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What does it mean to be a Tory? Are modern Conservative parties all about interests – the already-wealthy who seek lower taxes and smaller government, or, alternately, those who aspire to greater wealth and need a hand up? Or are they about ideas: On one hand, the idea of a free and open economy and open ties to the wider world; on the other, the idea of a moral authority that resists outsiders or challenges to vested traditions?

This ancient paradox of Tory identity hangs heavily in the air in Canada and Britain. Both countries are going to the polls, Britain on May 7, in what are in many ways referendums on their Prime Ministers' attempts to answer that question.

It's worth watching Britain, for it is there, in the birthplace of Torydom, that David Cameron's Conservatives went through the greatest contortions to shut up their extreme moral and libertarian factions, speak a language that appealed to disenchanted liberals, and become a big-tent party of national government (albeit in a coalition with the smaller Liberal Democrats), and it is there that this tent is closest to being ripped apart at the seams by representatives of those clashing interests and ideas.

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In watching Mr. Cameron flail with this challenge, it is very hard to avoid comparing him to his party's greatest leader, Robert Peel, who in 1841 came to office under strikingly similar circumstances: An economic crisis, a Parliament fragmented into small and sometimes extreme parties, controversies over the rights of religious minorities seen as disloyal "outsiders" (Roman Catholics), pressure to close borders and trade ties with Europe, rising concerns about poverty and labour exploitation.

Mr. Peel began by trying to serve his party's traditional interests: big business and the property-owning upper-middle class and aristocracy who dominated his MPs. But he soon realized that his protectionist, fiscally austere policies were hurting the larger British interest, and hurting a good number of Britons to boot. He switched gears, and stopped governing for the party loyal. This allowed him to do extraordinary things: he invented modern policing, introduced an income tax, outlawed child labour, gave Catholics equal rights, and introduced free trade (which ended the food monopoly that had killed millions of Irish).

For these acts, Mr. Peel, as he expected, was voted out of office by his own caucus. His unrepentant parting words foretold the new politics of the liberal centre-right he had created: "I shall leave a name execrated by every monopolist who, from less honourable motives, clamours for protection because it conduces to his own individual benefit; but it may be that I shall leave a name sometimes remembered with expressions of good will in the abodes of those whose lot it is to labour, and to earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow, when they shall recruit their exhausted strength with abundant and untaxed food, the sweeter because it is no longer leavened by a sense of injustice."

That sort of language was how David Cameron came into power in 2010: By going after the big, alienated pack of Labour's voters, and appearing to believe in many of their values. He sought to end the Conservatives' image as "the nasty party" of Margaret Thatcher. He favoured same-sex marriage and made his party open to religious and ethnic minorities. His "hug-a-hoodie" campaign messages sought sympathy with, rather than punishment of, alienated youth. His foreign policy was pragmatic and often progressive.

But pressures from the moral and economic fringe proved irresistible. His response to the economic crisis was to choke off the economy and the results prolonged the crisis. He promised a referendum on membership in the European Union, the single most important ingredient in his country's economic success. He tried to limit immigration, unsuccessfully. He pledged to abolish the Human Rights Act. He let ideologues make a mess of the education and health systems.

None of that, as Mr. Peel discovered, did much to win over fringe-party supporters he was courting.

With the centre-left Labour Party lunging leftward in an effort to win back voters from the Scottish National Party, leaving many voters at large, the Peel approach could have worked. But Mr. Cameron's campaign manifesto is a mixed bag: Some ostensibly centre-left (increases to some benefits) some sensibly liberal (an expansion of the right for public-housing tenants to purchase their apartments), some plutocratic (tax changes that would help the wealthy).

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He might win but, unlike his predecessor, he offers no sense that he has the actual interests of his country in mind – just of the factions in his quilt. This, for Tories everywhere, is the stuff of decline.

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