January 5, 2006 | Commentary on Foreign Aid and Development

Britain's wintry mix

The days after Christmas were the coldest in England for a quarter century. In southern England, rare snow flurries chased each other over gently rolling landscapes that offered little protection from biting winds. Had this spell of cold weather arrived just a day or two earlier, the famous London bookies would have lost 3 million pounds to those who bet on a White Christmas.

Frosty temperatures have their reflection in the general mood. When the season's best selling book carries the title "Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit?" things are probably not exactly what they should be.

Into this gloom, British Tories and their new leader, David Cameron, who was elected overwhelmingly in early December, have tried to interject notes of rejuvenation, optimism, and change. For a party that itself has been beset by deep depression in recent years, it is a striking attempt at transformation. As a senior Tory politician said during a recent visit to Washington, "Even if we do get a good idea, the public won't buy it just because it comes from us."

Whether the transformation of the Conservative Party to a party of the "middle" with a leader who identifies himself as a "liberal conservative" will work remains to be seen. The media loves the story, and opinion polls have boosted the Conservatives ahead of the ruling Labour Party for the first time in forever. The big questions are: Will the base of the Tory Party buy it? Will voters believe that the transformation is more than cosmetic? And can Mr. Cameron keep the Tories together until the next election in three or four year's time?

Mr. Cameron's open and youthful face as well as good television presence is a big help. Political cartoonists have so far settled on a cherubic version of Mr. Cameron's appearance, which, if it lasts, will stand him in good stead in the next general election when he will face the glum looking Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer and prospective successor to Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Paradoxically, the new set of policy priorities unveiled by the Tories at New Year appear to be polar opposites of the election platform of the very same Conservative Party in last May's election. The former platform, written by none other than Mr. Cameron himself, talked about increasing national control of how British international aid dollars are spent; cutting taxes; reducing regulatory burdens on business; increasing the police force by 5,000 a year; and reducing government borrowing.

The modernization program, by contrast, is the brain child is Conservative Party Chairman Sir Francis Maude. The platform now goes like this: The Tories will make fighting global poverty a moral obligation, not an afterthought. They will judge domestic policies on how much they help the least well off, not the rich. They will fight for equal pay for women. They will stand up to big business.

The Tories will work to improve the National Health Service and abandon any idea of allowing public funds to pay for private care. The Tories will demand radical reform of the police and not "treat them with kid gloves." The Tories will be more welcoming to immigrants.

Mr. Cameron, a public relations specialist by trade, stated after his election to Tory leadership that no policy would be beyond review. He has enthusiastically embraced the new Conservative program, indicating a perhaps startling level of mental flexibility.

One of his most eye catching maneuvers has been to sign up Boomtown Rats rocker turned international poverty guru Bob Geldoff as a Tory adviser on foreign aid, a notion which one Daily Telegraph columnist calls "hard to absorb." Mr. Geldoff, for his part, insists that he does not engage in party politics and will be taking the Tories publicly to task if they fail to deliver for the world's poor.

Triangulation of issues is obviously the name of the Tories' strategic game, and it is a game Labour has played superbly well under Mr. Blair. The Tories are massing to move into Labour territory before the next election, which is indeed necessary if they are ever to stand a chance of winning.

But key is whether they can do so by applying consistent conservative principles, and avoid becoming "Labour light." If, however, they forget what they stand for and abandon their base in order to chase votes, count on a return of the Tory winter of discontent.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times