New Leader Rallies Britain's Conservatives

The new leader of Britain's opposition Conservative Party, David Cameron, is trying to remake his party in much the same way that Tony Blair rebuilt the ruling Labour Party. He has a mammoth task. Many in Britain remember the Tory government as a time of public service cuts, homelessness and mass unemployment.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

British voters go to the polls today in local elections, and are expected to deliver a stinging rebuke to Prime Minister Tony Blair. This after several months of headlines about sleaze and incompetence in Blair's Labour Government. Members of the Conservative Party are hoping it will mark a rebirth for them after nine years in opposition. The Conservatives recently elected a new leader. His name is David Cameron.

As NPR's Rob Gifford reports from London, David Cameron is pushing a whole new image of caring conservatism.

ROB GIFFORD reporting:

The Conservatives, or Tories, as they're known, were once called the natural party of government. With their aristocratic roots and then their saturized success in transforming the British economy, the Tories were in power, alone or in coalition, for 80 years of the 20th century. But with the transformation of the Labour Party under Tony Blair, the Tories began to look out of touch. After a succession of largely ineffectual leaders in the last few years, there's now a new man in charge: thirty-nine-year-old David Cameron. He's based his appeal to the electorate broadly on one main theme.

Mr. DAVID CAMERON (Leader, Conservative Party of Parliament): When the party voted for me as their leader, they voted for change. And I want to show very clearly that that change is tangible, that it's real, that it's built to last--that we're in it for everybody, not just the rich, and that we're in it to expand public services for everyone, not help a few to opt out, and that the environment and quality of life is central to our vision of a good society in Britain.

(Soundbite of song, “This Charming Man”)

MORRISSEY (Lead singer, The Smiths): (Singing) This charming man…

GIFFORD: David Cameron plays up his charming, youthful image--his love of indie rock bands like the Smiths, and his support for environmental issues. Much is made in the British newspapers of how he rides a bicycle to work, and the fact that his wife has a tattoo on her ankle. Pollsters say it's what the Conservative Party needs if it's ever to get back into government. But some on the party's Right wing have hinted that Cameron is betraying traditional Conservatives Party values. Norman Tebbit was party chairman under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

Mr. NORMAN TEBBIT (Former Chairman, Conservative Party): It's a bit of clever marketing. Who's going to be against a good and sustainable environment, or high quality public services, or that government should be closer to the people? The problem to me is that I think that everyone these things could be listed in the Labour manifesto. It's going to be difficult, until it's fleshed out, to find any differences without political opponents.

GIFFORD: Supporters say David Cameron is, in fact, very well placed to hold on to the old and more old fashioned party faithful, while trying to attract new supporters with his brand of compassionate conservatism. They point out his impeccable conservatives credentials: Tory family, education at Eaton and Oxford. The Labour Party says any change that Cameron is attempting is purely superficial, and that underneath he's still a dyed in the wool Torey from the old school. They've spoofed him with a character called Dave the Chameleon in the TV ads ahead of today's elections.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Unidentified Man: (In commercial clip) And Dave then realized that telling everyone what the Conservatives really stood for was never going to make them--or more importantly, him--popular. So from now on, he decided to only tell people just what he thought they wanted to hear.

GIFFORD: But perhaps that's just a sign of British politics generally in the early 21st century. Religion is not an issue in British politics. And political columnist and former Torey Member of parliament Matthew Paris says that unlike the United States, where people have moved further apart ideologically in recent years, in Britain it's all about the middle ground.

Mr. MATTHEW PARIS (Former Member of Parliament): There is no longer any serious, philosophical, or ideological clash between mainstream parties about the future direction of the country. In foreign policy terms, they're all for the Anglo-American alliance. In European terms, they're all for staying in Europe but being a bit skeptical about it. In economic doctrines, they're all for the free market, for market liberalism. So the great ideological clashes of the 20th century are now over.

GIFFORD: Tony Blair has said he will not stand in the next general election. But it's really to Blair's example of transforming the Labour Party that David Cameron is looking, as he tries to bring his party back from the political wilderness.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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