Britain's Conservatives Must Reclaim the Anglo-American Special Relationship

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Britain's Conservatives Must Reclaim the Anglo-American Special Relationship

January 5, 2006 8 min read

Authors: Nile Gardiner and John Hulsman

The election in December of 39-year old David Cameron as leader of the British Conservative Party has dramatically transformed the fortunes of the world's oldest political organization. The latest polls place the Conservatives in a clear lead over the ruling Labour Party for the first time since 1992. The prospect of a Labour defeat in 2009 or 2010, previously unthinkable, is now a distinct possibility.


The extraordinary political rise of David Cameron has been matched by a decline in the standing of Prime Minister Tony Blair. A recent Guardian/ICM poll registered a 55 percent disapproval rating for Blair, with 66 percent of British voters agreeing that the Labour government has run out of steam.[1] In contrast, Cameron's approval rating stands at 51 percent. Alarmingly for Labour, Blair's heir apparent, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, fares even worse in the polls when he is matched against Cameron. With Brown as projected leader, the Conservative Party's lead is significantly increased.


It remains to be seen whether Cameron will maintain the solid lead he has generated in the polls. However, there is no doubting that the Conservative Party has returned as a force to be reckoned with in British politics and on the European stage. Cameron has already thrown down the gauntlet to the Euro-federalists, declaring his intention to remove Britain's Conservatives from the European People's Party (EPP), a political grouping in the European Parliament that is committed to the idea of "ever closer union." This bold move is clearly in line with the British national interest and bodes well for future British policy toward the EU.[2]


On the broader international canvas, however, Cameron's ideas remain an enigma. He has said little about long-term British policy with regard to Iraq or the threat to Western security posed by rogue regimes such as Iran and Syria. Nor has he outlined a coherent conservative strategy for waging the war against al Qaeda. Perhaps most significantly, the new Tory leader has had very little to say about relations with Britain's closest ally, the United States.


Restoring Relations with the Bush Administration

In many respects Cameron inherits a poisoned chalice as Conservative Party leader in his dealings with the U.S. The relationship between the Bush White House and Cameron's predecessor Michael Howard was tense at the best of times. Howard's ex post facto criticism of the Anglo-American decision to go to war in Iraq, as well as his attacks on Tony Blair's unwavering support for President Bush, seriously damaged relations between conservatives on either side of the Atlantic.[3]


Howard was perceived by Washington as playing the anti-American card in an effort to tap into widespread anti-war sentiment. At the same time, British conservatives resented what they perceived to be an exclusive and close political relationship between the Bush Administration and the leadership of the Labour Party. The problem was further compounded by a confused U.S. policy on Europe that came across as favorable to the idea of further political integration in Europe, an anathema to most British conservatives.[4]


This fraught relationship was extraordinary and unprecedented. A right-of-center U.S. administration had developed close ties with a British social democratic party that had abhorred U.S. foreign policy for most of the 1980s and 1990s, while largely cold-shouldering a British conservative political movement that had for decades been a staunch supporter of the United States. In parallel, a substantial minority of British conservatives adopted a virulent strand of anti-Americanism that had been the exclusive preserve of the Left.[5] In the background, British public opinion toward the United States turned increasingly hostile, resulting in a public diplomacy challenge of epic proportions.


Howard's departure and Cameron's ascendancy, however, offer an excellent opportunity for a fresh start in relations between British and American conservatives. The appointments of William Hague as Shadow Foreign Secretary and Liam Fox as Shadow Defence Secretary bode well for a renaissance in the transatlantic conservative alliance. Both are strong Atlanticists with extensive ties to the United States. In his previous brief as Shadow Foreign Secretary, Fox made numerous trips to Washington, building bridges and laying important groundwork for future cooperation.


A White House Meeting with President Bush

It is in the best interest of both the Bush Administration and Britain's conservatives to put aside past disagreements and start talking to each other again. Both need each other and share common interests on the world stage. British conservatives have an important role to play in influencing U.S. policy toward Europe. The Conservative Party should send the message that further political integration in the European Union poses a huge strategic threat to the Anglo-American alliance.


