Britain's Great Right Hope

The Two Chairmen is a cozy backstreet pub, nestled in the heart of the Westminster Village -- the small corner of London that includes 10 Downing St., Parliament, and most of Britain's major government departments. On a warm summer day in May 1994, two young Conservative Party political advisers stood outside, discussing the unexpected death of then-Labour Party leader John Smith, and his likely replacement: the young, telegenic Tony Blair. The more experienced of the two, Patrick Rock, was a hard-nosed spin doctor for Britain's hawkish home secretary, Michael Howard. The second drinker, younger-looking than even his 28 years would suggest, was future conservative leader David Cameron.

"We both agreed," Rock later recalled, "that Blair coming meant that we [Conservatives] would be fucked." A decade and a half later, even after Cameron's three highly successful years at the helm of the Conservative Party, Rock and Cameron must take no satisfaction from the accuracy of that prediction. Their party was once the Western world's most formidable election-winning machine. That is, until the 1997 election saw their deeply unpopular right-wing leader ejected from office and replaced by a young, popular, and charismatic leader of the left. The party of Disraeli, Churchill, and Thatcher never really found an answer to Tony Blair. But, from a starting point of electoral defeat and intellectual depletion eerily similar to that faced by today's Republicans in the U.S., it lost a decade, four leaders, and two more elections trying to find one.

It wasn't until Cameron's surprise election as leader in 2005 that the Tories began to turn the corner. Cameron has spent the last three years busily fixing his broken party, introducing new purpose, new policies, and even a new logo -- a green oak tree. Mixing traditional conservative issues like low taxes and small government with newer policy platforms focused on the environment and poverty, Cameron has revitalized the British center-right. His path has not always been straightforward, having been challenged first by Gordon Brown's honeymoon as Britain's prime minister (following Tony Blair's departure in 2006) and again by Brown's political comeback during the early months of the current financial crisis. But today opinion polls once again strongly suggest Cameron will become the country's prime minister at the next election, due at some point before mid-2010. Other center-right parties, in Europe and elsewhere, have already begun to copy his spin on compassionate conservatism.

But why did it take the better part of a decade in the wilderness for the once-dominant British right to bounce back? And how might the experience of a decade of conservative doldrums, finally broken only by Cameron's success, inform expectations about the Republican Party in the U.S. as it contemplates the road back from defeat?

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David Cameron -- or Dave, as he likes to be known -- is in some ways an oddly conventional Tory savior. Unlike Margaret Thatcher (a shopkeeper's daughter) or John Major (whose parents were circus performers), Cameron is a son of privilege, having attended Eton, England's most famous private school, and Oxford, where he was a member of the Bullingdon, an exclusive -- and famously destructive -- drinking club. Like George W. Bush, and quite unlike Britain's current prime minister, Gordon Brown, he largely ignored politics in his youth, in favor of parties and girlfriends. (Also like Bush, he has never denied experimenting with cocaine.) However, after leaving college in 1988, he turned down a job as an accountant to take a junior position as a Conservative Party staffer. He rose quickly, becoming both an adviser and speechwriter to various senior politicians, including John Major, whom he briefed prior to Major's weekly appearances at Parliament's boisterous Prime Minister's Questions. But, seeing the writing on the wall for his increasingly unpopular party, Cameron left politics in 1994 to take a well-paid job as a senior executive at one of Britain's biggest television companies.

From this private-sector perch, Cameron was able to watch his party's crash unfold. In truth, the rot set in before he left, beginning in 1992 when Britain was thrown out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), a national economic humiliation that scuttled John Major's government almost before it began. Major struggled for another five years -- his only electoral victory was really a reflection of the weakness of his opponent, Labour's wordy, balding Neil Kinnock -- and his administration was notable only for the completeness of its disunity and the regularity of its sex scandals. (One minister was caught wearing a Chelsea football uniform in bed with his lover; others were caught hiring prostitutes or having affairs with staffers. One was even found dead, following sexual misadventure, naked with a piece of orange peel in his mouth.) The party was intellectually exhausted and morally bankrupt. The only surprise about Tony Blair's eventual victory was the size of his landslide.

