Despite the scant
attention they have received in the United States, the UK's
May 4 local elections were a political earthquake that
dramatically altered the electoral landscape in America's closest
ally. The ruling Labour Party placed third in the polls, with just
26 percent of the national vote, and lost nearly 300 council seats.
The opposition Conservative Party polled 40 percent, gaining 300
seats-the party's best performance in 14 years. The Conservatives
are now the dominant party of local government in Britain,
controlling 148 councils, more than twice Labour's 67.
will impact U.S. interests in three ways. First, they herald the
beginning of a Conservative revival that could sweep the Tories
back to Downing Street in 2009 or 2010. Second, the election
results will accelerate Tony Blair's departure from office. Third
and most immediately, the elections prompted a major Cabinet
reshuffle, which saw the exit of Jack Straw and the appointment of
Margaret Beckett as Britain's first woman foreign secretary. All of
these will have implications for the Anglo-American special
The Resurgence of
the Conservative Party
have returned as a force to be reckoned with. If the party can
repeat last week's electoral performance in the next general
election, it could win a small majority in the House of Commons and
take back the keys to power.
Conservatives to maintain this momentum and unseat a Labour
majority of 66 seats remains a huge task and will depend on the
party making major inroads in the north of England, where it
remains weak. Despite dominating huge swathes of London and the
southeast of England, the Conservatives remain virtually invisible
in cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, and Newcastle, as well as
in much of Scotland and Wales. Nevertheless, victory for the Tories
in 2009/2010 is now an attainable goal.
With the balance
of power in the UK beginning to shift away from the Labour Party,
Washington should cultivate close ties with the leadership of the
Conservative Party. The highly successful visit to the United
States in February of Liam Fox (Shadow Defence Secretary), William
Hague (Shadow Foreign Secretary) and George Osborne (Shadow
Chancellor) paved the way for warmer ties between U.S. and British
conservatives and bodes well for a renaissance in the transatlantic
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.
This will be a delicate balancing act, but nevertheless one that
must be done.
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 major strategic threat to the
Anglo-American alliance. At the same time, the United States needs
strong Conservative Party support for the global battle against
terrorism, the confrontation with Iran over its development of
nuclear weapons, the building of a stable Iraq, trade
liberalization, and a host of other foreign policy
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, David Cameron, at the White
House. In his first visit to Washington, likely in late 2006 or
early 2007, Cameron should affirm his commitment to the
U.S.-British alliance, support a strong stand against the regime in
Tehran, back Britain's presence in Iraq, and call for an aggressive
British role in the global war on terror.
The End for
The latest Populus
poll for The Times makes extraordinarily bad reading for the
Prime Minister. Since last week's election, the Conservatives have
established a clear eight-point lead over the Labour Party, with
support for Labour standing at its lowest point since 1992. 65
percent of voters now believe that Labour will lose the next
general election. Even more worrying for Blair, over half of voters
believe he should step down by the end of the year, with just one
in four supporting the view that he should remain in office until
just before the next election.
In another poll, conducted by YouGov for The Daily
Telegraph, Blair received the lowest approval rating for a
Labour Prime Minister in modern times, at 26 percent.
There is open talk
in the Labour Party of a rebellion, even 'civil war,' with
potentially catastrophic effects for the party. At least two
letters have circulated in the past few days among Labour MPs
calling for Blair to set a date for his departure. Dissent is
growing not only among the anti-New Labour left wing of the party,
but also among more moderate MPs who consider Blair a huge
While the Prime
Minister has firmly rebuffed calls to set a timetable, he has
reportedly agreed to stand down in 2007 in favor of his Chancellor
of the Exchequer Gordon Brown.
If Blair does go next year, as is likely but not guaranteed, he
could pick either the 10th anniversary of his accession to power
(May 1st) or the Labour Party's annual conference in late
September. Both Blair and Brown hope for an orderly handover of
power, to avoid the sort of political turmoil that sent the
Conservative Party into a destructive spiral of decline following
the removal of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1990.
