- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 4, 2001

LONDON.

Think of the state of the Republican Party in 1996, after Bob Dole's inglorious presidential election defeat to Bill Clinton, and you get an idea of the state of the British Conservative Party today after its recent second humiliating trouncing at the hands of Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. The hapless Mr. Dole was widely perceived as too old and bereft of vision, embodying a dearth of ideas at the heart of his party. Conservative leader William Hague was judged by British voters to be a flimsy lightweight, far enough to the right to be flirting with xenophobia. While the British Conservatives had a glorious 17-year run under Lady Thatcher, it is today a party divided against itself, searching for a soul and a mission.

Adding insult to injury, Mr. Hague's appearance has spawned a whole line of commentary on the politics of hair, of which he has very little indeed. According to one theory, the logistics in the House of Commons create a heavy bias in favor of a full head of hair. Television cameras situated in the House gallery shoot the parliamentary chamber from above, and bald pates tend to glisten and shine in the lights, making them unattractive to the British voter. Consider the case of former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, for instance. From above Mr. Kinnock rather looked like a balding billiard ball with a long nose, and perhaps for this reason he was never able to unseat Margaret Thatcher. Other commentary has blossomed forth about the meanings and evolutionary significance of male pattern baldness. Still,it might be recalled that Winston Churchill did not have a whole lot of hair on his head either.

Next week, on July 10, the Conservative Party will start voting on who will be the lucky man to pull this mess back together. It has produced a remarkably lively dialogue in the British press about ideas, philosophy and direction. As noted this week by the Economist, "The mock debates of the campaign on taxation, on how to organize public services, on how to position Britain in Europe have turned abruptly into real arguments on these subjects."

The problem for the Tories is that the issue that divides them bitterly, Britain's relationship with the European Union and possible membership of the euro zone, is surely an important one, but perhaps not of such overriding importance for British voters. Like American voters, they are interested in typically liberal domestic issues, such as education, health care and public services. Interestingly, all of these issues would have afforded the Tories plenty of election-time ammunition against Labour, which has failed miserably to deal with a host of domestic problems, if only they could have gotten off the subject of Europe and the threat from recent immigrants. In other words, they might look to the winning strategy of George W. Bush, whose "compassionate conservatism" represented an invasion of traditionally Democratic territory.

Indeed, the primary candidates for Tory leadership are trying to find their way on this ground, which is clearly easier said than done. The man most likely to come out victorious is Michael Portillo, a euroskeptic and an erstwhile hardline Thatcherite. More recently, Mr. Portillo, who is half-Spanish, has explored his ethnic roots, started pronouncing his name "Porti-oh," declared war on racism in the Conservative Party and acknowledged homosexual experiences in his youth. Needless to say, Mr. Portillo's changing views have hardly endeared him to more traditional Conservatives, some of whom very much object to being characterized as racists. Bernard Ingham, formerly press secretary for Prime Minister Thatcher, last week asked in the press whether the Tories really needed a leader on a "journey of personal discovery."

Mr. Portillo's main rival is former Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke, a portly and jovial gent, who prides himself on enjoying a drink or two, and a smoke or two as well. While Mr. Clarke does not exactly look like a new face for the Tories, he has a solid and proven track record. He is as keen on Europe as Mr. Portillo is skeptical. Mr. Clarke's version of "compassionate conservatism" is "social libertarianism" a live and let live attitude when it comes to "lifestyle choices."

With both leading candidates tending towards the middle, a host of more conservative contenders have come forward as well Iain Duncan Smith, shadow defense secretary, Michael Ancram, former Tory chairman, and David Davis, former Europe minister. So far they are well behind in the polls, but when the votes are divided in the first ballot of the leadership election, one of them might possibly face off against Mr. Portillo in the two-man, second round of the vote.

Superstars none of these gentlemen are. Still, before the Tory voters resign themselves to a Labour one-party state for good, they ought to remember that here in the States, after Bob Dole came George W. Bush. When you want to win badly enough, you do what you have to and a candidate will rise to the challenge.

E-mail: hbering@washingtontimes.com.

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