Cameron came back to politics in 2001, becoming a member of parliament in an election that his party lost handily. With his obvious intelligence and strong media performances, he was soon talked up as a future party leader; he and his friend George Osborne were dubbed the "Blair and Brown" of next-generation Conservatives. But Cameron's return also coincided with the mid-stages of what one former adviser described as the "extended nervous breakdown" of the British right. After 1997, the party of "one nation" conservatism had been reduced to little more than a regional force, with support only in southern and rural England. Urban areas, along with the entirety of Scotland and Wales, were Tory-free zones. The party was also old; the average age of dues-paying party supporters was around 65. Some worried it might literally die out.

The Conservatives were out of touch, obsessing over issues the country was not particularly concerned with, such as the power of the European Union and the rise of immigration. Economically, they favored tax cuts at a time when the public wanted money spent on dilapidated schools and hospitals. Conservatives seemed prurient, mean, and xenophobic, even as Britain was increasingly tolerant, diverse, and cosmopolitan. Cameron calls himself a "liberal conservative," saying his beliefs stem from a desire to "give people more control over their lives" and an expectation that "social responsibility has to be part of everyone's lives." But, just as Tony Blair's politics were forged as a reaction to the British left's period of exile during the 1980s, so Cameron found his calling to update his party's image and beliefs during these long, seemingly hopeless years of Conservative irrelevance.

Successive Conservative leaders made faltering attempts to convince voters that the Tories had moved beyond their image as "the nasty party." In the name of tolerance, their first leader after the 1997 defeat, William Hague, made a trip to London's multi-ethnic Notting Hill Carnival. He also tried to connect with voters by talking about "kitchen-table conservatism," an idea borrowed from U.S. Republicans. (The Notting Hill trip was a public-relations fiasco, as was the actual kitchen table he installed in the Conservatives' London headquarters.) Conservatives' next head, Iain Duncan Smith, began to take seriously public concerns about schools and hospitals and developed a new agenda on social justice, which ultimately had significant influence on Cameron. Duncan Smith's successor and Cameron's predecessor, Michael Howard, also made noises about the importance of developing a party "broad in appeal and generous in outlook." Each understood that his party needed to mend its right-wing reputation and move back to the political center.

But, crucially, none approached the task of updating the Conservatives' image with the determination needed for success. Their attempts at what centrist conservatives have called "modernization" (aping language used first by Tony Blair) were never wholehearted, at least in part because none fully accepted that the party was fundamentally out of touch with the mood of the country. As such they were never able to engineer a decisive break with previous policies and identities -- a move that required picking definitional fights with the old guard and taking counterintuitive political positions to convince voters and the media that they had changed. Instead, all three followed a familiar pattern: an initial, tentative foray into the center resulting in lost support from their base, requiring a corrective lurch back to the right and its tried-and-tested agendas on Europe, immigration, tax, and crime.

It was a pattern with an equally familiar end: electoral defeat. Until 1997, every leader of the Conservative Party for more than half a century had become prime minister. After that year, none of its next three leaders even came close. Cameron and his supporters, who soon became known as "Cameroons," decided that, when their time came, they wouldn't repeat the mistake. They would make the center ground of politics their home.

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When Cameron's chance at power did come, a number of factors had begun to make his task easier. Tony Blair -- the dominant political figure of his generation -- had been brought down to earth by the failed and deeply unpopular war in Iraq and his dalliances with George W. Bush. Blair's government had been further weakened by years of infighting with his heir presumptive, Gordon Brown. More important, Cameron's Conservative colleagues, having tried and failed with three different leaders, were more willing to take seriously the need for a fundamental change.

Yet the party was scarcely closer to power than it had been a decade before. Michael Howard ran a competent campaign in the 2005 election but won only 32 percent of the vote and made almost no inroads in younger, urban, or northern Britain. Most damningly, polls revealed the Conservative brand remained tarnished. In one celebrated example, voters in a blind test were found to agree with many Conservative policies. But, if those policies were revealed to be part of the official Conservative Party platform, many of the same voters suddenly turned against them. Even after eight years in opposition, the Conservatives could still take popular policies and make them unpopular -- such as their 2005 election pledge to clean-up Britain's hospitals -- simply by being in favor of them. Changing this perception problem became Cameron's first priority.

