Analysis The Center Can Hold

What Other Conservatives Can Learn from Cameron

The British Conservative Party leader won reelection by appealing to voters in the middle.

David Cameron Pedro Passos Coelho
Prime Ministers David Cameron of the United Kingdom and Pedro Passos Coelho of Portugal meet in Lisbon, September 4, 2015 (10 Downing Street/Adam Brown)

Few mainstream right-wing parties in the West are doing well.

In Canada, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives lost power in November after almost a decade. In Portugal, a center-right leader had to make way for a coalition between the center-left and the far left. A similar alliance could come to power in Spain. In Germany and the Netherlands, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Mark Rutte have seen their popularity go down. In France, Marine Le Pen, the nationalist party leader, could beat the mainstream right into third place in next year’s presidential election. In the United States, Republicans are unlikely to take back the presidency in November if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee.

There has been one exception to the rule: In Britain, David Cameron not only won reelection last year but grew his party in the process.

What’s his secret?

Economic success

James Forsyth argues in The Spectator that part of the explanation must be Britain’s growing economy.

“The economic recovery means that there isn’t the same level of anti-establishment rage in Britain as there is in the United States,” he writes.

It certainly hasn’t hurt Cameron. But America’s economy is actually growing at a healthy pace as well — although you wouldn’t know it from listening to the Republican Party’s presidential candidates. The economies of Portugal and Spain both recovered thanks to right-wing austerity policies, but the parties responsible for those programs still lost their majorities.

Right-wing split

Cameron has also benefited from something that looked like a failure at first, Forsyth argues: a split on the right.

When senior Republicans visited London after their party’s 2012 defeat, the sense was that despite the loss, their long-term outlook — with the insurgent Tea Party wing still inside the party — was better than that of the Tories. It had seen members go off to join UKIP and the right was divided for the first time in British political history. Senior Tories feared that this analysis was right; that Cameron’s legacy would be a split that would leave the Tories struggling to ever again win a majority under the first-past-the-post system.

They were wrong. The defection of nativists and social conservatives to the United Kingdom Independence Party allowed Cameron’s party to become more attractive to centrist voters.

It also meant that Cameron wasn’t trying to sound as angry and as frustrated with modern Britain as these defecting voters.

In May, his Conservatives gained more support from those who had backed Labour or the Liberal Democrats in 2010 than they lost to UKIP.

Elections are won in the center

So it turns out Cameron’s success only affirms what politicians on the far left and the far right have been denying for decades: that elections are won in the center.

Britain’s Labour Party seems determined to test that theory again by electing an unrepentant Marxist and peacenik, Jeremy Corbyn, as its leader — when the only time in recent history it won the support of Middle England was under the more centrist Tony Blair.

Both parties in the United States have their true believers.

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders, a self-declared socialist, claims he can make America look more like Denmark by encouraging working-class and young voters to turn out.

On the Republican side, Ted Cruz, a far-right senator from Texas, says that his unforgiving type of conservatism can win if only evangelicals voted in greater numbers.

They are both wrong. The voters who are going to decide the 2016 election are mostly middle class and live in swing states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. They tend to be more socially liberal than the average Republican and less trustful of big government than the average Democrat; not too much unlike the sensible Britons, in other words, who gave Cameron a second term last year.