The Magazine

First, Lose Three Straight Elections

Britain's Conservatives are finally emerging from the wilderness. Republicans can learn from them.

Aug 4, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 44 • By FRED BARNES
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David Cameron, the Conservative party leader, had the look of a defeated man last October when Martin Bright of the New Statesman spotted him walking, alone, across a hotel lobby. The occasion was the Conservatives' annual conference in the seaside town of Blackpool in northwest England. "The mood was really glum," Bright says. Cameron was white-faced. "He looked like a ghost."

Cameron had been Tory leader for two years. He'd embraced new issues like the environment and diversity and even "social justice"--new issues for Conservatives anyway. But in spite of all the changes and reforms and the aggressive outreach to both elite and lower middle class voters, the party appeared no closer to ousting the Labour government. Conservatives had last won a national election in 1992, and then only in a squeaker.

The wilderness years had been painful, beginning with a blowout in the 1997 election, the worst Conservative defeat since 1832. The Conservative share of the vote--31 percent in 1997--had barely increased in the 2001 (32 percent) and 2005 (33 percent) elections. Only once had Conservatives pulled ahead of Labour in an opinion poll. That was during a truckers' strike in 2000. The lead vanished in a week.

The quartet of issues adored by the party's base--skepticism about ceding power to the European Union, tax cuts, curbs on immigration, crime--tended to reinforce the conventional wisdom about Conservatives. They were, as Cameron adviser Steve Hilton puts it, in a "negative place," seen by a majority of British voters as out of touch and not very nice besides.

Tories talked openly of the need to "decontaminate" or "detoxify" the party brand. Cameron, a former advertising executive with a gift for oratory and marketing, had already improved the party's image. "The country's not enamored of the Tories, but they don't hate them anymore," said Janet Daley, a political columnist for the Daily Telegraph.

The worst Tory nightmare had a name: Tony Blair. He had moved the Labour party toward the political center and stolen nearly all the Tory issues, except what John Hayes, a Conservative member of parliament, calls "financial self-interest." Conservatives "were up against a superb political tactician almost designed by a skilled set of geneticists to be a thoroughbred politician who could capture Tory votes," says Michael Gove, a Conservative MP and Cameron adviser.

When Blair stepped down in June 2007 and Gordon Brown, who'd been Chancellor of the Exchequer for a decade, became prime minister, things got no better. Brown had a reputation as a serious, honest, straightforward leader who'd kept the British economy strong. He was the opposite of the glib Blair, whose star had finally begun to fade.

Brown's first months in office were a honeymoon. He made the best of it by handling three crises skillfully: a flood, a new outbreak of foot and mouth disease, and a botched terrorist attack on the Glasgow airport. Given his success, he was expected to call an election in the fall. In fact, the Labour party apparatus was preparing for one. And Brown and Labour were viewed as all but certain to win and remain in power until 2013.

Then, against all likelihood and with no warning, the tipping point came. Suddenly, everything changed in British politics, this time in the Conservatives' favor. By the end of the Tory conference in October, Cameron's gloom had dissolved and the Conservatives were on a roll. Within a few days, Brown decided against calling an election, a move that caused Labour's support to collapse and gave Conservatives a further boost.

The breakthrough at the party conference came with the speech by George Osborne, Cameron's chief deputy and chancellor in the shadow cabinet. Osborne talked about tax cuts, a subject Cameron had been avoiding. "I've heard it suggested that in my first budget I am going to tax people who go to the supermarket," Osborne said. "What do you think I am? Off my trolley?" When he declared the next Conservative government would abolish the inheritance tax on estates of less than £1 million (around $2 million), the audience erupted joyfully. It was "electrifying .  .  . a lightning strike," says Janet Daley. It marked what's been dubbed the "rebalancing" of the Conservative message, the joining of the old Tory issues with Cameron's new agenda.