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.
That was followed by Cameron's speech on "why I want to lead our country." He discarded his prepared text. "I am afraid it is going to be a bit longer and I haven't got an autocue and I haven't got a script," he said. "I've just got a few notes, so it might be a bit messy but it will be me." The speech, in one sense, was a reprise. Cameron's stirring, off-the-cuff address to the 2005 Conservative conference had led to his victory in the race for party leader.
Before last October's conference, the Tories had trailed Labour by roughly 11 points in opinion polls. Following Brown's announcement of no election in 2008, they jumped ahead by 5 points. It had been a historic week, and there was better yet to come.
On May 1, in local elections across England, Wales, and Scotland, Conservatives dealt Labour its worst defeat in 40 years. They captured 44 percent of the national vote to 24 percent for Labour, an astonishing margin of victory that far exceeded expectations. Labour ran behind the third party, the Liberal Democrats, who got 25 percent.
Conservatives not only made significant inroads in Wales and in the north of England, Labour's strongholds, but Boris Johnson, a flamboyant Tory MP who'd been editor of the right-wing Spectator magazine from 1999 to 2005, was elected mayor of London, ousting leftist "Red Ken" Livingstone. And last week, Labour lost one of its supposedly safest seats in a special election in East Glasgow.
The Conservative advantage over Labour now hovers around 15 percentage points in polls. Holding that lead until the next election in 2010 won't be easy. "We're victims of our success," Osborne told me. But Conservatives have new issues to talk up. They've claimed the education and anti-poverty agendas as their own, plus aggressive welfare reform. Just as important, they've become the party of change. Steve Hilton, a PR specialist who's known Cameron for years, characterized this more personally. "Dave is the change," he says.
The Conservatives in Britain are, like the Republicans in America, a right of center party. The parties differ on numerous issues, but what chiefly distinguishes them at the moment is the political situations they face. Conservatives have the political cycle working in their behalf. The saying in Britain is that "oppositions don't win elections, governments lose elections." And Brown's government is tottering. Republicans face a resurgent Democratic party. They're where Tories were a decade ago.
I think there are lessons in the Conservative recovery that Republicans should pay attention to. What worked in Britain may work in America--probably a lot of it. Here are some of the lessons.
*It takes time. Many Republicans believe all that's required for a robust rebound is a failed Barack Obama presidency. So in 2010, assuming Obama defeats John McCain this November, Republicans will be back on track, fully recovered or close to it. I don't think so, and no one I recently talked to in England about the recovery process thinks so either. "You can't hurry it," says Peter Riddell of the Times, who covered America in the 1980s. Republicans have lost one election and have yet to come to grips with the reasons why. They're not ready to bounce back.
"There were things we had to work out of our system," says Michael Gove, a brilliant political innovator responsible for many of the new Tories' best ideas and a popular politician described by the Economist as "ferociously charming." (He is.) For instance, it took two more sweeping election defeats--in 2001 and 2005--for the Tories to conclude their old issues (taxes, etc.) didn't work so well anymore. "If you mentioned them at all, given the skeptical press, they'd say it's the same old Tories back again," Gove says.
Conservatives also had to find a way to concentrate on new issues while, in Gove's words, "preventing the core [of the party] from flaking off." They managed this, despite grumbling from the conservative base about Cameron's emphasis on quality-of-life issues. But Cameron had room to maneuver. Conservatives were desperate to win and believed he gave them the best chance of winning. Republicans aren't that desperate yet.
*It's not about ideology. It's about you. This lesson is fundamental. "The problem was with Conservatives, not with conservatism," says Tory pollster Rick Nye. Daniel Finkelstein, the chief editorial writer of the Times and formerly a Cameron adviser, told me a particularly revealing anecdote about this problem. When foreign secretary Robin Cook left his wife for another woman in 1997, a poll found that a majority of Brits assumed Cook was a Conservative since his behavior was bad. He, of course, was a well-known Labourite. Another example: A question about an issue was asked twice in a poll, with the only difference being Conservatives were identified with the issue the second time. Support fell 30 percent.
At the party conference in 2002, an MP named Theresa May made a memorable comment. "You know what some people call us," she said. "The nasty party." That hurt, but few disputed it. Many voters had grown to loathe Conservatives and weren't willing to listen to them. Conservatives, unfairly or not, were identified with racism, anti-immigrant bigotry, homophobia, lack of equality for women, and dislike of anyone outside their social milieu. "You had to fix the brand before you could move forward on issues," says Nye.
Cameron has pretty much fixed it. His favorite word is "modern," as in "the modern Conservative party." Naturally he and his advisers are known as "modernizers," the more persistent of them as "ultra-modernizers." Cameron began to talk incessantly about the environment and global warming. Why? The issue is "a symbol of modernity," according to Hilton. Cameron vowed that half the Tory candidates in the next election would be women. (Actually, about 30 percent will be.) He's taken socially liberal positions. Just two weeks ago, he publicly congratulated a member of his shadow cabinet, Alan Duncan, on his civil union with a male partner. The party aims to be inclusive. He put a Muslim woman in his shadow cabinet. Cameron understands "the big tent thing," says Tim Montgomerie, creator of the influential Tory website -ConservativeHome.com.
*'Broader ground.' When I met with Hayes and Gove, Hayes leaned across the table and said those two words were the key to rebuilding the Conservative party, and the Republican party, too. This has become Tory dogma: The broader the party's reach of issues, the broader its appeal. A related idea, now a Conservative mantra, is that you have to talk to voters about what they're interested in, not what you are. Cameron dealt swiftly with the belief that Conservatives had, in Gove's words, "a secret agenda to tear up the [National Health Service]." Cameron talked about spending nights at the hospital with his disabled son and how he'd come to respect NHS professionals.
