For a country to have its currency marked down against the Zimbabwean dollar is not generally a good sign. But that is what has been happening to Britain this year. And it got worse in the immediate aftermath of an early March opinion poll showing that the governing Labour party had pulled to within 2 percentage points of the Conservatives. For quite a while now, there’s been a widespread assumption—backed by opinion polls, local election results, the 2009 vote for the EU parliament, and the feeling that enough was enough—that the Tories after 13 years out of power would win a decent majority in the general election due no later than June.

That wasn’t unreasonable. The U.K. has been wrecked by Labour. For Britons to give Gordon Brown a new term would be about as sensible as Pharaoh inviting the locusts back for another snack. The Conservatives meanwhile had been given a fresh lick of paint by David Cameron, the young (43), loudly modernizing politician who took over the Tory leadership in 2005. They were revived. They were ready. What could go wrong?

Well, Cameron suddenly has a shot at being Britain’s Thomas Dewey. That March poll was just the most dramatic of a series showing that the robust Tory lead of last year—usually well into double digits—had dwindled to a toss-up. Thanks to the peculiarities of the U.K.’s electoral system, the Conservatives need to be around 10 points ahead of Labour to achieve the sort of parliamentary majority that they will need if they are to form a workable government. Not only would a 2-point lead not do the trick, it would actually result in Labour being the largest party in the House of Commons and, almost certainly, holding onto power.

The most common expectation of the chattering classes is now of a “hung parliament” in which the Conservatives would win the most seats, but fall short of an absolute majority. They still might be able to form a minority government, but it would be a weak, fragile thing, and in no position to do what needs to be done to restore Britain’s battered finances. The uncertainty that this would bring may spook the markets even more than a clear Labour win. A reelected Labour government ought at least to have the authority needed to tackle a budget deficit that threatens to set the bailiffs on Blighty. It might even use it.

But if international investors were alarmed by the turn in the polls, they were equally bewildered. To outsiders, not least in the United States, the thought that Gordon Brown could be allowed to continue in office beggars belief. That he might highlights just how much the reality of British politics differs from the fond Atlanticist myth. That reality is the reason David Cameron, new Tory, has done what he has done. It’s the reason he may yet fail.

The roots of America’s attachment to the free market and to individual liberty may be traced back to the sceptr’d isle, but the Old Country is today a nation of the center-left and has been for over six decades. Class resentment, greater respect for authority, the all too visible failures of British capitalism, and intellectual and physical proximity to the continent, have all helped push the U.K. in a direction very far from Adam Smith’s ideal, a process buttressed by the institutions, habits, and ways of thinking put in place by Labour after its landslide victory in 1945.

Browbeaten by memories of the scale of that defeat, postwar Tory governments preferred to focus their efforts on the more efficient management of the social democratic state rather than its replacement. That began to change with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, but it’s telling how close that happy day came to never dawning.

Bought and paid for by the trade unions and blinkered by ancient leftist ideology, the Labour government of the 1970s presided over soaring inflation, penal taxation, rising unemployment, and endemic industrial disorder. Its crowning humiliation (there are many choices) was the moment it was compelled to go cap-in-hand to the IMF for a bailout in 1976. Despite all this, it might have won reelection had it gone to the polls in 1978—a fact that should make David Cameron shudder. Mercifully, Prime Minister James Callaghan blinked, and the strikebound “winter of discontent” was enough to hand Mrs. Thatcher a solid, if unspectacular win the next year. Her later majorities were far more substantial but, thanks to splits on the left side of the political fence, they were exaggerated by similar electoral dynamics to those that now operate against the Tories. She never won more than the 44 percent of the popular vote she received in 1979 (her narrowest victory in terms of parliamentary seats, incidentally), a showing that may explain why her reforms were more cautious and incremental than hagiographers now like to claim.

Her successor, John Major, had a less-successful encounter with the realities of a center-left nation. While his government made more than the usual number of blunders, the extent of its 1997 defeat by Tony Blair’s “New Labour” revealed a more profound phenomenon. It was almost as if the Tories had no legitimate role within the British body politic, a sensation magnified by extraordinarily antagonistic media coverage and the wholesale rejection of the Conservatives by the cultural elite, either highbrow or low. The journalist and novelist Robert Harris, a Blair supporter, reported with evident satisfaction in 1998 how he couldn’t think of one single “important” British writer, film director, theater director, composer, actor, or painter (“apart from Lord Lloyd Webber”) who was a Conservative.

Under the circumstances, it’s no great surprise that the Tories have struggled ever since. Britain’s natural center-left majority reasserted itself—bolstered by the favorable economy bequeathed to Labour by the Conservatives, basking in the approval of its amen corner in the media and benefiting from the assumption running through popular culture that there was something not quite acceptable about the Tories. Blair was also hugely helped by Britain’s electoral arithmetic. In the 2005 election, for instance, Labour won some 35 percent of the vote, but took 55 percent of the seats. This was the period in which the candidacies of the three Conservative leaders to follow John Major were destroyed almost as soon as they began.

Basking in the memory of the Ronnie and Maggie show, and reassured by the continuing (if fraying) willingness of the U.K. to stand alongside the United States in battle overseas (Britain’s still living martial tradition is one of the key respects in which it differs from its social democratic neighbors), many on the American right either don’t know or prefer to downplay just how different things are across the pond. That makes it difficult for them to appreciate what Cameron has been trying to do.

To get a feel for the challenge he faced in 2005, imagine what it would be like to be a Republican politician in an America where the mainstream media dictated a largely unchallenged liberal political agenda but where there was no Fox News, no Tea Parties, no libertarians, Perotistas, Second Amendment vigilantes, Club for Growth types, religious rightists, Reagan Democrats, NASCAR folk, country music fans, and .  .  . well, you get the picture.

Cameron felt the only hope of getting his message out was to “decontaminate the brand.” This meant tackling the media. And so he did—in a Winston Smith way. Two plus two did indeed add up to five. The caricature of the Tories as elderly, racist, reactionary bitter-enders was, Cameron implicitly conceded, true. He would, he said, put that right. The result was a slew of policies—some good, some bad—designed to show that the party had mended its ways. It was now younger, kinder, gentler, “compassionate” (yes, there were distinct echoes of the 1999 vintage George W. Bush in all this), and more inclusive. It was an approach epitomized by the Conservative leadership’s ostentatious embrace (the party logo is now a tree) of environmentalism—the secular religion of the recycling classes of Middle England and a pervasive finger-wagging cult among Britain’s showbiz “luvvies.” And it worked. While the media (with the exception of sections of Fleet Street) and entertainment worlds remain almost entirely estranged from the Conservative camp, the hatred ebbed enough that the Tory message to the wider British public was no longer drowned out.

But appeasing the media in essence reduced the Tory strategy to the twin pillars of inoffensiveness and not being Labour. As the country careened into financial catastrophe and historic recession that ought to have been enough, especially against a government divided by infighting and led by a morose, uncharismatic figure with, as the phrase goes, “issues.” But with the party very publicly remaking its image, this reticence has begun to look a lot like incoherence—a perception only amplified by signs of disorganization at the top of the Conservative hierarchy.

That this is an election that will revolve around the economy is, moreover, not the straightforward winner for the Tories that one might suppose. Debilitated by years of Labour misrule, Britain’s economy was exhibiting severe signs of strain even before the financial meltdown. But the 2008 crisis provided a perverse alibi for Blair and Brown’s bungling. The slump is not Labour’s fault, you see, but the work of those wicked, overpaid bankers—sleek, pinstriped, prosperous predators who look a lot like the Tories of socialist legend. It’s no great stretch for Brown to argue from there that the Great Recession is the logical consequence and conclusion of Thatcherism. And it will be no great stretch for many voters to agree. The problems with that analysis are complicated to explain in the course of an election campaign, especially for a party trying very hard not to appear disagreeable.

The Tories have to get over themselves. They need to pin the blame for the mess on Labour—where it largely belongs—but they also need to demonstrate that they have the competence and the ideas to manage Britain’s way out of this jam. The last few weeks of the Conservative campaign have not been reassuring on the competence front.

The ideas haven’t been too great, either. For all their talk of restoring a measure of control to the nation’s finances, the Tories have spelled out relatively little in the way of expenditure cuts. That Cameron has also vowed to “protect” spending on the National Health Service, a cost that already represents around 18 percent of public expenditure and is set to rise higher, merely reinforces the idea that the Tories are not serious about the deficit. Yet Cameron really had no choice. To advocate cutting back the NHS is an act of political suicide in Britain. The NHS, a source of national pride for all its shortcomings, is the third rail of British politics, the great creation of Labour’s postwar settlement, and a powerful mechanism forever pulling Britain’s politics to the left and its people into ever deeper dependency on the state whether as employee (the NHS payroll is over 1.3 million strong) or patient.

Yet Britain’s growing budgetary crisis (government debt is slouching towards 100 percent of GDP by 2014) presents the Tories with a conundrum. An austerity program will be essential, and it will be painful, particularly in a nation where so many work for the public sector. For the Tories to give more details of how they plan to come to grips with the budget deficit is essential if they are to be believed as offering a credible alternative to Labour’s botching of the economy. At the same time, it could be electoral poison in a country where the (wildly exaggerated) “Thatcher cuts” of the 1980s still fester in political folklore.

Labour knows this. The government is doing everything it can to create the illusion that the U.K. can somehow muddle through this crisis without too much pain. Putting party before country, Chancellor of the Exchequer Alastair Darling has left spending plans broadly unchanged over the last year, a stance that owes more to political calculation than to the more respectable concern that domestic demand is too depressed for cuts now. That’s a stance that could easily be reconciled with detailing plans for the more frugal future that the markets want to see, but this is not the course that Darling has taken. His pragmatic irresponsibility has been rewarded: An ICM poll earlier this month showed that when it comes to trust in their ability to handle the recession, the Tories’ lead over Labour had fallen to 2 percentage points—down from 15 in October.

