In Britain, it's still hip to be Labour

Last week, Britain's flamboyant Tony Blair jetted off to Moscow to win Russian support for President Bush's anti-Iraq coalition. Meanwhile, staid Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, stayed home to rally the party faithful in Bournemouth.

Although Mr. Blair's mission was only moderately successful, the White House was grateful. For the British Prime Minister is about the only European leader to agree with President Bush's call for immediate action against Saddam Hussein. Blair calls the Iraqi leader "an international outlaw."

Mr. Duncan Smith is as supportive of the US position on Iraq as is Blair. "Is it right to move against Iraq's arsenal now? The answer has to be 'yes,'" he said at Bournemouth.

This week, members of Parliament returned to Westminster from their long summer holiday to find that both Iraq and the domestic political contest have been upstaged by the terrorist blast in far-off Bali, Indonesia. But whatever the headlines, as long as Britain's two-party system prevails, either Labour or Tories (Conservatives) will be in power. What remains to be seen, however, is how the party leaders' approach to international politics will affect support from their own constituents.

While Duncan Smith may be in agreement with Blair on Iraq, on European issues he has to tread carefully. His own party is badly divided on whether or not to join Europe's new common currency, the euro, and on how tight a union the European Union should become. During the glory days of Margaret Thatcher's reign (1979-90), the Conservatives went from strength to strength while Labour seemed to be declining into irrelevance.

But today, the shoe is on the other foot. Tony Blair won his first victory in 1997 by a landslide. He did pretty well in last year's elections, too, with the Labourites occupying 412 of the House of Commons' 659 seats. The Tories salvaged only 164 seats, and selected Duncan Smith to lead them out of the political wilderness. At Bournemouth, Duncan Smith received wild applause for his steely statement, "Never underestimate the determination of a quiet man." After five years in opposition, the Tories are hungry to be back in power.

But it's hard to compete for media attention against a prime minister who pals with Mr. Bush and looms large on the international screen. Duncan Smith has been trying desperately to get the media to notice that the Conservative Party has changed, that it is no longer a contradictory combination of old-fashioned family values, male chauvinism, and sleaze. Last week, party chair Theresa May took the bull by the horns and acknowledged that some Tory politicians had behaved badly, while others were "hopelessly stuck in the past." "You know what some people call us?" she asked. "The nasty party."

This drew an immediate rebuke from Lord Tebbit, Conservative Party chairman during the Thatcher years. The achievements of those years were possible precisely because the Tories were the "nasty party" and not trying to be all things to all men, according to the irate former minister.

The Conservative leadership of today claims it intends "to complete the revolution by Margaret Thatcher." In practice, it is not harking back to the Thatcher themes of privatization and individual self-reliance, but rather promising to do better than the Blair regime in education, hospitals, and housing – urgent pocketbook issues for the voters of today. Like George Bush in America, the Tories say they will give people greater freedom of choice in all these matters.

"Tell the world: the Conservatives are back," Duncan Smith concluded. The first test will come in regional elections next spring. If the Tory record in these elections is disappointing, the "quiet man" may not be around much longer.

• Takashi Oka is a former Monitor correspondent in London and Paris.

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