Politicus: Tories' heavy hitter is failing to connect

Posted in Europe | 19-Apr-05 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

Conservative Party leader Michael Howard.
LONDON The run-up to Britain's national election began with a pair of suppositions: that there were many voters in the country who loathed Tony Blair, and that with this, the Conservatives, if clever or bold, could make Blair's run for a third term fascinatingly uncomfortable.

That was a couple of weeks ago. Michael Howard, the Conservative candidate for prime minister, actually jostled Blair in a final pre-campaign exchange in Parliament, and for a triumphant moment said he was about to wipe that smirk off his face forever. (The Blair smirk has since become the substance of a Tory attack-commercial focusing on him as the-man-of-a-thousand-grins, all of them disingenuous.)

Now, 16 days before the country votes on May 5, there isn't a poll that says Labour won't win. Probable ballot-box revulsion toward Blair and his stance on Iraq hasn't materialized.

And Howard, once hoping that the left might desert Blair for the Liberal Democrats in a carom play that would favor the Conservatives, may well have pushed the supposedly revulsed back into the Labour fold. His tough positions on immigration and crime may not challenge good sense but tread at the limits of British political correctness.

As it turns out, the Iraq issue, supposedly costing Blair great slabs of credibility, looks limited as a practical concern for him to what the British press used to call the chattering classes - and now refers to as the "shiraz quaffers" and their "bruschetta orthodoxies." In fact, The Guardian, a passionate opponent of the war, reported last week that Iraq, with about a 3 percent score, failed to make the top eight on its Policy Battleground Index. The index tracks the importance of various election issues.

Much closer to deep public concern is the economy, where Labour does dramatically better in polling than the Conservatives through an unemployment rate (in spite of the newly announced closure of Rover, Britain's last major market car manufacturer) that is half that of France or Germany's. Stack on top of this Blair's wide preference poll lead over Howard as the next prime minister, and Chancellor Gordon Brown's high ratings for competence as finance minister and designated successor to Blair.

Then consider an underlying invariable: Because of the way the national popular vote translates into seats in Parliament, the Conservatives would have to win a swing vote of 10 to 11 percent from Labour, a monumental total, to get an overall majority.

You should never say it's over - but you could.

Especially because, this far, Howard and the Conservatives have not seemed clever or bold enough to win.

Identifying their target zones - Iraq and Europe are regarded as stay-away, troublesome issues by both parties - the Conservatives have focused on talking about controlling immigration numbers, getting more police officers, lowering taxes, re-establishing discipline in schools, cleaning up hospitals, mistrusting of Blair, and in general, creating more accountability.

Using immigration as a central point, Howard has woven an immigration-crime-incivility theme together with a certain legitimacy: he says there are more than "a quarter million failed asylum seekers living in the country with no right to be here."

But this litany comes with what has been described as a dog-whistle approach: stating grievances through code-words that constitute nudges and winks in the direction of what Howard seems to regard as an aggrieved, native British majority eager to gobble up deflected messages.

I've heard Howard talk about not letting "the minority run the education of the majority." He wants "these yobs to be afraid of the police." He says he is running "for the people who don't ask for special favors and who are being pushed to the back of the queue," or "for Britain's forgotten majority, people who take responsibility for themselves and their families." And not a campaign day passes without several statements of Howard's reverence for "hard-working Britons."

Is this just populism or does it have a borderline racist subtext? David Mellor, a former Conservative cabinet member, said, "Labour would love to accuse Howard of racism, but a Jewish man whose parents were political refugees from Hitler with a daughter dating a black American doesn't present the easiest of targets. And Howard knows how to the push the race button in a sophisticated way."

In fact, Anthony King, a professor of government at Essex University, said that on the basis of polling at the end of last week "it looks as though the Conservatives have made all the gains they are going to make on immigration and asylum."

Hearing Howard, his approach strikes me as all the more clammy because the issues he raises are real and legitimate and seemingly the Conservatives' best shot, but involve his running along a verbal tightrope at their perimeter. Just like Labour, he never deals with the basic question - Islam and Islamic fundamentalism's compatibility with Britain and modern European society.

The subject has been outed from its former taboo zone in the Netherlands and debated regularly there. Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of the Gaullist party in France, and Otto Schily, Germany's Social Democratic interior minister, have both made the issue of how Islam accommodates to Western democracy readily discussible in their countries.

But while Howard has promised to root out political correctness in Britain, he employs an outdated, deliberately ambiguous vocabulary, leaving untouched more exact, acceptable words and ideas defining the basis of conflict in Britain. Because Howard has not been bold and widened the debate, he has been stuck defending himself against charges of racism with the fatally narrow phrases the experts say will not get him any more votes.

Since there is no visible Labour interest in getting to the heart of the issue, this leaves Britain with a campaign, short of confrontation on subjects like Islam, Iraq or Europe, that feels and sounds provincial.

A few years ago, I had lunch in London with the Conservative leader, then an out-of-office former home minister.

I remember enjoying Howard's company, although being a bit nonplused to hear him say he was a serious fan of the sometimes raffish New York Mets and their baseball ups and downs.

This week, there were these related thoughts: A Howard election whiff is at hand. The day after, May 6, the Mets play Philadelphia at home with a 1:30 p.m. start, and the promise of a couple of glorious hours in the sun. A footloose, true-blue fan could take the first plane of the day from Heathrow to Kennedy, and not miss a pitch.