Amid conservative elation at David Cameron’s appointment as Britain’s new prime minister, it’s easy to forget that five years ago his Conservative Party was viewed by pundits as moribund and regularly being written off as a spent force.
Tearing itself apart over issues such as Britain’s relationship with Europe and struggling to come to terms with three fairly comprehensive general election defeats, the party turned to Mr. Cameron, then just 39, to lead it back to power.
Just how he rejuvenated the Tories – by broadening their demographic appeal, softening often shrill messages on immigration, and even embracing some traditionally center-left positions – is causing some of his conservative counterparts across the Atlantic to take notice.
“Among American Republicans, some of us are very interested in how the Conservative party in the UK has adapted its approach and looked at the concerns of those voters who are neither strongly Conservative, nor strongly Labour, by saying: ‘we have something for you and we understand you,’ ” says Thomas Grant, Chairman of Republicans Abroad UK. “There are certainly candidates in parts of the US who are going to look at this as an example to be followed and I can assure you that at the level of the Republican National Committee there are people who also see this as something that needs a close look.”
But part of Cameron's success is also tied to the extent to which, on social questions, the right and center of the British electorate has drifted ever closer to European values and away from the US. Cameron, for instance, told a gay magazine in the past year that Jesus Christ would back gay rights if he were alive today, something that would probably be electoral poison for the Republican base in the US today.
At the heart of Cameron’s modernizing project within his own party – an echo of Tony Blair's and others' rebranding of the Labour Party as "New Labour" in the 1990s – was accepting that elections are won and lost on the center ground.
In particular, stress was placed on preserving Britain’s totemic National Health Service (NHS) and its budget in an attempt to neutralize fears that the most cherished component of the welfare would be at risk if the Conservatives came to power.
The largely white, heterosexual male face of the Conservative Party was also transformed. More women and ethnic minorities were added to the party's electoral slate, and uneven progress was made in reaching out to gay constituents.
Seeking to overturn a traditional left-right paradigm, the party also pitched itself as the champion of green issues, unveiling eye-catching environmental policies such as green taxes and other measures designed to create a low-carbon economy. Cameron made high-profile visits to glaciers threatened by climate change while the party logo was changed from a blue torch to an oak tree incorporating the party's traditional blue and a new color, "Conservative Green."
But while successfully moving toward the center, the result has led to some disconnect between the man who will now lead Britain and his party's traditional base.
While ostensibly still defenders of the monarchy and the constitutionally established position of the Church of England, Cameron's Tories have taken a number of positions that make staunch traditionalists uncomfortable. “In many other ways, it is ill at ease with much of what it was meant to believe,” says Dr. Vinen.
He recalls how a documentary crew followed Cameron around for a period of time, eliciting informed and voter-friendly comments from the young Conservative leader on everything from his favorite pop group (The Smiths) to more serious social issues. "When he was asked something like: ‘Do you believe that the Lord Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins and was resurrected?’ he replied, ‘now you’re just being silly,’ ” says Vinen. That the comment caused hardly a ripple within the party is a sign of how much the UK has changed.
The Tories have sought to court conservative-minded, if not traditionally conservative-voting, ethnic minorities. For British Muslims and Sikhs, perhaps in the case of the US, think US Latinos. While both Republicans and the Tories have reached out to minorities in recent years, the effort has been more focused in the UK, analysts say. Nevertheless, results have been mixed.
“I think that we [Republicans] can do more to reach out to certain groups such as Hispanics, whose values on things like the family are in line with Republican values, and the party is already striving to do so,” says Stacy Hilliard, a Texan adviser to Philip Davies, a Conservative MP. “It’s very similar in relation to the Conservative Party reaching out to the Asian community here. Traditional Muslim values are very in line with conservative values, for example.”
Ms. Hilliard, who volunteered on campaigns for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former president George Bush, and former House Majority leader Tom DeLay, adds: “The constituency of the MP who I work for is around Bradford, and what we have found is that the Asian and Muslim community there tend to vote green or for the Asian candidate regardless of party lines.”
Still work to be done
A 7,000-word analysis highlighting major failings in the Tory campaign was released today by Tim Montgomerie, the influential editor of Conservativehome, a website that acts as the fulcrum for the party’s grassroots.
It pointed out that the party underperformed among minority voters and in seats with large numbers of state workers.
“It must now decide whether reassuring those voters could be at the expense of easier-to-reach voters in England and in the highly taxed private sector,” Mr. Montgomerie wrote. “The Cameron project remains an exciting project – blending traditional Conservatism on tax, crime, and immigration with new messages on the environment, poverty-fighting, and civil liberties,” he added.
Concluding however that the Conservatives should have won the election outright, removing the need for a coalition, Montgomerie makes a number of critical observations.
They include that party strategists underestimated Cameron's ability to sell traditional Tory messages – such as a tough approach to immigration – to floating voters.
Montgomerie warned that the Conservatives never developed a consistent economic message, instead choosing – "perhaps rightly" – to downplay the austerity message in favor of caution. He also highlighted the potency of traditional right-of-center policies on tax, pointing out that proposals for tax cuts twice reversed the Tories' slide in opinion polls.
He added: “David Cameron was right to modernize the Conservative message, but newer messages on, for example, civil liberties and the environment should have been integrated with more familiar messages so that modernization appeared authentic to voters.”