It is in the Bush Administration's firm interest to cultivate close ties with the new Tory leader. The United States needs strong Conservative Party support for the global battle against terrorism, the building of a stable Iraq, trade liberalization, and a host of other foreign policy issues.


Tony Blair deserves credit for his central role in the war on terror and for the courage of his convictions in going to war in Iraq in the face of tremendous opposition from much of his own party and several powerful European governments. His steadfast support for the United States in the four years since September 11 and his key role in building the international coalition of the willing demonstrated principled leadership as well as vision.


However, Blair's days as Prime Minister are numbered, and the British Government's pro-American outlook may not last beyond his premiership, which could end as early as 2007. In addition, it should be acknowledged that Blair made several major errors of judgment on the international stage, including his support for the European Constitution, a blueprint for a federal Europe that threatens both U.S. and British interests.


While maintaining a close working relationship with the Blair Government, the Bush Administration must increase its dialogue with British conservatives, despite the likelihood of strong opposition from both Downing Street and the Foreign Office. It will be a delicate balancing act, but nevertheless one that must be implemented. There should be regular contact between senior officials at the National Security Council, Pentagon, and State Department and the Conservatives' foreign policy team. In addition, the President and other senior administration officials should meet with the new Conservative leader at the White House.


A recent precedent was set by the February 2003 visit to Washington of then-German opposition leader Angela Merkel, who met with the Vice President, Secretary of Defense, National Security Adviser, and several key senators.[6] In July 2005, the President met Merkel's leading foreign policy adviser, Wolfgang Schauble (now interior minister) in the Oval Office.[7] A high-level trip to the United States will be an important opportunity for David Cameron to present himself as a potential world leader.


In his first visit to Washington, Cameron should affirm his commitment to the U.S.-British alliance, strongly back Britain's presence in Iraq, and call for an aggressive British role in the global war on terror. In the spirit of its two most successful modern leaders, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party must once again be the home of the special relationship. It is a partnership that has bonded the world's two leading nations for over 60 years and remains the central bulwark in the defense of Western civilization against terrorism and totalitarianism.


Nile Gardiner, Ph.D., is the Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow, and John Hulsman, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in European Affairs, at the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] "Labour Has Run Out of Steam Say Voters," The Guardian, December 20, 2005.

[2] See "Cameron is Right: Tories Have No Place in the EPP," The Daily Telegraph, December 29, 2005.

[3] For insights and background regarding the deterioration of relations between the Bush Administration and the British Conservative Party, see: George Osborne, "Could a Tory Vote for Kerry?," The Spectator, February 28, 2004; Michael Howard, "Tony Blair Must Be More Honest About Iraq," The Independent, May 20, 2004; "Bush to Howard: Hands Off Tony," The Spectator, May 22, 2004; "Howard Told by Bush: Stay Away," The Sun, August 28, 2004; "Howard Fury Over White House Ban," Independent on Sunday, August 29, 2004; "Howard Snubbed by White House for Blair Attacks," Sunday Times, August 29, 2004; "Growing Apart: Tories and Republicans," The Economist, September 4, 2004; "I'm Not Going to Be Told by the White House How To Do My Job," Michael Howard interview with Dominic Lawson, Sunday Telegraph, November 7, 2004.

[4] For background, see Nile Gardiner, Ph.D., and John Hulsman, Ph.D., "The Bush Administration Should Not Back the European Constitution", Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 668, February 16, 2005, at

[5] See Adrian Wooldridge, "The Michael Moore Conservatives," The Weekly Standard, May 31, 2004.

[6] "US Gives German Opposition Leader Royal Treatment," The New York Times, February 26, 2003.

[7] "Bush Meeting with Merkel's CDU Signals Hope of Improved Relations," Financial Times, July 28, 2005.


Nile Gardiner
Nile Gardiner

Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow

John Hulsman

Former Senior Research Fellow