- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Is the Conservative Party of Benjamin Disraeli, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher on the way out as one of the more durable British institutions? It would appear so, according to all political portents. How great a loss would the disappearance of the Conservative Party be no only to Great Britain but to our country?

Not much of a loss at the moment. Prime Minister Tony Blair has as leader of the Labor Party moved this once ideology-bound organization to a center-left position over the protests of the ultra-left Trades Union Congress that once ran Labor, usually into the ground.

Mr. Blair's two election triumphs in 1996 and 2001 have brought ruin to the Conservative Party. Once it was a party with a definable national constituency. Today it is little more than a regional party: just one Member of Parliament in Scotland, none in Wales and hardly any seats in urban England. Coming up fast in Britain's historic two-party system is the Liberal Democratic Party, which could replace the Tories as the Opposition.

As for the effect on America of a vanished or vanishing Conservative Party, there is no stauncher ally in the war against terrorism than Labor Prime Minister Blair, 49, even though segments of his party, in and out of Parliament, abominate the historic "special relationship" between the two English-speaking democracies.

Recall Mr. Blair's presence in the U.S. House of Representatives balcony when in the week after September 11, 2001, President Bush, addressing a joint session of Congress, noted that presence and inspired an ovation to Mr. Blair from the audience. Compare Mr. Blair's conduct with that of Canada's Prime Minister Jean Chretien, our neighbor to the north, who became the invisible man in the aftermath of the American tragedy.

True, premature burial of the Conservative Party has been traditional in British political history. Disastrous Tory electoral results in 1906 and 1945 persuaded many that the party was finished for good. The gloomy prophesies were ludicrously wrong. The Tories in each case came back at succeeding elections and remained in power in election after election. The Tories won four elections in a row from 1979, three of them under the redoubtable Margaret Thatcher.

What made for Tory success was that within the British electorate was a hidden force, the "Tory Worker," (his counterpart in America was called the "Reagan Democrat) who was a union member but not a Labor Party loyalist. The Tory Worker shunned the class warfare ideology expressed in the House of Commons by a Labor MP in an exultant cry, "We are the masters now," after his party's 1945 smashing victory. But they were not masters for long.

Within six years, in 1951, this same Conservative Party, whose post-1945 election demise was widely predicted, returned to power with Churchill once more as prime minister. The Tory campaign strategy, an early version of "compassionate conservatism," was simple and it worked: the British public wants nationalization and the welfare state? Well and good, but it would be under Tory auspices. In short, the Tories "re-invented" themselves.

Under Mr. Blair, the Labor Party has reinvented itself as the New Labor Party; so much so that when he refused to knuckle under to firefighter union wage demands last month, the Sun, the 3.3-million circulation British daily, headlined the event on Page One in a tribute to Margaret Thatcher as: "Blair does a Maggie."

Simply put, Mr. Blair has won back the "Tory Worker" and with it a substantial part of the middle class. But more importantly, in today's New Labor Party there are no off-putting Labor MPs as there were after the 1945 elections like Aneurin Bevan, Emanuel Shinwell, Stafford Cripps, men who loathed their opponents. Bevan referred to the Tories as "lower than vermin."

The old Labor Party was a divided, ideology-driven, ultra-left, union-dominated, Marxist-based organization over which Prime Minister Clement Attlee and his successors had no real control.

The party's controlling elements the left of the left preferred to lose elections rather than give an inch on the socialist ideology. Mr. Blair has changed all that; whether for good, we shall have to wait and see. (Incredibly, he recently honored the still Stalinist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, by appointing him a Companion of Honor, a much-coveted British title.)

Mr. Blair perceived the obvious: The British voter liked what Margaret Thatcher was doing, and it was not some passing mood. So Mr. Blair did in the '90s what the Tories had done in the '50s. Presently, Mr. Blair faces a serious Cabinet and constituency rebellion against his Iraq policy, according to the London Daily Telegraph. Whether he will be able to quell that rebellion remains to be seen.

As for the Conservatives, despite their humiliating 1945 defeat, they still had credible spokesmen like Churchill, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Iain Macleod, Reginald Maudling who won back the electorate in 1951 after the sour taste of Labor class warfare governing.

Today the Conservatives have nobody who stands out as Mr. Blair's rival. The present leader, Iain Duncan Smith, 49, is leading a badly divided party, so divided in fact that he has just uttered a warning: "Unite or Die." As an example of division, Duncan Smith (or IDS, as he is known) says he is for tax cuts; his shadow chancellor, Michael Howard, is not. The Tory leader's future hinges on the local council elections in May. Should they turn out to be further defeats for the Conservatives, bye-bye, IDS.

Perhaps the real problem is that, with the end of the Cold War, there is no big issue that divides the two parties. That means New Labor, as it is now called, will be Britain's governing party for a long time to come. Whether the Tories can survive so dismal a future is doubtful.

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