Although Blair has de facto anointed Brown his successor,
the Chancellor could face competition for the leadership of the
Labour Party. He is though likely to crush any opponents in a
the impending departure of Tony Blair poses several potential
problems. Blair's absence from the international stage will be a
blow to President Bush, whose partnership with his British
counterpart has been a major driving force of the
Anglo-American-led war on terrorism. While Gordon Brown is known to
be an admirer of the United States, especially its economy, his
political ties in Washington bind him largely to the Democrats and
not to the Republicans. He is highly unlikely to emulate the
close-knit relationship forged between his political rival Blair
and the U.S. president.
Brown, with a
large base of support on the left of the Labour Party, will not
wish to be seen as too close to Bush, a deeply unpopular leader in
the eyes of the British public. Brown's foreign policy priorities
will weigh heavily towards 'softer' issues, such as international
development, poverty reduction, and global warming. He will be far
less likely than Blair to spearhead international efforts in the
war on terrorism and may be less inclined to keep British troops
fighting in Iraq.
On the Iranian
nuclear crisis, perhaps the dominant international issue of the
next few years, Brown's views remain unknown, which will complicate
U.S. strategic thinking on the matter, especially if the use of
force is to be contemplated. Britain will be a critically important
ally for the United States as she confronts the Iranian nuclear
threat, and the timing of Blair's handover of power could influence
Washington as it contemplates military strikes against Iran's
nuclear facilities as a last resort. While Blair is likely to side
with the U.S. in the event of a conflict with Iran, Brown's
position could be far less hawkish.
A New Foreign
A key Cabinet
casualty of the Labour Party election debacle was Foreign Secretary
Jack Straw, who was axed from his post and demoted to Leader of the
House of Commons. His predecessor, Robin Cook, also ended up in
this position after his resignation over the Iraq war in March
denied by Downing Street, Straw's outspoken opposition to the use
of force against Iran played a key role in his downfall. The Prime
Minister had reportedly become exasperated by Straw's approach to
the Iranian nuclear crisis. Unlike his former foreign secretary,
dubbed 'Tehran Jack' by the British press, Blair has never ruled
out the potential for military action against Tehran.
The dismissal of
Straw is the clearest sign yet that Blair will push an aggressive
line on the Iranian issue, similar to that of Washington's. Whether
Blair remains in office long enough to see his policy through
remains to be seen, but there is little doubt that Straw had become
both an obstacle and a liability.
appointment of Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett to succeed
Straw took most analysts by surprise. With the exception of her
work on international environmental treaties, Beckett has little
experience in foreign affairs, and as The Times noted in an
editorial, "she is not a Henry Kissinger."
Beckett's background is in the far left of the Labour Party. She
was until recently a stalwart member of the Campaign for Nuclear
Disarmament (CND) and, in the 1980s, of the "hard-left" Campaign
Group of backbench Labour MPs.
Beckett expressed reservations ahead of the war against Iraq and
was particularly concerned by the contribution of conflict to
"poverty and environmental degradation."
A zealous supporter of the Kyoto Protocol, Beckett has been
critical of U.S. opposition to the treaty and has called on the
Bush Administration to accept what she calls "incontrovertible"
scientific evidence on global warming.
In her new role as
foreign secretary, however, Beckett is unlikely to be as outspoken.
Having developed a reputation recently as a Blair loyalist, a warm
relationship with her U.S. counterparts will be a top priority. She
is clearly inexperienced in the international arena but, in
contrast to Jack Straw, will be less confrontational with Downing
Street over the big international issues of the day. On Iran,
Beckett is likely to stick closely to the Blair line, which is that
the use of force will not be ruled out as a last resort.
The May 4
elections herald the end of Tony Blair's dominance of the British
political scene. The invincibility of New Labour's political
machine has been shattered, and a resurgent Conservative Party has
emerged as a serious contender for political power. As Blair enters
the twilight of his premiership, strategists in Washington must
look to a post-Blair administration and consider how it will impact
U.S. foreign policy. A government led by Gordon Brown will mean
changes to the dynamics of the Anglo-American special relationship.
But Washington must also look further afield to a potential
Conservative government at the end of the decade and should
actively cultivate its relationship with a political party that has
for many years been dismissively relegated to secondary status by
Gardiner, Ph.D., is the Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow at the
Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and
Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The