- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 12, 2005

Is this a corpse I see before me? Or does it still have a pulse? Twenty years ago, people were asking those questions about the Labor Party, and coming up with negative responses. Everybody knows how a newcomer, a young lawyer by the name of Anthony Blair, administered a miracle cure. But can anyone do the same for the Conservative Party? Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s hugely entertaining new study, “The Strange Death of Tory England” offers a reminder that no party has a God-given right to life. Inspired by George Dangerfield’s classic, “The Strange Death of Liberal England,” Mr. Wheatcroft — one of the best-informed journalists of his generation — embarks on a gossipy romp across the social landscape, tracing the Tories’ journey from self-confident party of the propertied classes to their present state of something approaching a nervous breakdown. Republicans who think the GOP is destined to rule for the next generation or two, take note. This is one of those Ozymandias moments.

Mr. Wheatcroft, a clubbable High Tory, is sure of one thing: The old social order which sustained the Conservatives for so long, no longer exists. Just as the old Liberal Party suddenly saw its raison d’etre disappear a century ago, so the tradition of Churchill and Mrs. Thatcher faces an ignominious end: “Over the centuries,” writes Mr. Wheatcroft, “this party has shown a ferocious survival instinct, and an endless capacity for re-invention, but it seems to have lost both, with dire prospects. Conservatives have sat around for some years saying to themselves that they will get back one day, but there is no necessary reason why this should be so. No law of history says that any political party has to survive. In 1906 the Liberals won the greatest of landslide elections, and within ten years they had lost office as a party, never to hold power again.”

The irony of all this, of course, is that the party of the right hit its losing streak immediately after winning the big philosophical argument. Tony Blair won power not by putting forward a radical agenda (you would be amazed how many Labor activists and chattering class sympathizers still believe that) but by stealing the Tories’ clothes.

New Labor is, for all intents and purposes, a center-right government. (New Labor in the country at large is a different matter all together, the activists having decided to bide their time and wait, probably in vain, for a “real” socialist to inherit the mantle from Mr. Blair when he steps down.) All of which leaves Mrs. T’s successors deep in the wilderness. Events of the last few weeks, though, are starting to give some long-suffering party members cause for hope. With a new leader to be elected next month, many believe they have found a potential savior in David Cameron.

Don’t be embarrassed if you haven’t heard the name before. Most British voters would have had no idea who he was until this autumn. An MP for only four years, Mr. Cameron has made just a handful of front bench speeches in the House of Commons. But after a barnstorming — “look, ma, no notes” — speech at the party’s annual conference, he suddenly emerged as the leader in the contest to succeed the lackluster Michael Howard. David Davis, the previous favorite for the post, had arrived at the conference as the clear frontrunner, but delivered a dull speech and found himself instantly declared a has-been. His poll numbers duly hit the floor.

So what does Mr. Cameron stand for? That’s an interesting question. The word “modernizer” is tossed around a lot, but so far he has been careful not to commit himself to anything too explicit. While Mr. Davis’ call for tax cuts and lower public spending puts him firmly in the category of Thatcherite-with-a-human-face, his rival is still something of a mystery.

The reality, in fact, is that after spending the best part of a decade dismissing Tony Blair as a smooth-talking salesman, a fair chunk of the Tory party has come to the conclusion that the only way to win back power is to manufacture an even smoother-talking Blair Mark II. Mr. Cameron hits all the right buttons in that respect. He is young, he looks good without a tie, he changes nappies at home (one of his two children suffers from a severe mental handicap) and he knows how to look human. Given the Tories’ recent record, those are no mean attributes. Republicans have long mastered the knack of talking and acting like ordinary Joes, more or less. The kindest thing you can say about their British counterparts, on the other hand, is they tend to come across as the more earnest sort of stamp collector. Would you invite any of them to your barbecue? No, not unless you also happen to be a stamp collector who also likes discussing the marginal costs of charcoal production. You see my point? My vote, from the start of the leadership campaign has been on my namesake. Mr. Davis, currently the Home Affairs spokesman, has more experience, in business as well as politics, he is tougher (as I’ve mentioned before, he used to be a reservist in the elite force, the SAS) and more down to earth. And he could put the Tories back in touch with blue-collar and ordinary middle-class voters.

It’s bad form to mention class, but there is no getting away from the fact that Mr. Cameron has a potential problem. There is no crime against being educated at Eton, yet the fact that he was also a member of the elite dining society, The Bullingdon Club (renowned for smashing up restaurants throughout Oxford) not to mention the aristos’ favorite London haunt, White’s, strikes a positively Kerry-esque note of blue-blood privilege. Mr. Cameron’s closest ally George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, comes from a similar background, and is even younger. The idea of both men taking on Gordon Brown and his battle-hardened cohorts is not a pretty one. True, Tony Blair also had an elite private education, at the Scottish equivalent of Eton, no less. But class has always been a much more relaxed business north of the border. This may seem utterly mysterious to foreigners. But it is true all the same. Besides, Mr. Blair leads the people’s party; the Conservatives are stuck, fairly or unfairly with their image as defenders of privilege.

None of this made much impression on the media, which anointed Mr. Cameron as the great hope for the future after the conference. Much to their surprise, proceedings have not gone according to the script in the past week. First, Mr. Davis scored a comfortable victory in their televised debate, leaving his rival looking decidedly callow. Then, this week, a poll of Tory supporters (as opposed to party members) showed that Mr. Davis had rocketed into the lead.

The odds are still on the younger man winning. In fairness, I should also point out that he has made some impressive speeches on foreign policy which suggest he would be a firm ally in the war on terror (as would Mr. Davis). Somehow, though, I think the truly important point about the TV debate was that both men came across as pretty decent guys. That may seem a banal point, but as Geoffrey Wheatcroft observes, the Tories have forgotten how to be, well, nice: “Even when the Thatcher government was seen to be doing harsh but necessary work, it had always appeared dislikeable, even to those who voted for it.” Citing that famous work of English comic history, “1066 And All That” Mr. Wheatcroft argues that the Conservatives in the 1980s were like the Roundheads, “Right but Repulsive” while Labor’s Cavaliers were “Wrong but Wromantic [sic].” The question is, can Mr. Davis or Mr. Cameron pull off the trick of appearing “Right and Wromantic?” We’re about to find out.

Clive Davis writes for the London Times. His weblog is at www.clivedavis-online.com

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