At some point, this may start to sound familiar: a well-established party cruises to office in three straight elections, riding the popularity of a dominant, if sometimes ruthless, leader. Then, entitlement sets in. The party’s policies turn stale. Its senior statesmen grow irksome to the public. Power-drunk members succumb to petty corruption, and a few party operatives even set out to game the political system to personal advantage. Finally—repelled by the steady drip of scandal—voters send the rascals packing.
The post-Margaret Thatcher experience of Britain’s Conservatives can read at times like a roman à clef for Canada’s Liberals after Jean Chrétien—another sometime dynasty that, like the U.K. Tories, once saw itself as its country’s “natural governing party.” In both cases, the succession battle to replace the warlord PM left the party crippled and divided. In both cases, a brief interregnum in office under a new leader merely staved off the inevitable. In Canada, as in Britain, a formerly hapless opponent restyled itself into a credible political alternative, occupying wide tracts of the deposed party’s electoral base and pushing the perennial incumbent further into the wilderness.
If Canada’s Grits are casting their eyes across the ideological divide toward David Cameron’s Tories, it’s because they embody both their fondest hopes and darkest fears. Yes, the British Conservatives are back in minority government—thanks in large part to the efforts of a savvy young leader. But they took 13 years to get there, which is an awfully long time to wait for a restoration. Senior Liberals in this country point to the Conservatives’ inability under Prime Minister Stephen Harper to crack the low 40s in popular support; there is reason, they say, for optimism. But even the most partisan among them admit the hardest part might yet lie ahead. “It’s difficult to make yourself look new again quickly,” says Terry Mercer, who served as the party’s national director from 1995 to 2003 and now sits in the Senate. “It’s even more difficult to do without consuming yourself in internal battles. Regeneration and rejuvenation is one of the toughest things any party will go through.”
To be sure, the fault lines in the British Conservative Party took a while to reveal themselves. The party’s 1992 election win under John Major masked internal divisions that would come to the fore following Labour’s landslide victory five years later under Tony Blair. By then, say observers, the Tories’ unbroken 18-year reign had left members out of touch with voters and suffused with a sense of invincibility. “They figured that they had the recipe for success,” says Tim Bale, author of The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron, “and they assumed the Labour Party had won only by stealing that recipe. They thought they could get back simply by waiting for the Labour Party to implode, or by being even more Thatcherite.”
What they didn’t do, says Bale, was listen to their own pollsters. Bored by the Conservatives’ Euro-skepticism, gripped by the sense that Britain had become a less compassionate society under Thatcher, voters were falling hard for Blair’s fusion of free-market economics and social justice, allowing the articulate young PM to build a formidable centre-left coalition at the Tories’ expense. In response, the Conservatives only hit the anti-Europe button harder, while mining public-opinion surveys to justify their rhetoric. In April 2004, their house pollster, Nick Sparrow, resigned in protest, saying party brass was pressuring him to frame questions in ways that would suggest stronger public support for the Conservatives’ Europe policy than actually existed.
The sense of disconnect was most obvious in the men the Tories chose to lead them. Faced with an opponent who enthused about Britain’s bright future, the Tories reached into their past, electing the estimable but ideologically rigid William Hague. Hague’s attempts to woo younger voters fell flat (he once wore an ill-fitting baseball cap during a public appearance in London’s Notting Hill), and he had a tin ear when it came to Britain’s growing blocs of ethnic voters. In 2001, he infamously warned that a re-elected Labour Party would turn England into a “foreign land,” which allowed the Blairites to paint the Conservatives as the party of xenophobia.
The election that spring didn’t improve matters. Blair’s second straight majority win left the Conservatives with just one more seat than in the previous Parliament, and a meagre list of candidates with which to replace Hague. Many of the Tories’ 165 MPs were rookies, while others weren’t sufficiently anti-Europe to suit the party brain trust. “Given that one-third of any political party is basically mad, you find yourself fishing in a very small pond,” says Bale, chuckling. “That’s one of the reasons they kept choosing the wrong leaders.”
Exhibit A: Iain Duncan Smith, a committed Euro-skeptic whose mild manner raised fears within his party about his ability to win an election. He was ousted by MPs in a motion of non-confidence in late 2003, and succeeded by Michael Howard, a political veteran who had held several cabinet portfolios under Thatcher.
Howard, another true-blue conservative, is credited with instilling party discipline while boiling the Tory platform into 15 clear, digestible principles, moves that helped the Tories to a 33-seat gain in the 2005 election. But he too failed to dislodge Blair, and at 65, Howard admitted he felt too old to wage the battles that lay ahead. His parting gift to the party was to reshuffle his front bench, promoting a promising young member named David Cameron to the position of shadow education secretary.
To credit Cameron alone with the recovery that followed would be simplistic, of course. Weighed down by the unpopularity of the Iraq war, beset by the sort of internal divisions that pushed Thatcher out of leadership, Blair stepped down in June 2007, having served longer than any Labour prime minister in history.
Within a year, the sustained period of economic growth Britain enjoyed under Blair came to a crashing halt, pushing the country into deep deficit and calling into question Labour’s spending record over the past decade. Factor in the dour mien of Blair’s replacement (Gordon Brown could not be further from the twinkling salesman who’d been occupying 10 Downing) and it all amounted to a ray of hope for Conservatives.
