Michael Howard

If only he were George Bush.

British Conservative party leader Michael Howard
British Conservative party leader Michael Howard

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher led the British Conservative party back into power with the exquisite piece of agitprop “Labour isn’t Working,” a phrase accompanied by a picture of a snaking queue of the unemployed. Those were the days when the Tories, as the party is known at home, could boast of being the most successful election-winning machine in the West. Ah, yes, those were the days. The current Conservative leader Michael Howard set out to defeat Tony Blair in the British general election on May 5 with this slogan: “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” The Sunday Mirror claimed the Tories lifted the line from an Australian children’s show, Bananas in Pyjamas. Whatever the origin, you can almost hear the whirring of bewildered British minds: “Are you thinking what we’re thinking? Well, I don’t know, what are you thinking? If I was thinking what you’re thinking, why would you have to ask? More to the point, why would you be so consistently behind in the polls?”

There is barely an echo of Thatcher in today’s Tory party. Nor is there any reflection of the Tories’ fellow conservatives across the Atlantic. No pledges of fundamental tax reform and smaller government. No compassionate conservatism. And only a wishy-washy endorsement of the Iraq war. In fact, Howard has positioned himself as the anti-Bush in this election—and that increasingly looks like a serious misjudgment.

No doubt Howard had little choice but to exploit British anger at Blair for acting as the American president’s “poodle” by joining in the decision to invade Iraq. In 1997, Mr. Blair embodied a new hope for Britain. For many today, it is a broken faith. Howard, on the other hand, is seen as a smart if unsympathetic politician, certainly a steadier helmsman than the two Conservative leaders who preceded him. But he has failed to pull off Bush’s trick of broadening conservatism’s appeal. Bush offered faith-based initiatives and medical malpractice and education reforms. He stumped as moral and bold. Howard is pushing a crackdown on illegal immigrants and a very modest adjustment in tax collection and public spending. He comes across as mean yet timid.

Ten days out from the election, Howard acknowledged that his party was “two goals down at half-time.” He likes the analogy not only because he is an ardent fan of Liverpool F.C. but also because he has a history of comebacks. Born in South Wales in 1941 to a Romanian Jewish shopkeeper—though he makes conspicuously little mention of his Jewish background—he went to Cambridge University, where he became president of that bullpen for aspiring British politicians, the Cambridge Union Society. Still, he struggled to get to Parliament, losing his first campaign in 1966 before finally making it to the House of Commons in 1983. In the intervening years, he had a thoroughly successful career as a barrister, including handling the divorce case of former model Sandra Paul, whom he later married.

As a politician, Howard’s trademark has been the stalwart defense of unpopular positions. He was the point man in 1990 for the reviled “poll tax”—the system of local taxation that got its nickname from the 14th-century levy that sparked the Peasants’ Revolt—a local tax system that prompted riots in the street and led to Thatcher’s political demise. Later, he was the hard-line home secretary who cracked down on crime with the simple prescription “prison works.” His best-known moment came in a 1997 interview when he was forced to fend off a question about his handling of the prisons, posed 12 times by the haughty Jeremy Paxman of the BBC. The extraordinary awkwardness of the encounter—dogged reporter asking and asking while politician dodges and dodges—was remembered both for Paxman’s smugness and Howard’s squirming. When he first ran for the Conservative party leadership that year, Howard came in fifth out of five candidates. He wasn’t helped by a former Cabinet colleague’s comment that “there is something of the night about him.” He was elected Conservative leader unopposed in 2003, a time when the disillusioned party seemed to have run out of options.

Like John Kerry, Howard voted in favor of the war in Iraq and thus is badly positioned to capitalize on his incumbent opponent’s most glaring vulnerability. The Liberal Democrats, historically Britain’s third party, have staked the anti-war ground. So, Howard has gotten little traction from saying that while the invasion was the right thing to do, Blair is nevertheless “a liar” who misled and deceived the British people.

Instead, Howard has made immigration the battleground of this campaign, playing to fears of bogus asylum seekers bilking the system. In this, he is the mirror opposite of Bush, who has, in his own way, challenged Americans to embrace the reality of immigration from Mexico and other Latin American countries. Howard promises that a Conservative government would establish a dedicated border police, create 24-hour security patrols at British ports, and curb foreign work permits. He likes to accuse Blair of “pussy-footing” around the issue.

This is not just to miss the point of the election, which if it can’t be about Iraq surely should be about the old Conservative staples: taxes, red tape, and government inefficiency. Howard’s line of attack also fails to heed the lessons British Conservatives could have learned from the Bush victory in 2004. The achievement of compassionate conservatism, embodied in the No Child Left Behind Act and the faith-based initiatives, is that it has allowed Republicans to shore up their base while reaching out to the more moderate American middle class. Howard’s focus on immigration, on the other hand, has left the door open to Conservatives who are playing to British xenophobia. “What bit of ‘send them back’ don’t you understand Mr. Blair?” asks a pamphlet distributed by Bob Spink, a Tory candidate in Essex.

That sort of Olde England tub-thumping may appeal to part of the Tory base, but it’s generally a turnoff to the middle-class Middle England constituencies Mr. Howard needs to win. Nor has it won the approval of the business community. Digby Jones, the head of the Confederation of British Industry, attacked Mr. Howard’s proposed cap on immigration, saying it would tie the hands of U.K. businesses by staunching the flow of new workers and fresh intellectual talent. It’s impossible to imagine Bush leaving himself open to a similar lambasting.

Howard has been on the defensive on the economy, too, fending off Labor’s charges that the Tories will dismantle public services. As a result, his Conservative party is offering only the most modest of tax-cutting agendas—less than a penny on the pound in real terms, or about a cent on the dollar. This is also un-Bush, being neither ambitious nor ideological. No wonder the Sun, Rupert Murdoch’s best-selling tabloid, backed Blair and berated the Tories for not acting like real Conservatives.

To be fair, Howard inherited a damaged party, intellectually spent after 18 years in office, riven by disagreement over Britain’s place in Europe, and, following two heavy defeats to Labor, increasingly given to self-doubt. And of course American politics do not directly transpose across the Pond. Bush— a self-styled rancher, a Christian and a warrior with the occasional utopian flourish—would not be a winning candidate in Britain. Moral values don’t play in secular Britain the way they do in the church-going red states—Blair’s piety is as much of a liability in the U.K. as Bush’s God-talk is an asset in the U.S. Still, if (when) the Conservatives lose, it will be in no small part because they too readily shunned the effective formula of American conservatives. The Tories may find more Brits think like them when they start thinking more like Republicans.