Party tries to put 'Tory' back into victory

At the Conservative Party's conference this week, leaders planned how to regain power.

It's Britain's biggest, oldest, and most successful political movement, a party more than 200 years old that dominated government for much of the past century.

But now, after more than seven years in the political wilderness and few signs of a breakthrough in looming elections, the Conservative Party is a tribe struggling for regeneration.

In the past decade, the party of Churchill and Thatcher has suffered two election routs that left it with fewer parliamentarians than at any time in the past 100 years. In polls, it has trailed Tony Blair's Labour Party for a decade, apart from the occasional blip, and currently stands barely ahead of the third party Liberal Democrats. In a by-election last week, the Conservatives came in fourth, their worst result since World War II.

What turned the dominant force in 20th-century Britain into also-rans in the 21st? And, can they turn it around? At their annual conference in this seaside town this week, there were as many answers to these questions as delegates.

For some, like 71-year-old Marguerite Ashley, the wilderness years are just a period of revitalization, a necessary process of renewal. After all, the Tories, as they are also known, had been in power for an unusually long time when they lost to Labour in 1997.

"When you've been in power 18 years, there is fatigue, you run out of ideas. You can't rejuvenate a movement overnight," she says.

For younger party members, the infighting of the past decade - four leaders in seven years and deep divisions over how to play Britain's alliance with Europe - has not helped.

"There's been a lot of uncertainty about the leadership and direction and what the policies should be," notes Martin Strong, a local government councilor for the party who is just 20 years old.

But the broader reason for Conservative decline is that its traditional political territory has been invaded. To the right, a new party advocating withdrawal from the European Union, the UK Independence Party, has stolen votes with jingoistic élan. And more important, the center ground, where the huge mass of voters known as "Middle England" sits, has been dominated by Mr. Blair and his cautious mix of moderate fiscal and social policies.

A recent survey by the polling agency YouGov compared the political sensibilities of a sample of the public against those of leading politicians. It found that a graph of the British electorate looks like a bell, with few voters at the left and right extremes and the majority in the middle. Smack in the middle of this bulge of voters was Blair. Out on the right margin was the new Tory leader, Michael Howard.

For Norman Lamont, a Tory minister and former chancellor, this graphic sums up the Conservatives' chief problem.

"Blair is a very unusual Labour politician," he says. "He occupies a lot of the ground that the Conservatives would naturally occupy. It's very difficult for the party to oppose."

Mr. Lamont and other senior Tories are not downhearted. Blair won't be around forever - he said he will step down after a third term. Meanwhile, Conservative Party membership continues to grow, while Labour's falls, meaning the Tories will have far more activists for the general election expected next May. And in local elections, they have fared well.

"Conservative membership is up 20,000," says Lamont. "We're the largest party in local government. There is still a lot to play for."

Another former Conservative cabinet minister, Ann Widdecombe, says the party must offer three or four policies that really differentiate it from Labour, focus on those, and avoid spin.

Michael Howard spelled out Tuesday his key policies: cutting taxes, fighting crime, improving schools and hospitals. He also promised to limit immigration and renegotiate Britain's EU membership.

Polls are not terribly encouraging for Mr. Howard, however. A BBC survey this week found that two-thirds of Tories don't see him becoming the next prime minister.

"We have a strong party of clear policies but I am under no illusion that we face a very large task in turning this into election victory," says Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former foreign minister.

Ultimately, a Conservative revival may be all about time. The party is too strong at the grass roots to be written off completely. But it took 18 years for the pendulum to swing back to Labour in 1997.

"I cannot see how the Tories come back from the wilderness short of trying to develop policies with a broad appeal and waiting for time to pass," says Anthony King, Essex University professor.

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