Andrew Steele

Running in reverse

The Globe and Mail

British Conservative Leader David Cameron delivers his election manifesto to an audience in Prestatyn, Wales, on April 16, 2010. (OLI SCARFF)

The Conservatives are the bookmakers favourites to win the current election in Britain, held back from near certain victory by two fundamental challenges.

The first is the background, style and manner of their Eton and Oxford educated leader, David Cameron, fifth cousin of the Queen and a bit too "posh" to gel with the mass electorate in class conscious Britain. Cameron is seen as too slick and polished to be trusted in Britain, where three terms of Tony Blair left portions of the electorate thirsting for authenticity.

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The second is the chasm between the ideological right-wing of the British Tories, nurtured on the heady brew of Margaret Thatcher, and the pragmatic, compassionate and skeptical tradition of British Conservatives back to Peel, Disraeli and Derby.

While the first challenge is innate and can't be easily changed, the management of their own coalition is well within their power.

The normal way to undertake this type of play is a two-stage strategy. In the first stage, one wins over the hearts and minds of the party core with lustful praise for critical touchstone policies. Once the base is secured, it is followed by a scamper to the centre to win over the swing voters.

This is the tactic American politicians use constantly: play to the extremists early and then shift to the centre to win the general election.

The upset win by Ronald Reagan in 1980 is a great example of starting hard-right and moving to the centre.

Ronald Reagan began his campaign outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in the 1960's, with a speech emphasizing "state's rights," a watchword for segregationists since before the Civil War. Incumbent President Jimmy Carter had brought the Solid South back to the Democrats in 1976 after Nixon's success in 1972, and Reagan needed Southern conservatives to vote Republican again.

The move seemed to reinforce Reagan's image as a hard-right extremist, a big challenge for the Republican with the Northern Catholic voters he would need to win key swing states.

But by the closing days of the election, Reagan had shifted away from earlier extremist policies and was emphasizing his sunny outlook, shrugging off claims of extremism with "there you go again." Reagan's closing argument was on pocketbook issues for swing voters, asking in the debates "are you better off today than you were four years ago?" Having made his play to Southern extremists early, the Republican challenger was free to focus on the middle in the late going.

Polling showed a surge to Reagan after the final debates, turning a tight race into a landslide. The surge was not caused by his early dog-whistling to segregationists in Dixie. It was a move based on his appeal to moderates over economic issues, and his personality inspiring those moderate to hope that Reagan would bring about positive change.

George W. Bush's 2004 election victory was another excellent example of building up and consolidating a massive core on the right, then playing to the centre in the general election.

Following the 2000 nailbiter election, Bush strategist Karl Rove was obsessed with improving turnout among Christians. There had been an increase in polarization of evangelical Christians toward the Republicans back to the 1980 election victory of Ronald Regan, but in 2000, turnout among Christians was down. Rove concluded that four million Christians had stayed home on Election Day who would have voted for Bush, and that getting these voters to the polls would be the critical mission for 2004.

Through conscious effort, the Bush Administration courted evangelical Christian voters while in office. The language of major speeches was pepped with subtle Evangelical allusion and language. For instance, the 2003 State of the Union includes a lovely passage about the 'wonder-working' power of America, a deft allusion to a popular Evangelical hymn, and directly addressed the nature of Providence and the power of God.

On policy, both abortion and gay rights issues were used as straw men to rev up Christian turnout. In particular, ballot initiatives or referenda were used to pull Evangelical voters to the polls, where they would then cast a ballot for political offices as well.

In a state like Ohio, won by Bush by only 2 per cent of the vote, the extra turnout pulled by that ballot initiative deserves some of the credit for Bush's victory in 2004. Without Ohio, Bush would have lost, and without the ballot initiative, he might have lost the state.

During the general election, however, Bush was not running on abortion or gay rights.

