Britain's Mr. Nice Guy
Underhill, William, Newsweek International
Byline: William Underhill
A rebranding campaign and a struggling British Labour Party are helping to revive the touchy-feely new Conservatives.
Over the past 11 years, the British Conservative Party has endured three successive election defeats and four changes of leadership. Just a year ago, the party had been trailing a stale Labour government by 4 points in the polls. But now, suddenly, the Tories are back. They just trounced Labour in local government elections, including a hotly contested London mayoral race, and voters tell pollsters the current leader, 41-year-old David Cameron, is more likable, more trustworthy--indeed, superior in every quality of leadership--than Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The Tories seemed poised to win again in a mid-May by-election in the northwest England parliamentary district of Crewe and Nantwich, a constituency considered safe Labour territory for more than 30 years. Suddenly Cameron is the front runner to take over Downing Street in the next general election, due within two years.
This newfound popularity is due in part to Cameron's new, gentler political lexicon. Back in 2002, in a much-cited moment of political honesty, Theresa May, a former party chairman and a leading Tory M.P., shocked her audience at a party conference by asserting that the Conservatives were seen as "the nasty party," a reputation Cameron inherited with the leadership three years later. But gone are the days when the party appeared to stand for red-blooded individualism and unconstrained wealth creation. It is now the Conservatives, not Labour, who complain of soulless materialism among the country's rulers. In addition to traditional party themes, such as rolling back the power of the state, Cameron's speeches are peppered with references to "social justice" and "work-life balance." While campaigning in the Crewe by-election, Conservative Party candidate Edward Timpson carried his 2-year-old daughter on his back.
This modernization strategy has also played on environmental concerns that have helped align the Conservatives with the young, a group long seen as leery of the party. The party's old flaming-torch emblem is gone, replaced by a fuzzy blue and green image of a tree in full leaf. Cameron has been photographed on a sleigh in the Arctic researching the impact of climate change. He has bicycled to work (albeit followed by aides in a car carrying his papers), and is about to install a wind turbine at his London home. …