The median position of British politics remains far to the left of America; a "liberal conservative" in the U.K. has more in common with a Democrat across the pond. Indeed, if Cameron were a Republican, his views on health care, abortion rights, and gun control would likely lead to a primary challenge. Nonetheless, the situation in which today's Republicans find themselves is strikingly similar to that which Britain's Tories endured in the decade before Cameron took over. Both parties had long exhausted the inheritance of their 1980s renaissance and been corrupted by long stints in power. Both had unpopular and discredited leaders. And, in both countries, the right was divided as to how to fight back.

British Conservatives started to turn things around when they finally picked the right candidate after their 2005 loss. In Cameron they found a plausible, likeable, media-friendly politician. A handsome man with a young family, he is striking normal, a frequent television viewer with a taste for shows like Desperate Housewives. He is new-media savvy and has used an online video diary known as "webcameron" to showcase his everyday life -- including episodes in which he is washing the dishes at home and making breakfast for his children. For the first time in a decade, the Conservative Party managed to pick someone whom voters could warm to. Yet initially, Cameron wasn't even the second-favorite to win.

At the beginning of the leadership contest, the frontrunner was David Davis, a tough right-winger with a background in the armed forces. Cameron, while seen as a future leader, was thought not to be ready for prime time. After the fact, he said that he never doubted that his message would win the day. But few -- either in the media or in his own party -- agreed. On the day the leadership contest was announced, Cameron's entire team of senior supporters arrived for a speech in a single taxi.

The picture changed at the Conservative Party conference in October 2005, where Cameron gave a speech -- without notes -- in which he argued that the party had to "change and modernize our culture and attitudes and identity ... a fundamental change, so that when we fight the next election we have a message that is relevant to people's lives today, that shows we're comfortable with modern Britain and that we believe our best days lie ahead." The speech was perhaps as significant for Britain's Tories as Barack Obama's 2004 Democratic Convention speech was for the American left. Before the speech, Cameron was a long shot for party leader. After it, he was a sure bet.

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Conservative writer David Frum has noted a trend toward anti-intellectualism on the American right, noting "the strongest reason for doubting Republican chances in 2010 is the collapsed intellectual state of the party." Much the same was true of Britain's pre-Cameron Conservatives, who remained in favor of old Thatcherite orthodoxies. (One adviser told me, "If you were patrician and sneering, you got ahead, and if you pooh-poohed new ideas, you did well.") Cameron managed to overcome this anti-intellectual culture and made a point of attaching himself and his party to new ideas, emphasizing compassion in social policy, pragmatism on the role of the state, and tolerance on matters of personal morality.

In particular, he began to talk about the need to achieve "progressive goals by conservative means," talking up provision of state services by the nonprofit sector -- in practice, not dissimilar from American compassionate conservatism's faith-based initiatives but without the religious overtones. Both he and Osborne jumped on the bandwagon of behavioral economics, in particular the thesis of Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in their 2008 book, Nudge, which Cameron believed was a way of achieving social change with limited state intervention. He ventured into a number of traditionally left-wing policy areas, from defending Britain's National Health Service to combating inner-city poverty and worrying about social mobility. Cameron began talking about the environment, adopting the phrase "vote blue, go green" (blue is the color associated with Britain's Conservatives) and even taking a famous trip to a melting Norwegian glacier, where he was photographed riding a team of huskies.

All of this was tied together in a roughly coherent narrative about the need to repair "broken Britain," allowing the new leader to attack Labour on its home turf while also talking about traditional Conservative moral issues (such as teen pregnancy or welfare reform) without coming across as "anti-poor." Cameron served notice that he was running the equivalent of a 50-state strategy. No issue would be off limits.

