Michael Howard, leader of Britain's Conservative Party, has a big problem, a medium-sized problem and an intriguing opportunity. His official nemesis, Prime Minister Tony Blair, is expected to motor down The Mall this week to ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament, kicking off the campaign for a general election on May 5. This means it's crunch time for Howard, the third Tory leader to inherit the big problem of digging his party out of the rubble of huge losses to Labour in 1997 and 2001. Right now the Tories have 162 seats in the House of Commons to Labour's 408, and an ICM poll two weeks ago showed Labour leading 40% to 32%. Couple these numbers with the vagaries of the British first-past-the-post voting system, and Howard is staring at one big mountain to climb by election day.
And last week, a few medium-sized boulders thumped down onto his path, courtesy of his own team. The Tories' deputy chairman, Howard Flight, was taped at a Conservative meeting saying that the party's announced tax-cutting plans pegged at a modest $7.5 billion to deflect Labour salvos about the Tory threat to public services were only a down payment on its true intentions. "Everyone on our side of the fence believes passionately that [tax cuts] will be a continuing agenda," Flight said. The current proposals had been "sieved for what is politically acceptable." His words were interpreted by many to mean that the Tories would slash taxes and then choke spending on schools and hospitals, contrary to their current protestations.
Howard parried this mortal threat to his credibility by firing Flight as deputy chairman, kicking him out of the Tory group in Parliament and having him "deselected" from running again. But Flight decided to fight. He claimed he was only sticking up for established policy, seeking further government economies. He turned to his lawyers for proof that deselection was beyond Howard's authority, and to local Tories to retain him as their candidate. The Conservatives' carefully choreographed campaign disintegrated into a brawl and raised the question of whether Howard's toughness (a quality voters admire) was actually brutality. "He has ruined Flight's career for saying things most of the Tory party believes, and I suspect most of the public wants," says Robert Worcester, chairman of the MORI polling agency.
By election day Flight will likely be a footnote, and in other respects Howard has been running an able campaign playing on voters' anger with Labour's unfulfilled promises and disaffection with Blair; only 32% of those surveyed by MORI last month said they trust the Prime Minister. Which presents Howard with his intriguing opportunity. "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" is the Tory slogan, which they use to link a series of [an error occurred while processing this directive] carefully polled attacks on dirty hospitals, landgrabs by "gypsies," excessive numbers of immigrants and politically correct restraints on police. The Tories' chief strategist, Lynton Crosby, reportedly calls them "dog-whistle" issues: they cut through the noise of a campaign to make an emotional impact most resonant with true believers. At a press conference last week that focused on "yobs," louts whose behavior has shown up in polls as a big issue, Howard used the word "fear" eight times, as in "I want to make yobs fear the police."
The association of police chiefs criticized the Tories' use of crime statistics, and Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said he hoped the campaign would not become "a competition about who can most effectively frighten voters." But Howard's appeals to popular anger are designed to capitalize on Labour's most acute vulnerability: low turnout. The British Elections Study ( BES), a highly respected academic probe of voter behavior, has just completed face-to-face interviews with some 3,000 people. Using the same methodology that correctly predicted the 2001 turnout at 59%, it's pegging a drop to 53% this time as disaffected Labour voters stay home while droves of motivated Tories follow Howard's dog whistle to the polls.
Paul Whiteley, professor of politics at Essex University and a co-director of the BES, estimates that on that low a turnout, the Tories will get 39% of the vote, Labour 36%, and neither party will get a majority of seats in Parliament an earthquake that could topple Blair. Other polls (and online betting sites) are much less alarming for Labour, but last week the government blew some whistles of its own to undecided voters, women in particular, when it announced $520 million to improve school lunches after the TV chef Jamie Oliver aired a riveting series about how much junk they now contain.
The economy is still humming away and Labour will make this the centerpiece of its campaign. Can that substantial but dull accomplishment outweigh the Conservatives' parade of resentments? Labour will likely be stoking up its own fear factory in particular, of a Tory return to power as May 5 approaches.