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Out of the Shadows?

David Cameron and his Conservatives get ready for their turn.

12:00 AM, May 6, 2008 • By NILE GARDINER
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THE LABOUR PARTY'S CRUSHING defeat in last week's local elections for England and Wales marks the beginning of the end for New Labour and the premiership of Gordon Brown. The opposition Conservatives inflicted their heaviest defeat on Labour in 40 years, securing 44 percent of the vote against the ruling party's 24 percent. Even the Liberal Democrats bettered Labour, with a quarter of the vote. Translated into a parliamentary election, these figures would give the Conservatives a huge 138-seat majority. In London, the colorful Conservative candidate Boris Johnson was elected mayor of Europe's biggest city after a close fought contest ousted the far-left incumbent Ken Livingstone, commonly known as 'Red Ken'.

There is little doubt that Brown's own unpopularity played a massive role in his party's downfall. Since seizing the reins of power from Tony Blair in June last year he has been a dismal failure as prime minister, largely out of touch with the British public while failing to provide leadership in a period of economic turmoil. His decision to cut the 10 pence tax rate in the latest budget was seen as an attack on low income voters, at a time when the British electorate is faced with falling house prices, rising fuel and food costs, and growing economic uncertainty. Brown's personal ratings are among the worst for a British leader in modern history, with 70 percent of Britons dissatisfied and just 17 percent approving of his leadership according to the latest Daily Telegraph YouGov poll.

Barring a spectacular turnaround in political fortunes, Brown is highly unlikely to win the next general election, which must be held by May 2010. With his growing unpopularity within the Labour party, and the strong possibility of an internal leadership challenge, the prime minister may be forced to go to the polls far earlier, possibly next spring.

The prospect of Conservative leader David Cameron entering Downing Street in the next 12 to 24 months has grown dramatically in the past few days. If elected prime minister, Cameron will lead at a critically important time for Britain as a world power. He has an opportunity to restore British sovereignty in Europe, rebuild the UK's military power, and re-energize the Anglo-American alliance.

Since taking over as party leader from Michael Howard in 2005, Cameron has revitalized the fortunes of the world's oldest political party, an institution that had been virtually written off as a spent force after the 2001 general election. At just 41, the well-spoken Eton and Oxford-educated Cameron cuts a charismatic and dashing figure in contrast to the dour 57-year-old Brown, and has proven an effective communicator with a telegenic approach. He has successfully projected to voters an image of a more modern Tory party, in touch with voter concerns about health care, education, and public services, combined with traditionally strong conservative positions on crime, immigration, and family. He has included in his Cabinet several outstanding talents, among them shadow defence secretary Liam Fox, and Michael Gove, shadow secretary of state for schools and families.

Still, Cameron has come under strong criticism from within his own party for failing to commit to tax cuts when he comes to power or to reduce levels of government spending. He has been portrayed by his critics as a leader without a clear ideology, who has sacrificed conservative principles on the altar of political expediency. He has also come under fire for some ill-judged political appointments, such as that of Sayeeda Warsi as shadow minister for community cohesion. Warsi has been a controversial critic of British anti-terror policy who described the UK as a "police state" and advocated engagement with Islamist extremist groups.

Ultimately, Cameron will be judged on his record once he holds public office, and as a politician without ministerial experience he remains at present a largely unknown quantity. He has so far shown that he can lead a party but not yet demonstrated that he can lead a nation. He has a long way to go as a statesman, and has far less political experience than either Nicolas Sarkozy or Angela Merkel before they were elected leaders of France and Germany.

In all probability, under a conservative administration, government policy on most domestic issues is unlikely to be radically different to that of the current Labour government, with the exception perhaps of immigration and law and order. There has emerged a dispiriting left-right consensus among political elites in Britain over the past decade that the state will continue to play a dominant role in the provision of public services, and there will be no moves towards major market reforms in the National Health Service for example, or a significant reduction in the size of the welfare state. While the British public undoubtedly seeks a change of government, it is unfortunately demonstrating little appetite for the kind of far-reaching changes implemented in the 1980s that will be needed to maintain Britain's position as the most competitive large economy in Europe.

It is in the arena of European policy that a Cameron government can make the biggest difference, and where there is clear blue water dividing the two parties. In contrast to Gordon Brown, the Conservative leader is opposed to the new European Union Reform Treaty (Treaty of Lisbon), an almost identical document to the European Constitution rejected three years ago by voters in France and Holland, and which is in effect a blueprint for a European superstate. The Treaty, which proposes the creation of an EU foreign minister, as well as an EU foreign service and diplomatic corps, has already passed through the House of Commons, and is currently undergoing scrutiny in the House of Lords. Cameron has rightly called for a public referendum on the Treaty, calling on Brown to honor a campaign pledge by the Blair government to allow a public vote on the Constitution.

Opinion polls show that the Lisbon Treaty would be opposed by a large margin in a British popular vote. A rejection of the treaty would force a reassessment of Britain's relationship with the EU. A Conservative government would be handed a prime opportunity to renegotiate the future of Britain's ties to Brussels. As Margaret Thatcher argued in her seminal book Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World, Britain should withdraw from the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, Common Fisheries Policy, Common Foreign and Security Policy, and European Security and Defense Policy, as well as retake control of its trade policy, in order to reassert itself as a sovereign nation state. Such a move would be popular with the British electorate, and as the Iron Lady once put it--"that such an unnecessary and irrational project as building a European superstate was ever embarked upon will seem in future years to be perhaps the greatest folly of the modern era."

It remains to be seen whether David Cameron as prime minister would embark upon a major confrontation with the European Union, but if he does so he will be remembered as a leader who changed the course of British history and reasserted Britain's place as an independent nation state. He must also be prepared to reverse years of defense cuts that threaten to cripple Britain's hugely overstretched armed services, currently suffering from the lowest levels of defense spending since the 1930s. And Cameron must work to strengthen the Anglo-American Special Relationship, a unique partnership between two great nations that has been considerably weakened under Gordon Brown. The world needs a Britain that is more powerful, self-confident, and in control of her own destiny, and for the next prime minister these must be top priorities.

Nile Gardiner is the director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation.