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Can Cameron Lose?

Appeasing the media has reduced the Tory strategy to the twin pillars of inoffensiveness and not being Labour.

Mar 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 26 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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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. 

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