Yet Cameron faced a problem: how to talk about these topics without pushing away moderate voters. The answer -- seemingly obvious but elusive to his predecessors -- was to invent a new, softer language to communicate traditional positions. Conservative activists, for instance, wanted tax cuts. British voters did, too, but not if they led to crumbling hospitals and schools with leaky roofs. To get around this problem, Cameron began talking about the need to "share the proceeds of growth" between tax cuts and public investment, a suitably vague compromise that managed both to placate activists and convince the public that a future Tory government wouldn't cut public spending. Borrowing a phrase coined by Democratic thinker Andrei Cherny, the Cameroons also reframed the traditional Conservative drive for a limited government as part of a wider attempt to reinvent the state for the "post-bureaucratic age," with a particular focus on building up the role of non-governmental organizations to deliver state services. (Under this "post-bureaucratic" rubric, the Tories became more technology-friendly. Cameron even gave a high-profile speech at the Google Zeitgeist conference.) In other areas, the task was to de-emphasize issues, which vexed activists far more than voters. Cameron didn't change his position on Europe, for example. He just talked about it less often.

Having found new language with which to communicate older themes and having embraced new policy areas, Cameron picked definitional fights to cement his agenda. These were sometimes inadvertent, as with his decision to drop the party's longstanding commitment to expanding elite state-funded grammar schools, which were often criticized by the left as being socially divisive and unfair. The decision resulted in massive -- and largely unexpected -- party infighting that threatened to undermine his leadership. (Cameron also came under pressure during Gordon Brown's brief honeymoon as Labour leader, a period that ended quickly as Brown decided against calling a snap general election in fall 2007.) Other bust-ups involved traditionally supportive groups. In November 2006, Cameron skipped a speech to the Confederation of British Industry, Britain's major business lobby group, in favor of making a surprise trip to Iraq. The confederation, feeling snubbed, attacked Cameron for failing to sufficiently support tax cuts and deregulation. "It was a real moment of high drama," explained one adviser, who works closely with both Cameron and George Osborne. "We had [members of parliament] walking into our office saying, 'When are you going to drop all this stuff about the environment?'" But retreat would have been both difficult and embarrassing.

Unlike his predecessors, Cameron made such changes a central feature of his leadership, not an add-on. In doing so, he convinced the voters, the media, and his own party that he meant what he said. But it also meant he couldn't back down. Having built a new Conservative agenda and image, Cameron had to stick to it.

***

In American conservative circles, the minor renaissance of its once down-and-out sister party hasn't gone entirely unnoticed. In The New York Times in mid-2008, David Brooks argued, "American conservatives shaped British political thinking. Now the influence is going the other way." He went on to claim that Cameron's primary insight was to understand that while "the central political debate of the 20th century was over the role of government ... the central debate of the 21st century is over quality of life."

But despite earning plaudits from pundits like Brooks, Cameron's changes have been surprisingly little-observed by American conservative politicians. Republicans used to pay close attention to their British counterparts. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan developed a bond so close it was compared to a romance. John Major's relationship with George H.W. Bush was less heady but close enough that Major got caught trying to dig up dirt on Bill Clinton's student days at Oxford. But in recent years those connections have been much weaker, most notably when Karl Rove told Cameron's predecessor, Michael Howard, to "forget about meeting the president. Don't bother coming." One Cameron adviser told me, "We rarely talk to the Republicans; they just don't seem interested."

The second half of Brooks' assertion, about Cameron's grasp of the central debate of the 21st century, seems equally questionable. Cameron's political strategy was conceived and executed long before the credit crunch. He was fond of saying that "Margaret Thatcher in her time realized that the big challenge was reviving Britain's economy, and we should recognize that the challenge for the modern Conservatives is reviving our society." But just as Cameron's claim to be the "heir to Blair" looked dated once Blair left office, his argument that compassionate conservatism means social reform also looks less compelling against the background of the financial meltdown.

The onset of the crisis momentarily dented the conservatives' double-digit poll lead. Prime Minister Gordon Brown staged a fleeting comeback. Meanwhile commentators and voters alike wondered if a staunchly business-friendly party could respond convincingly to a crisis caused by the flaws of financial capitalism. The answer, in the minds of the British public at least, seems to be a tentative yes: Four months into the crisis, Cameron's poll lead has gradually risen back to double figures.

Cameron's promise of a revived conservatism now hangs on whether he, or anyone else on the right, can find a plausible answer to the breakdown of their cherished free market and can find peace with the greater role for government that this implies. But despite the financial crisis, Cameron remains odds-on to become his country's next leader. If any Republican in the U.S. wants to be in the same position anytime soon, a study trip to London might not be a bad first step.

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