The sense that there is something missing from what the Conservatives are saying is not confined to the economy. Just take the example of immigration. One of the hallmarks of the Blair-Brown years has been the failure to control the U.K.’s borders, through negligence, indifference, and worse: Recently uncovered documents appear to suggest that some of the increase was the product of a deliberate effort to reshape the British population. The welcome mat was noticed. Immigrants have poured in a net annual rate that quadrupled between 1997 (the year of Blair’s first election victory) and 2007, bad news for an overcrowded island wrestling with endemic (if often disguised) unemployment and a sometimes volatile multicultural mix. Unsurprisingly, this issue is a major source of unease to many Britons. According to a Daily Mail/BPIX poll of swing constituencies in early March, 45 percent of voters would be “more likely” to vote Conservative if the party were to take a tougher line on immigration, yet Cameron has said next to nothing on the topic. Reports last weekend that the leadership would no longer have any objections to Conservative candidates’ using the I-word in their election literature show just how far things had been allowed to slide. To some critics, the reason for such hesitation, which is by no means confined to the immigration issue, is that the Tories are still preoccupied with fighting a battle they have already won: the fight to show that they are indeed no longer the nasty party.

But there are other critics with a different explanation. Cameron’s policy shifts have won him few real friends among the Tory base. There is respect for his political skills and a grudging recognition that much of what he has done had to be done if the Conservatives were, after three consecutive general election defeats, ever to win power again. The party’s right-wingers accept that their guys had their chance in the 2001 and the 2005 elections and that it didn’t work out. They also know that British voters typically don’t opt for parties where the divisions are too obvious. So, if through frequently gritted teeth, the right has gone along, soothed by the prospect of victory.

As that prospect fades, there’s revived anxiety that Cameron is not, to borrow Mrs. Thatcher’s phrase, “one of us.” Are his attempts to drive the party in another direction as much a matter of conviction as of tactics? These fears have been boosted by a series of recent moves that made no electoral sense, or at the very least were evidence of a leadership that was badly out of touch.

They include an attempt by the Cameron clique (and it is a clique) to force local constituency associations to pick female parliamentary candidates through the use of women-only shortlists. This flew in the face of Tory meritocracy, made a mockery of Cameron’s alleged commitment to grassroots politics, and risked alienating the activists who need to be enthused ahead of the hard slog of a general election campaign. Adding to the irritation on the right has been the leadership’s refusal to use the obvious opportunity presented by the various Climategates to make clear that its commitment to Gore’s war against climate change was not, contrary to earlier impressions, a blank check.

And then, inevitably, there’s Europe. The decision last November by Cameron to renege on his “cast iron” pledge to hold, if elected, a referendum on the EU’s -Lisbon Treaty was logical (the treaty had since come into effect: A British rejection would not be enough to undo it) but dreadful politically. The Tory lead in the polls began to slide shortly thereafter. Making matters worse to a party and a country that is far from friendly to the EU’s ever-expanding reach, in February it emerged that the Conservatives were sending Ken Clarke, the last serving senior Tory still in the grip of europhilia, on a discreet mission to Brussels. Its presumed purpose? To reassure the EU elite that the Conservatives were suitably housetrained.

Cameron is running on a program of—wait for it—“change.” But the electorate is asking just what sort of change this would really be. While the Conservatives would be a considerable improvement on the sleazy and incompetent gang now running Britain, many voters suspect that voting for the Tories will simply mean swapping “progressive” rule by one metropolitan faction with that by another. This view has only been reinforced by the expenses scandals that have roiled parliament and shamed the entire political class. It’s a reasonable bet that small nonestablishment parties will, along with “none of the above,” increase their share of the vote this time round. Nevertheless, not being Labour is still probably going to be enough—just—to hand Cameron the keys to 10 Downing Street. After 13 years of Blair/Brown, too much sewage has flowed under Westminster Bridge for voters to want to risk giving Labour another go.

The problem for Cameron is that, in the absence of a massive financial crisis breaking between now and election day, his majority will be small. This will leave him vulnerable when things start to turn rough. And the U.K.’s desperate financial straits ensure that they will. Britain is already brutally taxed. Sooner rather than later the next prime minister will have to slash government spending, and he will have do so against a backdrop of high unemployment, sustained economic underperformance, and the rising opposition of a center-left nation. You can guess where the media will stand on all this.

Mrs. Thatcher found herself in a not dissimilar predicament within a year or so of taking office in 1979. Many of her senior colleagues panicked, but what saved her was the loyalty of much of the Conservative base, a base that the parliamentary party could not risk defying, however much they might want to. She, party loyalists knew, was one of them.

As things are currently going, they won’t feel the same way about David Cameron in 2011.

Andrew Stuttaford, who writes frequently about cultural and political issues, works in the international financial markets.

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