British Elections: Implications for the U.S.

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.

These elections 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 relationship.

The Resurgence of the Conservative Party

The Conservatives 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.

For the 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 conservative alliance.

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 issues.

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 Blair?

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.[1] 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.[2]

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 liability.

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.[3] 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 contest.

For Washington, 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.[4]

A New Foreign Secretary

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 2003.

Although firmly 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.[5]

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.

Blair’s 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.”[6] 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.[7] Beckett expressed reservations ahead of the war against Iraq and was particularly concerned by the contribution of conflict to “poverty and environmental degradation.”[8] 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.[9]

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 U.S. policymakers.

[1] Peter Riddell and Philip Webster, “Support for Labour at Lowest Level Since 1992,” The Times, May 9, 2006 at,,2-2171574,00.html.

[2] George Jones, “Blair is Most Unpopular Leader”, The Daily Telegraph, May 10, 2005.

[3] George Jones and Brendan Carlin, “Blair: I’ll Quit Next Year – Trust Me,” The Daily Telegraph, May 9, 2006, at;
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[4] For further background on British strategic thinking on the Iranian nuclear issue, see Nile Gardiner, Ph.D., “Forging a U.S.-British Coalition to End Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Program,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 1047, April 24, 2006, at

[5] See Nile Gardiner, Ph.D., “Forging a U.S.-British Coalition to End Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Program,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 1047, April 24, 2006, at
; Ewan MacAskill, “The Two Crucial Mistakes That Cost Straw His Job,” The Guardian, May 6, 2006; “Straw Uses Tough Language to Rule Out Iran Strike,” Financial Times, April 10, 2006.

[6] “Ever Decreasing Circles,” The Times, May 6, 2006.

[7] Interview with Margaret Beckett, The Independent, September 29, 1991; Philip Webster, “Beckett Emphasizes Left-Wing Credentials,” The Times, June 20, 1994; “Blair Still Runaway Favorite as Beckett Backs CND,” Press Association, June 19, 1994.

[8] Matthew Engel and Nicholas Watt, “US Rift Widens Over Iraq,” The Guardian, August 26, 2002.

[9] Michael White and Patrick Wintour, “Beckett Urges US to Face Up to Climate Change,” The Guardian, May 28, 2005.