David Frum

10.01.13

Where the Right Is Winning

In the U.K., the ideologically rigid left can’t keep up with David Cameron’s ruling Conservatives. David Frum reports from a party pep rally.

As American conservatives shut down their government, British Conservatives are preparing for a second term running theirs.

This is the week of the Conservative Party conference in the city of Manchester. In its theme and tone, the conference offers a course correction away from the touchy-feely politics that elected David Cameron back in 2010. Banners proclaim the conference slogan: "For hardworking people." Huge placards bracketing the entrance to the convention center list six principal government achievements, three on each side of the huge gate:

"Taxes cut for 25 million people.

Deficit down.

More private sector jobs."

"Welfare down.

Crime down. 

Immigration down."

Conservatism doesn't get more bread-and-butter than that.

Boris Johnson, the mayor of London and probably the single most personally popular figure in the party, ended his Tuesday morning speech to the conference with a boldly partisan appeal to tear the albatross of the Liberal Democrats from the neck of the coalition government and elect a full-strength Conservative majority.

Johnson's speech of celebration of London's and Britain's economic achievements delighted the fullest hall of the entire conference to date. He scornfully quoted a derisive comment about Britain by a Kremlin official and then said: "I hesitate to disagree with the Kremlin for fear of finding polonium in my sushi." That jibe, of course, mocked the murder on British soil of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, a crime detected by British police work and traced by British forensic scientists to the highest levels of Russian leadership, intensely embarrassing Vladimir Putin in the process.

Even sleepy Brussels now has a murder rate double that of London’s.

On Monday, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced a rank-and-file-pleasing cancellation of a scheduled increase in gasoline taxes. Last decade, the Conservatives positioned themselves as a green party, willing to raise the cost of fossil fuel in order to reduce the energy intensity of the British economy. At this conference, energy secretary Michael Fallon suggested that this project had reached its end: no further green levies would be imposed.

Yet while a party conference may not be the place to boast of it, it's also true that the Cameron government has accumulated a green record: energy efficiency, reductions in coal use, and a surge in alternative sources of power. The Cameron government has proceeded both with modernizing reforms and also with tough conservative reforms in education and welfare, launching a thousand new charter schools and insisting on community service and other forms of work contribution for the long-term unemployed.

The greatest vulnerability of the Cameron Conservatives originates not in their cultural modernization—the enactment of same-sex marriage, for example—but in their big, bold gamble on austerity economics. Britain met the financial crisis with a program of tax increases and spending cuts that was followed—as Keynesians would have predicted—by a much sharper economic contraction than in the United States, even deeper losses, and an even slower recovery. Back in 2010, many British Conservatives thought: "If we modernize our party culturally, that will gain us permission to do traditional conservative economics." Today many British Conservatives blame cultural modernization on the political costs of austerity economics.

Yet British conservatism has great residual strengths. It was right about the European Union and right about the euro currency. It was right about the harms of too-rapid immigration. It was right about vigorous policing reducing crime rates—London is now safer than at any time since the 1960s, much safer than self-congratulatory New York. As Boris Johnson joked in his conference speech, even sleepy Brussels now has a murder rate double that of London’s, "presumably carried out with lobster picks."

Their greatest strength, of course, is their opponents' weakness. It's Ed Miliband's Labour Party that seems to be following the negative example of U.S. Republicanism, recoiling upon ideological fundamentals and empowering the party's most unpopular interest groups—notably the public-sector unions. Cameron and his party find themselves in the same place as Barack Obama in 2012: vulnerable on their economic record, but protected from that vulnerability because their chief opponent will not and cannot offer a credible alternative.