Visiting British conservatives

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Yesterday evening at the Heritage Foundation I had the opportunity to meet with three visiting British Conservative M.P.'s. They're all frontbenchers: William Hague is shadow foreign secretary, George Osborne is shadow chancellor of the exchequer, and Liam Fox is shadow defense minister.

All are relatively young: Hague and Fox are 45, Osborne, 35. David Cameron, the party leader, who is only 39, was not there; he is on paternity leave. They have evidently been having a successful trip here. They saw Karl Rove in the morning and Sens. John McCain and John Warner in the afternoon; they're seeing Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England today (Donald Rumsfeld is out of town).

Their reception is quite a contrast with the experience of the previous Tory leader, Michael Howard. In 2004 he planned a trip to Washington but canceled it when the White House refused to promise him a meeting with George W. Bush. He was told that Bush might stop by when he was visiting others in the West Wing, but Howard wanted a promise of a meeting. Or at least this was the story as I pieced it together at the time in Washington and London. Bush was obviously not eager to upstage his ally Tony Blair in the run-up to the May 2005 British election, and I think Howard was unwise in canceling. Now, with Blair promising to retire before the next general election, which is universally expected for May 2009, the Bush administration is giving a warmer reception to Her Majesty's Opposition—even though they're almost certain not to come to power until after Bush's term is over, and it is by no means certain that they will even then.

Yet they seem pretty sure they will. I've written about Cameron's successful debut as party leader, and Conservatives now seem to be about even with Labor in the polls, while the Liberal Democrats, involved in a messy leadership fight, seem to be losing ground, mostly to Conservatives. On one issue, though, the Conservative leaders are very much with the Labor government. They argue that the Pentagon is treating Britain as a "supplicant" by not making available all the technology on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which Britain has agreed to buy. Fox and the others are lobbying pretty aggressively for the British government position. Otherwise, the theme they struck is the solidarity of British and American conservatism. The days of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan are back, in their view. They've formed a Trans-Atlantic Conservative lecture series, and the first speaker, in London, is scheduled to be Senator McCain.

Hague was just back from facing Blair Wednesday in parliamentary question time and having a grand time (as a substitute for the paternity-leave-absent Cameron) doing what he did as a young Conservative Party leader from 1997 to 2001. He noted that all three of those speaking for their parties in prime minister's question time were substitutes for the real party leader — a jab at Blair's lame-duck status. I complimented Hague on his fine biography of William Pitt the Younger, who became prime minister in 1783 at 24 and served, with one two-year hiatus, in the office until his death at 46 in 1806. He told me that he's writing a biography of Pitt's friend, William Wilberforce, the M.P. who led the fight against the slave trade, to be published in 2007, the 200th anniversary of Britain's abolition of the slave trade. It's a great subject and a reminder that, while almost all societies in history have had slavery, only one — Western Europe, specifically Britain, and later the United States — fought, despite great economic interests in the other direction, to abolish first the slave trade and then slavery itself. I've written about this subject before and specifically about Adam Hochschild's splendid book Bury the Chains, which Hague tells me he has read and admires.