Iain Duncan Smith, an MP and former Tory leader, has taken on the issue of poverty. Gove has fashioned a bold school choice agenda to create hundreds of new schools run by parents, businessmen, or nearly anyone who could bring together a group of people committed to running a school. Conservatives now emphasize support for families and especially marriage. Cameron recently said traditional morality must be defended, not avoided out of fear of hurting someone's feelings or appearing judgmental. Otherwise, Britain will become a "de-moralized society."
*Don't ignore elites. The inclination of Conservatives and Republicans is to appeal to working class voters and give up on educated elites. Certainly the "respectable" working class--primarily suburban women and Daily Mail readers--is politically important. Margaret Thatcher had the knack for reaching these voters. Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam's new book, Grand New Party, sensibly urges Republicans, first and foremost, to connect with working-class whites.
Cameron didn't give up on elites, quite the contrary. The most influential media institution in Britain, indeed in the world, is the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). Cameron wooed BBC officials and gave special attention to the elite newspapers, the Guardian and the Times. "If Cameron can neutralize the anti-Conservative media, he stands a good chance of winning a majority," says Daniel Johnson, editor of the new monthly magazine Standpoint. He's largely succeeded in it. Conservatives are no longer treated as pariahs.
*Co-opt liberal ends and capture liberal jargon. Republicans already know how to do this, though they may have forgotten. George W. Bush taught them about it with his adoption of the word "compassion," formerly owned by liberals. Tories still admire Bush's "compassionate conservatism." The Policy Exchange, a center-right think tank, is now developing the idea of "compassionate economics." Conservative social policies consist of using conservative means to achieve progressive ends. In fighting poverty and antisocial behavior, Conservatives found they lost the argument if they championed "traditional values" against "social liberalism." Favoring "social responsibility" doesn't help much either. Philippa Stroud suggested they swipe the phrase "social justice" and fill it with conservative content. That works. This made sense because she's executive director of the Centre for Social Justice, another center-right think tank. For Conservatives, pilfering liberal notions is payback. As prime minister, Blair was adept at stealing conservative themes.
*Social psychology. The idea of "nudging," rather than coercing, has become enormously popular with Tories. The concept comes from two University of Chicago professors, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, who published a book entitled Nudge a few months ago. It's the domestic equivalent of using soft power in foreign affairs. "A nudge," the authors write, "alters people's behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives." George Osborne, Cameron's deputy, is a nudge enthusiast. He's eager to use nudges, for instance, to keep people from using credit cards too frequently. "Our work with the world's leading behavioural economists and social psychologists is yet more proof that the Conservative party is now the party of ideas in British politics," Osborne boasted in the Guardian. In any case, Republicans might consider the idea.
*You need a leader. This will be a problem for Republicans if McCain doesn't win the presidency. The party will be decentralized and lack a national leader. Even if McCain wins, he may have little interest in working to revive his party. "A big repositioning exercise takes a big leader," says Andrew Cooper, a pollster and one of Cameron's "modernizers." Conservatives went through three leaders, under whom the party languished, before Cameron took over. It's helped that Cameron and his cohort are young. He's 41. Osborne is 37, Gove is 40, Boris Johnson is 44, shadow defense minister Liam Fox is 46.
As opposition leader, Cameron competes face-to-face for 30 minutes with the prime minister in the weekly question time in the House of Commons. He does well, though competing against Brown is a breeze compared with facing Blair. At the final question time of the summer, Brown cut short a Labour member who was blaming British economic problems on foreign countries. Cameron responded without hesitation. "It's a wonderful thing," he said. "You don't have to finish a planted question to get a planted answer."
*Forget slogans. Conservatives attached themselves to some atrocious ones. In 1997, their slogan was "New Labour, New Danger." Labour won in a landslide. Also in 1997, they tried this: "You Can Only Be Sure with the Conservatives." In 2005, they used "Are You Thinking What We're Thinking?" Voters weren't. When he won the contest for party leader, Cameron's slogan was "Change to Win." That's not bad. Then while stressing environmental concerns, he adopted the slogan, "Vote blue. Go green." This year Conservatives have talked about "sharing the proceeds of growth" between tax cuts and spending increases. But with the economy in a slowdown, there may not be much growth or proceeds to share.
When Labour lost in the East Glasgow by-election last week, Cameron quickly called for a national election this year. "What I wonder is whether we can really put up with this for another 18 months," he said. "I think we need an election. We need change in this country."
Brown is unlikely to comply, but what if he did and Conservatives won? What would a Tory government actually do? Douglas Murray, who runs the Centre for Social Cohesion, worries that the Conservative party of opposition would not be a conservative party once it took power. That's a reasonable concern. Conservatives are inclined to downgrade foreign policy, except to guard against EU power grabs. And their hands may be tied on taxes and spending by the declining economy and compromises they've already made.
It's on social policy where Conservatives have staked their claim to be agents of radical change, and indeed they may be. The plan to lift the government's monopoly on schools is bolder than anything that's been tried in America. The use of civic organizations and other nongovernment outfits in an anti-poverty crusade should take Britain well beyond Bush's faith-based initiative. And Cameron, who's been talking up marriage since his first speech as Conservative leader, could hardly back away from his proposal to reward married couples with special benefits. Also, the Conservative plan for welfare reform matches what America did in the 1990s.
If Conservatives could pull off all or most of the social agenda--and that's a big "if"--Britain would become a different place. And not just Republicans here, but political leaders everywhere would look to Britain again for lessons to learn and policies to copy.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.