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TAUBE: A return to conservatism could save the Tory PM

Resurgence of Labor threatens to derail the Cameron coalition

- - Wednesday, March 6, 2013

David Cameron, prime minister of the United Kingdom, doesn't have to face the electorate until May 2015. Yet there is a strong possibility his minority Tory government could fall earlier than expected.

In last week's by-election in Eastleigh, Mr. Cameron was hoping for a victory in the heavily targeted district. Mike Thornton of the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the coalition government, was ultimately able to hold on to the seat for his party. In what most observers regarded as a major upset, however, the Tory candidate, Maria Hutchings, finished third -- well behind Mr. Thornton and, more surprisingly, UK Independence Party candidate Diane James.

The UK Independence Party used to be a disjointed fringe group that primarily stood for one issue: the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European Union. It often picked up the support of some Euro skeptics (typically ex-Tories), but constantly struggled to increase its overall popular vote. The party also suffered from accusations of xenophobia, both outside and inside the ranks. In one notable example, London School of Economics history professor Alan Sked, the party's founder, resigned as leader in 1997. He has called the UK Independence Party "racist ... infected by the far-right" and "doomed to remain on the political fringes."

Mr. Sked's analysis is now open to some interpretation. Under the current leadership of Nigel Farage, the UK Independence Party can be more accurately described as libertarian. It holds some solid economic positions, including favoring corporate tax cuts and wiping out the inheritance tax. The party still maintains strong nationalist policies on issues such as immigration and international trade. Even so, it has cobbled together a more respectable-looking party (on the surface, anyway) by acquiring disgruntled ex-Tory, Liberal Democratic and even Labor supporters.

The party has had moderate success in party representation. The UK Independence Party, like other small political parties, has done well in European elections. It won three seats and 7 percent in 1999, and now has 11 members in the European Parliament, including Mr. Farage. The party also has a representative in the Northern Ireland Assembly and three members in the United Kingdom's upper chamber, the House of Lords -- albeit owing to party defections.

Yet the biggest thorn in the UK Independent Party's side remains the fact it's never won a seat in the UK Parliament. That trend looks like it's about to change, however. The party has finished second in several by-elections since 2011, and came within 1,771 votes (or 4.26 percent) of winning in Eastleigh. It's true that by-elections historically tend to serve as a way for voters to voice displeasure against either a government or major political parties. In the UK Independent Party's case, recent policy development and political transformation seem to be having a domino effect when it comes to electoral success.

The UK Independent Party's potential rise would be a nightmare political scenario for Mr. Cameron. Voters are already angry at the Tories for their poor handling of the United Kingdom's economy. Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats have been difficult coalition partners to work with. Moreover, Ed Miliband and Labor, who are having a real resurgence among potential voters, are leading in many opinion polls.

Mr. Cameron, who has run a moderate center-right government since taking power, can't afford to be outflanked on the left by Labor and the right by the UK Independence Party. If he doesn't change gears and shift the political winds in his general direction, he will be a one-term prime minister.

To prevent this, the Tories need to immediately incorporate a real fiscal conservative agenda as well as reinforce strong national leadership. Smaller government, significant tax cuts, wider degrees of trade liberalization and a free market-oriented approach to everything from the environment to education would work wonders. By including a few dashes of great conservative prime ministers like Sir Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, Mr. Cameron would help turn around the economy and get his party back on track.

There is obviously a huge risk in adapting this strategy. Mr. Clegg could become furious with Mr. Cameron, withdraw his party's support and bring down the government. In turn, the voters could get furious at an early election call and take it out on the Tories.

Then again, Mr. Cameron's hands are completely tied in this coalition government. He can't govern the United Kingdom with any sort of political or economic discipline. The voters are fed up, and a shift to Labor could be in the cards. That's why I believe, to use a sports term, Mr. Cameron should call an audible, return to fiscal conservatism and save his political career in the process.

Michael Taube is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a columnist with The Washington Times.