Meanwhile, within his own party, Cameron had plain old opposition fatigue working in his favour. “They had lost two elections very badly and they were starting to think, ‘crikey, maybe the problem is us,’ ” says James Hanning, deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday, and co-author of Cameron: The Rise of the New Conservative. Paying lip service to the Euro-skeptics would now be enough, says Hanning, while vocal support for state services like the National Health Service was no longer heresy. “Most Conservatives just like the idea of winning elections, and once it looked like Cameron was going to do that for them, they became less concerned about what he would do when he got there.”
Still, only a leader as deft as the 43-year-old Berkshireman could have tugged the party of Thatcher from its ideological hobby horses. Cameron’s reassurance that the Conservatives will “protect front-line services and the neediest” would have been anathema to Tory values before Cameron won the leadership race in 2005. His promise to cap immigration in the “tens of thousands” (well below the net inflow of 200,000 per year) would have prompted howls of outrage from pressure groups outside the party. This spring, both were election talking points that helped propel the Conservatives into minority government, where they formed a coalition with the left-leaning Liberal Democrats. “Cameron is not an ideological conservative,” explains Vernon Bogdanor, the PM’s friend and former politics tutor at Oxford, in a recent interview with Prospect magazine. “He has small-l liberal instincts on matters like race. He is a tolerant, liberal-minded person.”
That’s the part that came naturally. Identifying with average citizens is something Cameron—born to wealth and schooled at Eton—had to learn. Hanning’s co-author Francis Elliott describes the Conservative leader’s persona as “glassy,” noting that his wife, Samantha (herself an aristocrat), has reportedly persuaded him to leaven his “pat, pre-baked” style with expressions of sympathy, urgency and in some cases anger.
But even more important has been the extraordinary effort Cameron dedicates to the nuts and bolts of party-building. No puppet of backroom strategists, he was reportedly the prime mover in rewriting the party platform and assembling the team of young modernizers who returned the Tories to relevance. “His term was ‘detoxifying the brand,’ ” says Hanning. “They were seen as the nasty party, and they were quite socially conservative in their views on things like homosexuality. In this case, the change has very much come from the top.”
It all invites juicy comparisons to a certain Canadian party leader who at one time was seen as the lodestar of a Liberal resurgence. Michael Ignatieff, a patrician by birth and inclination, may yet exert the sort of sway over his party that Cameron did his. But at 63, he’s not exactly a fresh young face, and for now he seems to be biding his time. Since the party rubber-stamped his ascendency to the leadership in late 2008, the former Harvard scholar’s boldest step has been to lead a “Thinker’s Conference” last March in Montreal, where the yearning for some grand policy vision was almost palpable.
Wary, perhaps, of pre-empting that vision, Ignatieff has been content to pick around the policy margins. His closing speech to the conference included a promise to cut the deficit by freezing corporate tax cuts planned by the Harper government, while declaring the Liberals “the party of the network”—hazily defined as an organization that favours ties with provinces, NGOs and corporations over expansion of the federal state. The concept may prove too elusive for use on the stump. But it’s one way of mitigating the party’s reputation as an agent of Big Government without appearing overly conservative.
Just as Cameron played down his blue-blood pedigree, Ignatieff has tried to neutralize his image as a privileged intellectual. Though born into a family of diplomats and educated at Oxford, the Liberal leader sprinkles his public addresses with references to his grandfather’s farm, while deploying homey metaphors at every turn. Some work better than others. His scripted appearances to promote a platform for rural Canada have generally played well. His call during last year’s economic downturn “to dig this truck out of the ditch” was clangingly inauthentic. Folksy, it seems, is not his strong suit.
And in fairness, harsh electoral reality may prevent the Liberals from taking the sort of decisive steps that would bring Ignatieff Cameron-style recognition. A sharp swing to the right might win plaudits in the freedom-loving West and parts of Ontario, but it would weaken support in Toronto, Montreal and Atlantic Canada—the party’s last remaining strongholds. Quebec constitutes an even greater challenge because of the Bloc’s near-stranglehold on one-sixth of the seats in the House of Commons, a situation unthinkable in Westminster. “Take 50 seats out of the equation, and it’s very hard to get to a majority,” says Sen. David Smith, a Chrétien loyalist who has held key positions in several Liberal election campaigns. “That would be a problem no matter who the leader is.”
Smith does, however, draw hope from recent events in Britain; the last-hour retreat from the Liberal Democrats, a third-place party akin to Canada’s New Democrats. As recently as a week before the May 6 election, he notes, Nick Clegg’s party appeared poised to join the established powers as a potential government, which could well have consigned Labour to its own long banishment. But on election day, discontented Brits ran back into the arms of the established parties, leaving Clegg with five fewer seats than he won in 2005. “The voters seemed to understand that, if you don’t like the party that’s in, there’s only one party you can expect to replace them,” concludes Smith. “That gives me some degree of optimism.”
As a peg for Liberal aspirations, it doesn’t seem like much. This was, after all, a party that once blew away opponents like they were campaign signs in an autumn wind. Now, as it waits for its leader to chart a new course—or for the current government to wear out its welcome—Canada’s “natural governing party” will take what encouragement it can find.