Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic are in crisis. To British eyes, the race for the Republican nomination looks like a disaster, with no consensus emerging about what a modern Republican party can offer. But U.K. Conservatives do not appear to have any solution to the ideological morass of their American cousins.
A cursory glance might lead you to another conclusion. That's because British Prime Minister David Cameron is nominally a Tory, and so is the country's other major Conservative political figure, London Mayor Boris Johnson. But the experiment with socially liberal conservatism that secured both men's positions appears to be foundering. Conservative MPs are turning against their leader for being insufficiently conservative as Conservative poll ratings slide. Meanwhile, Johnson faces a tough battle for re-election on May 3.
To some extent, the mayor escapes the awkward choice between being conservative or liberal. By sheer force of personality, he manages to be both. His instinctive comic reflexes have not only helped him reach a much wider public than is normal for a politician but have also concealed his essential seriousness of purpose and made him seem less disconcertingly Conservative. When asked about his ambitions, he has often replied, "My chances of being Prime Minister are about as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars or my being re-incarnated as an olive." Nevertheless, he is regularly touted as Cameron's successor.
But precisely because Johnson is such a one-off, his way of reconciling conservatism and liberalism is unlikely to be replicated by other politicians in Britain, let alone across the Atlantic. Nor do leading British Conservatives think they have anything to learn from the Republican race. Liberal Tories like Cameron recoil in horror from such divisive extremism.
For while Margaret Thatcher was a warrior, her successors are conciliators. We find ourselves in a less heroic, or at least less combative, era in which British Conservatives seek to reach out to "the center ground" by showing that they are not really very conservative at all. Cameron, a great admirer of Barack Obama, has recently been feted at the White House. During his visit, he shunned the contenders for the Republican nomination something Thatcher would never have done.
Johnson's favorite among recent U.S. Presidents is Bill Clinton, and it is instructive to see the terms in which the boisterous mayor praises the boisterous former POTUS: "The world was better run under him as President. There was a greater sense of optimism, the potential for harmony between different countries and religious groups. And we didn't have this terrible thing that [George W.] Bush has brought in, of this 'You're with us or against us' mentality." For Johnson an optimist who wants everyone to have a good time, cannot bear being disliked and never preaches about personal morality Clinton seems infinitely preferable to a stern, unbending Republican like Rick Santorum.
To the leaders of the British Conservative Party, the Republicans look increasingly weird and extreme. For Cameron, a Tory who wants to show how modern and liberal he is, Obama makes a much more natural ally. Cameron is also a supporter of gay marriage, something even his American idol Obama hasn't yet turned into a campaign platform. Indeed, few things dramatize the gulf between the British Conservative leadership and the U.S. Republicans as clearly as the question of gay marriage. None of the Republican candidates could contemplate being in favor of it.
All of that doesn't mean the British Prime Minister has discovered the formula for a New Toryism. To do so, Cameron's version of liberal conservatism should appeal beyond the Tory base. But he failed to win an overall majority in the 2010 general election, forcing him to govern in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. He has in fact alienated many of his core voters.
If one wanted to be unkind, one could describe Cameron as the Mitt Romney of British politics: a man from a privileged background who has difficulty sounding authentic. With both men, the suspicion lingers that they are saying what they think their audience wants to hear rather than what they themselves believe.
Sophisticated British Conservatives gaze with astonishment at the wilder extremes of Republicanism. Nevertheless, there is a growing demand among Cameron's followers for a conservatism that dares to look and sound genuine instead of pandering to liberal fads and Democratic Presidents.
Gimson is the author of Boris: The Rise of Boris Johnson