The Death Of Tory England

The British conservatives have become the party of serial regicide. This week the Tories will seek their fourth leader in six years, after sacking Iain Duncan Smith before he even contested a national election.

The poor man didn't deserve such a humiliating fate. Duncan Smith projected a sober image of personal integrity. In a notable 2002 speech, he called himself "the quiet man." He was widely credited for bringing his party back from the brink, with recent polls showing it running even with Labour--even if this signals dissatisfaction with Tony Blair rather than support for the Tories.

Yet he was doomed from the start. Right-wing M.P.s engineered his election as party leader two years ago to block more eminent centrists, Kenneth Clarke and Michael Portillo, despised by the hard-core Thatcherites. A political unknown, Duncan Smith was not considered electable as a prime minister. He was perceived as a right-winger in a right-wing party who could not secure agreement on a party program. At question time, Blair managed to make him appear nasty yet impotent. Above all, he seemed unable to fully exploit Blair's weakness on Iraq and public-service reform. Millionaire donors behind the Tory party cut off the cash, and Duncan Smith was duly cast into the political darkness.

His precipitous rise and fall demonstrates more than the absence of an electable leader--it demonstrates the absence of a viable electoral strategy. The Conservative Party, which dominated British politics in the 20th century, ruling Britain for 60 of the past 80 years, is a shadow of its former self. Since 1935, Conservative victories have been by ever-lower percentages; defeats have been by ever-wider margins. The nightmare of becoming Britain's third party, limited to rural England, looms. Only one Tory M.P. hails from Scotland, and none from Wales. Large cities such as Liverpool, Newcastle and Manchester elect no Conservatives.

Elsewhere, conservatives thrive. In Spain, Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar recently handpicked his successor, Mexican style. In France, President Jacques Chirac's anti-U.S. stance makes him the darling of the left and the right. In Italy, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi may be a buffone, but he rules unchallenged. Across the pond, Republicans reign. So why are the Tories threatened with irrelevance?

The main reason is that the Conservative Party, with its noble tradition of "one nation" progressive conservatism dating back to Benjamin Disraeli, has become a party of right-wing reaction. The Tories occupy the most conservative 20 to 30 percent of the British political spectrum. In Europe, extreme right-wingers vote for small anti-immigrant or "post-fascist" parties, which are nearly always excluded from government. (Right-wing Gaullist Jacques Chirac ran against extreme rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen.) When radical forces are included, as in Italy, coalition politics imposes moderation.

In Britain's "first past the post" elections for single-member districts, by contrast, extremists can win a parliamentary seat with a third of the vote. Thatcher governed Britain for 11 years while never receiving more than 44 percent. Even this is now beyond the Tories. Yet party rules place the selection of parliamentary candidates in the hands of small groups of local faithful with extreme views unrepresentative of the national electorate.

The result: the party is stuck outside the mainstream. Tories are now uniting behind a Thatcherite platform of privatizing schools, health care and other public services--ideas taken from the Bush Republicans and a hard sell in Britain, where (as commentator Will Hutton points out in his book "The World We're In") the population generally supports state intervention to promote a just and equitable society. On foreign policy, the Tories have become almost xenophobic. Euroskeptic pressure to exit the EU, Churchillian hankering after union among English-speaking peoples and misty sentimentality about lost empire surface among Conservative M.P.s. In the European Parliament, of all things, the Tories seek to construct a new coalition with the right-wing nationalists of Eastern Europe.

Such stands deny the most charismatic and electable Tory politicians a shot at party leadership. Activists rule out Clarke, who appeals most to Liberal or Labour swing voters, because of his cautiously pro-European stance. Unlike their spin-savvy American cousins, they also veto even those (like Portillo) who disguise their radical agenda under a mantle of "compassionate conservativism."

In lieu of these formidable figures, Conservative M.P.s are likely to name Michael Howard. He is a serious politician, a fine debater, and he can probably stave off an electoral embarrassment in 2006. But he is also an aloof 62-year-old from the Thatcher days with the clubby aura of stale cigar smoke about him. Already he is termed an "interim" leader. Such is the slow, strange death of conservative England.