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As Vote Nears, Tories Can't Get Started

Scaled-Back Message Is Failing to Resonate With the British Public

By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 27, 2005; Page A13

NOTTINGHAM, England -- Michael Howard was hammering home the need for more policemen on the beat before a television studio audience the other day in this city in central England where the rate of gun crime has soared in recent years.

The Conservative Party leader told the audience that his wife and daughter had been the victims of muggings in recent years, and he cited statistics indicating fewer criminals were being caught than at any time in the past two decades. "What makes me really angry is the view that we have to settle for this," Howard said. "It doesn't have to be like this."

Michael Howard, the leader of Britain's Conservative Party, is seeking to lead the Tories back into power after two consecutive landslide defeats to Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Labor Party. (Gareth Copley -- AP)

But just as Howard was warming to his theme, Glen Williams, deputy chairman of the Nottingham Black Police Association, interrupted. He told Howard that his arguments on crime and immigration bordered on racism. "They are emotional and they are pandering to the basest fears of human nature," scolded Williams, who was in the studio audience.

Howard stuck to his view, but his passion was clearly drained and he soon changed the subject.

It's been that kind of campaign for Howard, who is seeking to lead his party back to power in Britain's election next week after two consecutive landslide defeats at the hands of Tony Blair and the Labor Party. Every time Howard's tight, disciplined and on-target approach appears to be getting traction with British voters, someone or something seems to come along to set him back again.

Under the guidance of Lynton Crosby, a campaign manager who has steered Australia's conservatives to four successive victories, Howard has kept to a script that has one slogan -- "Are You Thinking What We're Thinking?" -- and just six campaign promises that can be boiled down to 12 words: lower taxes, more police, controlled immigration, school discipline, cleaner hospitals, governmental accountability. The party's manifesto -- only 18 pages long once the excess white space is removed -- is its shortest since 1966.

The back-to-basics platform appears custom-made for two groups -- the party's right-of-center political base, and undecided voters who feel uneasy about the direction of British society and want someone to blame. Still, the campaign lacks the ideological fervor that former prime minister Margaret Thatcher once brought to the hustings. Conservatives no longer are arguing that they would cut the size of government, but rather that they would run it more efficiently.

Public opinion polls suggest their case is not resonating with large numbers of voters. Survey after survey shows the Conservatives a consistent 6 to 10 percentage points behind the Labor Party. Though the Conservatives traditionally do 2 to 3 points better than the polls predict, many analysts expect Blair to be returned to office, albeit with a reduced parliamentary majority. And the 300-year-old Conservative Party -- one of the most successful political organizations in the history of Western democracy -- is expected to go down to another defeat.

Analysts point to several reasons for the failure of the Tories, as the Conservatives are commonly known. Some blame Howard, a 63-year-old former lawyer and political veteran who was a cabinet secretary in the days of Thatcher and another former prime minister, John Major. Howard is considered a steady but decidedly un-charismatic candidate with a humorless, prosecutorial public persona. Years ago, a fellow Conservative said there was "something of the night" about Howard, a phrase that has stuck.

The campaign has also been criticized. Some analysts contend that the Tories' pared-down agenda reads more like the shopping list of a party seeking to narrow the electoral gap rather than prepare for government. And like Williams, the police official, some critics contend that the campaign smacks of a racist agenda, especially the calls to reduce immigration.

Howard, the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, indignantly denies the racism charge. But the rhetoric of some of the party's parliamentary candidates has fueled the allegation. "What bit of 'Send them back' don't you understand, Mr. Blair?" demanded a leaflet for Bob Spink, a Tory candidate who wants illegal immigrants summarily expelled.

Conservative strategists argue that their program appeals at a gut level to voters who might not be prepared to admit to pollsters that they are attracted to it.

Valerie Baker, a party activist in Gedling, a suburban district northeast of Nottingham that was safely in Tory hands until the Labor landslide of 1997, says she believes the Tories can win it back this time with their emphasis on law and order and controlled immigration. "It's the kind of thing the Labor Party is trying to push under the carpet with accusations of racism," Baker said, "but people on the doorstep say they care about these things."

But Geoffrey Wheatcroft, author of "The Strange Death of Tory England," contends that "they've played it all wrong. You can move to the right to get your base united, but you have to move to the center for the general election. A campaign that demonizes Gypsies, immigrants and asylum seekers inevitably drives wavering Labor supporters back home."

It doesn't help that Howard and the Tories are up against two of Britain's most gifted politicians -- Blair and his treasury secretary, Gordon Brown. Despite the political burden of the deeply unpopular Iraq war, Labor's leadership has managed to take control of the political middle in this campaign, as it did in its 1997 and 2001 victories.

"The British electorate is pretty much in the center ground, and that's where the public want the government to be," said Stephen Byers, a former cabinet secretary, a Blair confidant and one of Labor's key strategists. "The Tories need a strategy to get back to the center, and so far, they simply haven't found a way."

The deeper problem, Wheatcroft says, is that the party has not recovered from the trauma inflicted in 1990 when it unceremoniously ousted Thatcher from power. She was an imperious and demanding leader who guided the party to three consecutive electoral victories, dismantled some of Britain's socialist institutions and transformed the country's economy.

But by 1990, she was considered an electoral liability by many of her former supporters in Parliament. Grass-roots Tories whose loyalty to Thatcher never wavered saw her removal as a betrayal. Her successor, Major, and the party's subsequent three leaders, have all presided over a divided and wounded organization.

Using "Voter Vault," a computer program system also employed by the Republican National Committee in the United States, the Tories have sought to identify swing voters and former supporters to woo them back into the fold. The focus, says Ian Duncan Smith, a former party leader, is rightly on these 1 million potential supporters.

"It's not about ideology, it's about success and failure," said Duncan Smith, who also said that Crosby, the campaign consultant, had "reminded us that you must focus on what you can win, and all the rest is secondary."

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