Andrew Sullivan used my first-ever post for National Review Online to bash National Review Online. I don’t want to get too involved in what appears to be a long-running dispute, but it’s important to draw the right lessons from the path that David Cameron has followed and which, according to the London Times, should lead him to become the world’s foremost conservative leader in about one year’s time.
First of all, don’t exaggerate the importance of David Cameron’s emphasis on green issues and his respect for same-sex partnerships. I happen to support the “decontamination” of the Conservative brand but, because it was first pursued at the expense of traditional Tory values rather than alongside them, it took the party perilously close to defeat in 2007. If Gordon Brown had called a General Election during his honeymoon period, he would have probably won. The Tories only avoided defeat by taking a decidedly right turn. The October 2007 promise to abolish inheritance tax for nearly all Britons was decisive in rescuing David Cameron’s leadership.
Second, avoid the “blood on the carpet” disunity that some Republicans appear to be advocating. Some U.K. Conservatives wanted David Cameron to declare war on traditional Tories. Former Tory Cabinet minister Michael Portillo led the calls for a “friendly fire” strategy. Attacking the Republican brand — as Michael Steele and David Frum risk doing — only exacerbates the brand’s problem. Worse still, it adds disunity to the Republican Party’s problems and all electorates hate fractious, disunited parties.
Third, don’t take any issues off the table. The Tories decided to disarm economically two years ago. They matched Labour on tax’n’spend and decided to focus on other issues — notably crime and education. The disarmament strategy left them with little to say when the economy went south. They’ve quickly built a distinctive economic position since then but the earlier period of echoing Labour on economic matters has left the party with reduced credibility. Tempting as it may be to stop talking about national security or moral issues, you cannot predict their relevance at future elections. Keep both of them bubbling away as Republican issues.
Fourth, don’t assume that all U.K. lessons are easily importable. Britain never had the Bush tax cuts but Brown’s tax rises. It hasn’t had zero-tolerance policing or welfare reform. Issues that David Frum says are less salient in America remain very salient in Britain. I’m sure similar things are true in reverse.
Fifth, Cameron’s greatest asset has been the longevity of Labour and its many failures. 80% of Tory Party members identify Labour failure as the principal explanation for David Cameron’s success. It’s still true that governments lose elections more than oppositions win them.
I set out some more detailed thoughts on what the GOP can learn from the Tories here.
— Tim Montgomerie is editor of ConservativeHome.com.