How a Smile Sunk the Conservatives

Brown has the Tories singing the blues.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown

LONDON—Hands up, everybody: The British Conservative Party surrenders. Only days after Gordon Brown, the new leader of the Labor Party, became prime minister, the Spectator magazine—the Conservatives’ once-faithful house organ—was ready to throw in the towel. “All bets are off,” last week’s cover story declared: Brown “is already proving a more agile foe than the joyless curmudgeon against whom the Conservatives ‘war-gamed’ in their strategic meetings.” In other words, Prime Minister Brown smiles a lot more than he did back when he was Chancellor Brown, the British equivalent of Treasury secretary, all of two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the Times, also once reliably Tory, came out with a new poll. showing that Brown had already wiped out the fragile lead David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, had eked out over many years of agonizing leadership changes and policy reassessments. The best the paper’s opinion writers could do was to counsel Cameron not to “panic” and to console him with the thought that he is “an engaging man who is not yet taken as seriously as he should be.”

The polls are quite a blow: Buoyed by Blair’s personal unpopularity, by dissatisfaction with public health and education, and above all by dislike of the Iraq war, the Conservatives were just beginning to whisper of victory in the next general election, which must be held by 2009. But by late last week, at least one of my Tory acquaintances had already lost faith. “We’ll lose,” he told me, matter-of-factly.

It at first seems odd, this wholesale capitulation, particularly since Brown isn’t exactly a new face. He has been the second-most-important person in Britain for the past decade and is held responsible for almost all the Labor government’s domestic economic decisions. He has become prime minister not as the result of a vote, but thanks to Britain’s parliamentary system, which popularly elects parties, not their leaders. When Tony Blair left office last month, Brown ran for the Labor Party leadership. No one stood against him—and thus he breezed into the top job unopposed.

Yet although he is Blair’s anointed successor, and although he should rightly be identified with every unpopular decision Blair ever made, Brown is now going out of his way to sound as un-Blair-like as possible—by using very Blair-like rhetoric and spin. He has fired a slew of Cabinet ministers, pointedly choosing a foreign secretary who is known to have opposed the Iraq war. As great a fan of focus group studies as Blair, Brown constantly repeats the words new, change, and reform. Famous for his Scottish scowl, he has, as noted, gone out of his way to be photographed grinning broadly.

Brown has also clearly mastered a patented Blair specialty: stealing good lines from your opponents. On his first day in office, he started talking loudly about defending the “British way of life,” something Conservatives used to go on about a good deal. Partly this was because, as a Scot, he wants to appeal to the English and dampen the nascent Scottish independence movement. Partly it is because, as the Spectator put it, “his ambition is leading him inexorably into areas where Conservatives fear to tread.” The Conservative Party long ago decided that too much talk of the British way of life, like too much loud opposition to immigration, made them sound like cryptoracists—thereby leaving the patriotism card for Labor to play.

Indeed, as the Conservative Party has moved rapidly to the left, whole swaths of policy have been left open for Labor. Cameron is greener-than-thou, positively enthusiastic about public spending, and skeptical of George W. Bush. Labor, historically the party of financial mismanagement and neutrality, has become the party of fiscal soundness and robust armed forces. Fate, in the form of failed terror attempts in London and Glasgow—and rapid arrests of the apparent culprits—helped Brown look tough on terrorism during his first week in office.

All of which is another way of saying that Brown, Blair’s easily ignored shadow for the past decade, may be with us for some time, while the Conservative Party—the oldest democratic political party in the world—may not. They have life cycles, political parties, just like the human beings who create them. They are born, they mature, they gain wisdom. Then, sometimes, they die—and not just in Britain.