David Willetts, then a fully-fledged member of the Shadow Cabinet. Sir Malcolm Rifkind. Richard Ottoway, now Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, no less. Douglas Carswell. Yes, Douglas Carswell. I repeat: Douglas Carswell. Margot James. Simon Burns, of course – though he was still in mourning over the defeat of Hillary Clinton. Daniel Hannan. Yes, I repeat: Daniel Hannan…
These were among the Conservatives who queued up in 2008 to declare their admiration for the then Democratic candidate for the American Presidency, Barack Obama – over the then Republican candidate, John McCain. Of 91 Conservative MP who expressed a preference, 63 opted for the latter, the candidate of our Sister Party (as no less modern-minded a man than Francis Maude once confirmed). And 28 went for Obama.
But perhaps surprise at this healthy showing for the man whose party took such a beating in yesterday’s Senate elections is mistaken. It’s true that a working partnership between an American President and a British Prime Minister helped to change the world for the better – that between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – and that the Republicans and the Conservatives became very close during the 1980s.
None the less, Tories and Democrats have rubbed along well enough in the past – Harold Macmillan and John F.Kennedy, for example. It is easy to laugh in retrospect at Carswell’s insistence that “Obama is the anti-politician in a time when people are rightly suspicious of political elites” (do his UKIP colleagues agree?) But the sympathy for Obama was a sign of a sea-change.
- The legacy of the Iraq War and the Bush Presidency had poisoned the relationship between the two parties. George W Bush had refused to meet Michael Howard because of the latter’s criticisms of its handling.
- The flavour of Republican social conservatism is very different from that of its British equivalent: most Conservative politicians “don’t do God” (or guns either).
- That culture gap indicates a larger one. If the Cold War brought Republicans and Conservatives closer together, its end began to move them apart. The latter are arguably no longer a socially conservative party at all.
- David Cameron has always felt comfortable with Obama. He will also have wanted to back a likely winner. Both he and Boris Johnson pounced on Mitt Romney’s musings over London’s preparedness for the Olympics.
- This sense of separation can be seen at a senior level. George Osborne had good relations with the Bush White House. Liam Fox has close relations with the Republicans. But he is no longer in the Cabinet. Who are his successors?
Crushing mid-term victories don’t guarantee Presidential election victories. The Republicans did very well in 2010. This didn’t stop Obama cruising to a comfortable win over Romney two years later. Lower turnout in elections for the Senate and the House is part of the explanation.
This would be eased further were suspicion of military intervention abroad to become as dominant a force in Republican thinking as it is in Conservative politics.
These changes would allow Republicans and Conservatives to resume their natural conversation about spending, tax and the size of the state in larger numbers, and at a more senior level, than is the case at the moment.
Finally, neither McCain nor Romney fired Tory imaginations here. Is there a Republican candidate who could do so? Chris Christie? Marco Rubio? Rand Paul???