The gospel of Britain's Torries charms Evangelicals

Prime Minister Tony Blair in trouble as opposition party woos Britain's 'Bible Belt.'

Britain's opposition Conservative Party leader William Hague has begun reaching out to his country's equivalent of the Bible Belt in a bid to erode the popularity of Prime Minister Tony Blair.

He appears to have chosen his target - and his moment - shrewdly.

After a three-year honeymoon with the electorate, Mr. Blair for the first time is seen by leading analysts as in serious danger of losing the support of millions of middle-class voters - the people who in 1997 helped catapult him to power with a thumping House of Commons majority.

He is therefore seen as vulnerable to the approach Mr. Hague has decided to adopt.

By American standards, the number of evangelical Christians in Britain is comparatively small - about 5 percent of the total population. But the country's system of parliamentary constituencies - many of them held by incumbents with slender majorities - makes it possible for seats to change hands with only a small shift in voter allegiance.

It is this quirk of the British system that Hague and his top advisers are seeking to exploit.

As well as attacking Blair's sympathetic approach to joining a single European currency, and stressing immigration and law and order issues, the Conservative leader's advisers say he aims to win the support of committed Christians.

Britain's Evangelical Alliance, a Protestant umbrella organization, claims 3 million supporters - between a third and a half of the country's churchgoers. It is to this key element in the voting population that Hague is directing his attention. It includes all Protestant denominations and ethnic groups.

Launching his campaign at Easter, the Conservative leader addressed 8,000 Christians at a Spring Harvest vacation camp in southern England, and was given a reception that organizers say bordered on the ecstatic.

Elaine Storkey, president of an overseas evangelical mission agency, said afterwards: "Mr. Hague pressed all the right buttons. He didn't just appeal to traditional values. He picked up on issues such as third world debt, and the churches' involvement in social action and welfare."

With a general election likely to be held next year, Hague's advisers are currently evaluating other Christian venues for appearances by the Conservative leader. Target areas include north London - home to a large black evangelical population.

Ironically, Hague is challenging Blair on what many have come to see as the Prime Minister's own ground. Like his wife, Cherie, Blair is a churchgoing Christian. In the 1997 general election campaign, he emphasized Christian values, but made no attempt to target particular religious communities.

This is where Hague's approach, which is directed specifically at evangelical Christians, is seen as different. It also appears well timed.

Last week in London, the prime minister made headlines with what was widely pronounced his worst performance since taking office. Returning from two weeks' paternity leave following the birth of his son, Leo, Blair addressed 10,000 members of the Women's Institute, a half-million-strong national organization, heavily middle class and middle-aged, dedicated to women's interests and charitable causes.

In his speech, Blair said that in the policies of the ruling Labour Party, traditional values and modern thinking "complement each other.

"The way we do it," he said, "is to combine the old and the new - traditional British values of responsibility and respect for others with a new agenda of opportunity for all in a changing world."

Instead of applauding, the audience began to boo and jeer. A few walked out, complaining that the speech had been "too political." Helen Carey, the institute's chairwoman, later said she felt the members were "being used - and they don't like that."

The embarrassed prime minister was forced to cut short his speech, and left early.

Even the Guardian newspaper, which normally supports the Labour Party, said Blair had "bombed." Political analyst Hugo Young said: "Where Blair's speech did not verge on gobbledygook, it trod close to platitude."

Peter Wilby, editor of the leftist weekly New Statesman, says the Women's Institute speech was "threadbare of bold policies." The adverse reaction to it, he notes, showed that support for Blair "though wide, is shallow."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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