Politics

Conservatives Rebound in UK Elections

The Tory Party was poised to take control of the British government after voters dealt a blow to the ruling Labour Party in Thursday’s elections for seats in the House of Commons. 
  
With votes still being counted, the BBC projected that the opposition Tory Party (Conservatives) will win at least 305 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons.  That’s 21 seats shy of a majority, but enough for Tory Leader David Cameron to cobble together support from smaller parties from Ireland and elsewhere (who won a total of 29 seats). Under those circumstances, Queen Elizabeth would probably ask Cameron to form the first minority government in London since 1974.  
 
The shift from the ruling Labour Party to the Tories was nothing short of breath-taking.  Where the Tories gained 95 seats over their 2005 performance at the polls, Labour dropped 94 seats to just 255 in the new House of Commons. 
 
Supporters of the Labour Party and embattled Prime Minister Gordon Brown insisted that their man could still try to form a government himself with the help of the far-left Liberal Democrats and their leader Nick Clegg. 
 
But for all the cries of hope from the left, the numbers just aren’t there for a “Lab-Lib” coalition. Despite the much-ballyhooed performances of Clegg in the first two televised debates with Brown and Cameron, his party drew only 61 seats, or one fewer than in the last parliament.  Between them, the parties of Brown and Clegg just don’t come as close to a majority as Cameron’s. 
 
Here in Washington, one could almost hear the collective sighs of relief at the projections that Clegg won’t be near No. 10 Downing Street (the prime minister’s residence).  The “Lib Dem” leader’s talk of the “special relationship” with the U.S. being over and criticism of “saber-rattling” over Iran having nuclear weapons made thoughts of a “Prime Minister Clegg” alarming in this country.
 
So what should Americans make of the 43-year-old Cameron, a former public relations man who has never held a Cabinet position and is poised to become  his country’s first Conservative Prime Minister in 13 years?
 
Cameron Likes America More than EU
 
Since Cameron has never held a major policy position, one has to assess him primarily through his words.  In that sense, Americans should feel comfortable.  As Financial Times Contributing Editor Max Hastings wrote, “[Cameron] deplores crude anti-Americanism, which the Iraq invasion made respectable again in Britain.”  Hastings quotes Cameron as saying of America-bashing: “It is a complacent cowardice, born of resentment of success and a desire for the world’s problems to go away.”
 
The Cameron government will not change current British policy in Afghanistan, although he is determined that “it’s got to be in the next parliament that these [British] troops really start coming home.” Like Gordon Brown, Cameron is also firmly committed to maintaining the submarine-based Trident missile defense system that is Britain’s nuclear deterrent.
 
A key player in the Cameron defense agenda will be Dr. Liam Fox, very likely the new defense minister.  Former physician Fox is well-known by conservative politicians and reporters in this country (including me; he has given two interview to HUMAN EVENTS)
 
Where many Americans are concerned about the growing power of the European Union, Cameron—while a firm multilateralist—has some skepticism about the EU himself.  Last year, he made the decision that the Tory European parliament members should join the more right-of-center caucus in Brussels.  Moreover, Cameron’s platform calls for restoring British control over EU social legislation.
 
As the EU and the International Monetary Fund are poised to bailout out debt-wracked Greece, the Cameron government will be watched closely by conservatives in this country to see whether it signs off on another fiscal rescue mission underwritten by other nations. 
 
Cameron will also be watched closely as to how he deals with his own country’s flood of red ink.  With the budget deficit in Britain approaching 11% of national income, the Tory leader has been faulted for being vague about what he will do to control the red ink.  In the style of Margaret Thatcher, Cameron has promised tax cuts and has vowed to trim the budget deficit by 6 billion pounds this year.  However, he has also vowed to preserve his country’s national health system and spoke often of his commitment to the poor and powerless of society.
 
Like Mac Or Maggie?
 
Visitors to Cameron’s office note that above his desk is a portrait of Harold MacMillan, prime minister from 1957-64 and father of the modern pragmatic policy that is called “One Nation Toryism.”  In many ways, Cameron is very much like fellow Etonian Macmillan—embracing the public realm and, as Philip Stephens wrote in the Financial Times, “more pragmatist than ideologue.”
 
But in many ways, he is also like the other most significant Tory prime minister since Churchill, Lady Thatcher.  The dangerous economic times point to the fact that Cameron, who vocalized strong Thatcherite views in college, will have to deliver blows to the government structure that would make the “Iron Lady” proud.
 
A look at some of those around Cameron underscores that view.  William Hague, the likely foreign secretary in the next government, and George Osborne, the 38-year-old who is sure to become chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), are considered Thatcherites.  Osborne is considered much more willing to make spending cuts than the incoming prime minister and thus become Cameron’s “terrible swift sword.” 
 
Others on Cameron’s personal staff are considered solid small-c conservatives:  former advertising executive Steve Hilton, Cameron’s strategy director, and press secretary and former tabloid editor Andy Coulson. 
 
For now, at least, the center right has finally returned to power in Britain after being out in the wilderness for 13 years.  They did so in part because they offered a fresh face and someone who, while criticized for being vague, seemed to be a fresh face, different from the previous leaders.  How David Cameron translates that “freshness” and “newness” into governing will determine his fate—and will be worth watching on this side of the pond. 


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