detailed proposals to cut spending in each government department by an average of nearly 20 percent during the next four years? Who would choose to simultaneously slash government jobs, social services and military spending?

The extremity of Britain's fiscal crisis, of course, left few alternatives to budget-cutting ambition. Yet, many British politicians have opted for less-responsible approaches. Cameron campaigned, won and generally has governed on a platform of fiscal discipline.

Still, Cameronism is defined not only by austerity but by a few notable exceptions to austerity. The prime minister has protected some categories of spending from reductions, erecting what's called a "ring-fence" around health programs and foreign assistance.

Later this month, Cameron and Bill Gates will host a conference in London to encourage contributions to GAVI -- the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization. Britain will expand its commitment, and the country's development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, has been twisting arms to convince other governments to do the same. The increase that Cameron and Gates propose would vaccinate about 250 million children over the next four years, saving at least 4 million lives.

When I caught up with Mitchell by phone, he was visiting a GAVI immunization center outside Islamabad, Pakistan. "For the price of a Starbucks cup of coffee," he said, "you can vaccinate nine kids. It is absolutely awesome." Asked about opposition to foreign assistance increases while other spending is cut, he mirrors words used by Cameron: "We're not going to balance the books on the backs of the poorest people in the world. Charity begins at home, but it does not end there." Reflecting on 25 years as a Conservative member of Parliament, he says of Cameron's commitment: "I've never been so proud of anything."

Cameron is equally passionate. At a recent news conference, he bristled at criticism of aid spending. "Of course it is difficult when we're having to make difficult decisions at home. But I think that 0.7 percent of our gross national income, I don't believe that is too high a price to pay for trying to save lives."

This effort to expand vaccine coverage is important in itself. It also provides broader lessons for American politics.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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