The Not-So Conservative
Two general elections have come and gone since British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party won a landslide victory in 1997. And in each, the Conservative Party played to its right-wing base, stressing harsh policies to combat claims of rampant crime and immigration, a failing National Health Service (NHS) and the repressive yoke of European Union regulations. And in each, the Tories failed miserably. They didn't even make much headway in the May 2005 election, when Labor was sandbagged by increasing disenchantment with Blair. The percentage of British voters willing to vote Conservative has, for 12 years, flat-lined at around 32 percent.
So now for something completely different: The new Tory leader, David Cameron, is bragging that his party is "back in the center ground of British politics" and preaching the politics of optimism. "Let sunshine win the day," Cameron, 39, tells voters. Says Martin Boon, associate director of pollster ICM Research: "He's saying, 'Here's an organization that's shed its nasty image.'" When Cameron addressed his party's annual conference three weeks ago in this seaside resort city, he ignored Europe and immigration. Instead he stressed the importance of the NHS (calling it a "great achievement"), saluted gay marriages, supported the minimum wage, and called for strict measures to combat global warming. More startlingly, Cameron is refusing to pledge to cut taxes, which is usually the first promise out of the mouth of a Tory leader. If Rush Limbaugh were British, he'd be bloody apoplectic with rage.
Indeed, Cameron's centerward drive contrasts sharply with American conservatism, where the Republican Party is fighting the midterm congressional elections by lurching even further to the right to appease its base voters. While Cameron chirps about sunshine, Vice President Dick Cheney stumps for GOP candidates by depicting the world in gloomy terms and playing to voters' fears of terrorism.
Inching up. But if Republicans are in trouble heading into Election Day, Cameron's cheery efforts are gaining traction. Polls show Conservative support has risen to around 38 percent. And a recent ICM poll shows voters would rather see Cameron as prime minister than Labor's Gordon Brown, the finance minister likely to take on the mantle when Blair retires next year. Diving for the center is "absolutely what [Cameron] has to do," Boon argues. "The [British] electorate is disproportionately stationed in the center ground."
It was Blair's success in pushing his once Socialist-leaning party to the middle ground that helped him capture 10 Downing Street. Cameron faces hurdles, of course-especially given that another election isn't expected before 2008. "A lot of Labor's negatives might disappear with Blair," notes Andrew Cooper, director of Populus, a polling firm. And not all in the Conservative Party are comfortable with Cameron's tactics, especially his disavowing tax cuts. Convincing voters his party is as centrist as he claims to be may prove a hard sell. Still, Cameron's a welcome change to some Bournemouth voters. Chris Weale, 51, calls him a "fresh face in politics." And though Weale has voted Conservative in the past because he favors low taxes, he says Cameron's refusal to promise cuts is "very sensible."
The war in Iraq is hugely unpopular in Britain and is largely to blame for Blair's downfall. It's not an issue that will help Cameron, however. He has fully backed Blair on the war, though he's indicated a willingness to distance himself somewhat from President Bush's policies, saying he'd be a "steadfast, not slavish" friend to America. That won't win retiree Bridget Brown's vote. She'll consider voting for Cameron only "if he was to promise to bring the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan."
Nevertheless, British historian Niall Ferguson, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, predicts Cameron's "liberal conservatism" is a winning formula, not only in the United Kingdom but in the United States, where pragmatic, centrist Republicans like California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg "float untainted above the ghastly morass created by the Republican right."
Even the most troglodyte of Tory voters will very likely reconcile themselves to Cameron's liberalism if it looks as if it'll reverse their electoral losing streak. Says London School of Economics politics Prof. Rodney Barker: "They would still rather vote for a Conservative leader they don't trust than a Labor leader they don't trust."
This story appears in the October 30, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.