The Magazine

Not Your Father's Tories

The Cameron conservatives look like winners.

Dec 3, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 12 • By REIHAN SALAM
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British conservatives have spent a decade clawing their way back to respectability, and they finally look like a government-in-waiting. This is thanks to their leader, David Cameron, a baby-faced Old Etonian who listens to indie rock, occasionally rides a bicycle to work, and loves windmills so much he affixed one to his house. But while Cameron may come across as a bobo caricature, charmingly self-effacing yet troublingly eager to seem cool, in the last two years he has gone from shallow naïf to sure-footed statesman. He has worked tirelessly at "indigenizing" the Tories, bringing them back in step with a country that had grown more socially liberal, more ethnic, more frankly emotional, and more anti-American.

Without fully taking up the mantle of a Michael Moore Conservative--as the latest version of the anti-American Tory "Little Englanders" were dubbed in these pages in May 2004--Cameron took great pains to make it clear that unlike Tony Blair he'd never be George Bush's poodle and that his brand of conservatism was the kindest and gentlest yet. Diehard Thatcherites resented Cameron's efforts to "decontaminate" the conservative brand, but there was no denying that decontamination was necessary. Poll after poll found that popular stances on crime and immigration became less popular when they were adopted by the Tories.

Cameron's initial aim was a conservative party pitched directly to London's media elite: strong on civil liberties, socially liberal, and highly compassionate (i.e., eager to feel your pain). By presenting himself as the true heir to Blair, a friend of the middle class who wouldn't dare touch New Labour's mightily expanded state, Cameron sought to project that the Tories were innocuous. Hey--we love babies, too! And the environment! Cameron's big tent was big enough to include antiglobalization heartthrob and playboy Zac Goldsmith, the kind of green who thinks we have a lot to learn from Paleolithic man.

There was a certain logic to this approach, as much of the erosion in conservative support had happened among upper-middle-class suburbanites in the south, traditionally the Tory heartland. Like the Rockefeller Republicans who've flocked to the Democrats since Bill Clinton, these voters were particularly turned off by the conservatives' "nasty party" image, and it was crucial to win them back from Labour. During Blair's waning days, the approach seemed to work. The conservatives regularly trumped New Labour in the polls. But Tony Blair was even more personally unpopular in Britain than President Bush was in the United States, and the conservatives were outpolling Blair far more than they were beating Labour. It was inevitable that Blair's successor and longtime rival, Gordon Brown--a dour ex-socialist Scot who spends his spare time reading Gertrude Himmelfarb on the Victorians--would enjoy some kind of honeymoon when he took over in late June.

The early months of Brown's tenure looked like a slow-motion disaster for Cameron. It seemed as though Brown could finally and utterly obliterate the conservatives. By handling a series of botched terror attacks with calm authority, Brown represented everything Blair was not--there was no high-flown rhetoric about the threat to civilization. Instead, there was an understated moral seriousness. And in relations with the widely despised Bush, Brown managed to maintain a respectful distance and inch away from the British commitment to Iraq without causing a public rupture. Brown also borrowed deftly from the conservatives, by calling for patriotic education and a border police force to stem the tide of illegal migrants. Brown proved so politically successful that plans were put in place for a snap election. Writing in the Daily Mail in late July, the conservative columnist Peter Oborne painted a particularly bleak picture: After a fourth consecutive general election defeat, conservatives would likely split into the unreconstructed right-wing Euroskeptics and a frightened faction of centrist pragmatists, many of whom would defect to the parties of the left.