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Sunday Take: Can the GOP learn from Britain's Conservative Party?

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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 2, 2010

LONDON

The regeneration of the Conservative Party in Britain, after more than a decade of electoral defeats and demoralization, has set the stage for a possible -- and possibly messy -- change in government after Thursday's election. Are there lessons from the Tories for a Republican Party eager to regain power in the United States?

The answer is no and maybe -- no because the makeup of conservative movements in the two countries is different enough that it is difficult for Republicans to emulate the Tories; maybe because what David Cameron, the Conservatives' leader and candidate for prime minister, has tried to do in modernizing his party offers a reminder of the hard work that must be done to redefine a political party in the eyes of the voters.

Cameron took over the party leadership in late 2005, after a third successive defeat at the hands of the Labor Party and its then-leader, Tony Blair. The lesson from Blair was that parties are successful only if they can capture the center ground in politics. Early in his tenure, Cameron said, "As Labor moved to the center ground, the Conservative Party moved to the right. . . . The alternative to fighting for the center ground is irrelevance, defeat and failure."

In the United States, Republicans think President Obama has abandoned the center with his policies on health care, climate change and economic stimulation. But Cameron's statement is a useful warning to a GOP being pushed to the right by "tea party" activists and others.

Cameron set out to emulate Blair's strategy without straying too far from conservative principles. The initial changes were as much symbolic as real: being photographed on a dogsled while examining the impact of global warming; riding a bicycle to work, albeit followed by a chauffer-driven car; emphasizing (as George W. Bush had once done) his desire to be a compassionate conservative.

Other changes signaled an acceptance of where the British electorate stood, the most important of these being his declaration that he would protect the National Health Service (which Republicans held up to ridicule during the health-care debate).

Some of his moves caused a backlash from the Thatcherites in the Conservative Party, who thought he was trying to make the Tories "New Labor Lite," as one critic put it. But that only played into Cameron's strategy of refurbishing the image of a party seen as pinched, nasty and a preserve of the wealthy.

Cameron's closing statement in Thursday's final televised candidate debate highlighted a rhetorical emphasis unlike that of many of his predecessors. "I believe the test of a good and strong society is how we look after the most vulnerable, the most frail and the poorest," he said. "That's true in good times, but it's even more true in difficult times."

Whether Cameron has truly changed the Conservative Party has been an issue in the current campaign. Prime Minister Gordon Brown repeatedly dismissed him Thursday as a disciple of the "same old Tory party" of the past. Brown's message was that, in power, Cameron would resort to austerity moves that would damage vulnerable people and protect the affluent.

Others, including some U.S. conservatives, have suggested that Cameron has been more style than substance. Still others have said he has skirted the toughest issues facing the country, particularly in how he would deal with the huge budget deficit if he becomes prime minister.


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