The Republicans had moved to an issue suite that was in keeping with the moderate voters they needed to win in key battleground states. Gay rights and abortion wouldn't get moderates to vote Republican, because it wasn't the issues that motivated them. They wanted to hear about security issues in the first Presidential election after 9/11. The Bush campaign portrayed John Kerry as a "flip-flopper" who was uncertain on defense issues, a play to "security moms," the swing vote in the election.

"Strength vs Uncertainty" was the theme they pushed during the closing weeks of the election, and it was aimed at swing voters, not the base.

The result of this two phase approach was increased turnout among Evangelicals because of the work done early, and a swing to Bush in the closing days by moderates because of the work done late.

David Cameron in Britain has the same problem as Reagan and Bush. He needs a solid turnout from his party's right-wing base. But he must also win over centrist voters in a competitive environment.

The mistake for David Cameron is he's trying to do this in reverse .

The British Tory leader won his party's top job as the candidate of the centre-left of the coalition. He stood for moving the party away from the radical individualism legacy of Thatcher to the time-proven Conservative themes of social responsibility and respect for tradition.

In the leadership, Cameron stated: "Some people say it is about more radical policies and, of course, we have to have the right policies, but that will not do it. What we have to do is make a change in the culture and identity of the Conservative party and explain what this means in 2005." Thatcher loyalist Norman Tebbit said of Cameron, he was "intent on purging even the memory of Thatcherism before building a New Modern Compassionate Green Globally Aware Party."

For the first several years of his leadership, Cameron worked hard to win over the moderate voters the Tories had lost to Labour in 1997, 2001 and 2005. The party emblem was changed to a tree in a play for green voters. The Euroskeptics in the caucus were shoved aside. While the Tory issue suite remained generally to the right of Labour, this was not difficult as the faltering government party moved to the left to try to rally its own base in the face of scandal and faltering public opinion polls.

The emphasis was on what we in Canada would call "Red Tory" issues: social cohesion, respect for tradition, responsibility. Gone was talk that "there was no such thing as society," a famous quote by Thatcher. Instead, instead increasing social bonds was the core of Cameron's offering.

This type of positioning of the UK Conservatives as a moderate alternative to Labour continued pretty much right up until the election call. It appeared Cameron was willing to sacrifice some turnout on the right for a lion's share of the "change" vote at the centre.

Playing down your differences and running to the centre is a time worn strategy, employed by everyone from Stephen Harper to Grover Cleveland. After all, his was the official opposition and the obvious party to form a new government in a jurisdiction tired with three terms of Labour. If voters were going to leave Labour, make the landing spot as soft as possible.

Suddenly, Cameron lurched right.

Since the writ was dropped, Cameron appears to be focusing his message on rallying the right-wing base of the party.

His debate performance yesterday emphasized hard-right positions on crime, defence and immigration. At one point, the Tory leader even declared Britain needed to keep its nuclear arsenal for fear of a possible war with China.

Tougher sentences, nuclear weapons, discipline in schools and less immigration is a potent platform. It can worked nicely for a party that has established its bona fides as the tough alternative to a government out of touch with the people.

Politicians from Mike Harris to Thatcher herself employed this polarizing strategy.

But Cameron has spent the last four years trying to make people believe he ISN'T Margaret Thatcher in a three-piece suit.

Remember the first challenge for the Conservatives: posh Cameron isn't trusted by voters? This abrupt move to the right could backlash into an credibility issue. Cameron could wind up turning off the moderates he wants, while failing to motivate the core vote he needs.

If voters really are angry about immigration or crime, they have plenty of nativist parties clamouring for their votes.

The better course of action for Cameron would have been to make these plays early 2010, or better back in 2009.

That way, today he would be free to move to the centre, where the majority of the votes are, instead of trying to shore up his flank and increase his core turnout at the potential risk of his overall vote.

Cameron's strategy may work. He could wind up winning the election. But his sudden shift right may leave voters uncertain about who they just held their nose and elected, and it may leave two very difference perceptions of Cameron's mandate.

And winning re-election with two basic constituencies at odds with each other is a tough row to hoe.

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