Keep Right, Tony

A Tale of Two Tories

The United Kingdom election is now over. After witnessing the spectacle of continental and New Zealand-style post-election negotiating between the political party leaders, we got the Cameron/Clegg coalition. Of course the irony is that such backroom bargaining is the very essence of proportional voting systems the Liberal Democrats and a just a few others want. Alas, after you brush aside all the self-serving claims to greater fairness, all that proportional representation proponents offer is post-election negotiations between party leaders, with voters shut out and party manifestoes mere disposable guides, regularly jettisoned to get to power.

There were two stories told about this UK election as regards the Conservative Party, or Tories, under its leader David Cameron. One is positive and runs along these lines: The party was unelectable before Mr. Cameron took over. He moved it to the centre. He gained 97 seats in this election. He made it a more attractive alternative to the all-important swing voters who inhabit the middle ground. And he very nearly pulled off an historic majority win, falling only 20 seats short of that target.

The negative account looks nothing like that. It runs like this: Mr. Cameron has been a failure. He won 36 percent of the vote, only three percent more than former Tory leader Michael Howard won in 2005 when the British economy was booming and Tony Blair was at the height of his powers. In between the British economy has imploded with the deficit now at Greek levels of 12 percent of GDP, the pound 25 percent down, and inflation and a debt well over 100 percent of GDP looming. Oh, and the Labour Party lied about offering a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, and on the reality of its more-or-less unrestrained immigration policy. Plus it was so obviously tired after 13 years in office.

In short, this had been one of the most incompetent government’s on record. And running against that government Mr. Cameron gained only 3 percent of the vote on the last outing. It is inconceivable, say the anti-Cameron crowd, that the Tories would not have done better than that if they had shunned Cameron’s leftward repositioning which was aimed at appealing to the metropolitan London elites whose views and values are at odds with old-fashioned Tory ones.

Or put more starkly, to get a few more votes from the talking heads on the BBC, the Cameron Tories forswore their core vote and attempts to pick up the sort of blue collar voter that politicians like Ronald Reagan in the US and John Howard in Australia were so adept at poaching.

These two competing narratives are important. They’re important not just because a few political commentators in the US, people like David Frum, have been urging US Republicans to mimic the now in tatters Cameron strategy. They’re important also to the future of the Tory party in the UK, the oldest and most successful democratic political party in history.

And they’re important here in Australia.  Why? Because in a way this debate has been playing out here too. Think of David Cameron as a stand-in for former Liberal Party leader Malcolm Turnbull and think of the anti-David Cameron persona as Tony Abbott, the current leader. Faced with this rather stark choice between Cameron-style repositioning and standing firm, the Liberal Party in Australia last year opted ever so narrowly for Tony Abbott.

It seems pretty clear to me, and not just with the benefit of hindsight because I was a strong critic of Malcolm Turnbull at the time, that shunning the David Cameron ‘let’s all be Tony Blair lite’ strategy at the heart of Cameron’s and of Mr. Turnbull’s leadership was the right choice.

First off, up in the UK I think it’s pretty clear that against this Gordon Brown government a more robust Tory platform would have done better. How could it have done worse than a measly 3 percent improvement on 2005?

My view has long been that having your team dress-up and pretend to be the other team is not usually a winning strategy. The whole ‘move to the centre’ maxim presupposes that the centre isn’t a moving target, when in fact it is. Voters may well shift permanently on some things, but on others they want to move all the way back to where they were before this government. My bet is that in the UK, a lot more than 36 percent of voters would have liked a clear move back to pre-Labour days on public spending, on immigration, on resistance to the undemocratic EU project, and more.

More fundamentally, this ‘aim for the centre’ approach assumes that voters cluster in the centre on all issues. Clearly they do on some. But on others it’s likely that there are two spikes, one on the left and one on the right, so that aiming for some centre point comes across as just weak, insipid, and lacking all conviction. Think here of whether to have a bill of rights, whether to offer a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, or whether to have an ETS.

If Tories up in the UK looked to the antipodes they would see that Tony Abbott was scorned by the chattering classes on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and in metropolitan circles as unelectable before he took the party leadership. Indeed this was such an article of faith that a good many Liberal MPs believed it too.

And it was likewise believed that the Australian Labor Party government would eat him for breakfast, not least because he stood for clear Tory policies and – compared to the Labor leader – shunned spin and focus group gobble-de-gook. Less than a year on and Tony Abbott and the Liberals are now tied or ahead in the polls. 

So the self-styled pundits have been wrong. Mr. Abbott, against all historical trends, has a shot to win the next Australian election. And he’s fighting against a centre-left Australian Labor Party that looks nothing like as incompetent or extreme as Mr. Brown’s government. In comparative terms the Rudd government is to my mind politically to the right of not just Mr. Cameron in the UK (yes, the Blair-lite Tory up there), but Rudd is also to the right of Mr. Key in New Zealand (also a supposed Tory), and arguably even that side of Mr. Harper in Canada (yep, another Tory) and the Obama administration (which is at least a comparison of nominally left versus nominally left).

Mr. Rudd also leads an Australian Labor Party that, compared to the UK’s Mr. Brown and his ruining of the British economy, looks to be fiscal soundness incarnate, though as John Cleese would say, ‘that’s high praise indeed’.

So I’m with the Cameron critics up in the UK. Their account seems far more plausible. The Tony Abbott ‘Tory Down Under’ is a far, far better thing than Mr. Cameron has ever offered. So expect the worst of times in Britain for the next few years.


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