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Leading article The Week

A conservative revival?

It is likely that David Cameron regards this week’s stunning Republican victory in Massachusetts with a mixture of excitement and terror.

20 January 2010

12:00 AM

20 January 2010

12:00 AM

It is likely that David Cameron regards this week’s stunning Republican victory in Massachusetts with a mixture of excitement and terror.

It is likely that David Cameron regards this week’s stunning Republican victory in Massachusetts with a mixture of excitement and terror. It marks an incredible conservative comeback. For the Republicans to take the seat vacated by the death of Senator Edward Kennedy is impressive; that their candidate, Scott Brown, was only strengthened by the Democrat’s vicious attack ads — the very type that Labour has in mind for Mr Cameron — is extraordinary. Massachusetts was once seen as the most dependably Democratic state in the union; now the left has turned on its own.

The new Congressman did not try to say ‘my party has changed’ to the voters of Massachusetts. Instead, he presented them with a little raw conservatism to see if it appealed. It did. Even when he declared his support for waterboarding and opposition to a tax on bankers, the people were with him. He stood on an explicit mandate to kill Barack Obama’s plans for national health coverage, he reprised John F. Kennedy’s call for tax cuts — arguing, as the late president did, that they mean more tax revenue. He made his case unashamedly, and won.


It is tempting for Tories to see this as the start of a Mexican wave of conservative revival — starting in Massachusetts and coming over the Atlantic to sweep David Cameron to power. But if the Conservatives are clever, they’ll draw a more ominous conclusion as well: anyone in office during a time of austerity becomes very unpopular, very quickly. Barack Obama’s approval rating has plunged faster than that of any president in the history of opinion polling. The word ‘change’ won him the White House, but ‘change’ lost its currency very quickly once Obama took office.

Mr Cameron, also promising change, can expect a similarly short honeymoon. In office, he must cut state spending, brutally, and raise taxes. Trade unions will be marching down Whitehall, and the opposition will be vehement against Tory ‘cuts’. It is worth remembering that Britain almost spat out the Thatcherite medicine in 1983 — she was saved mainly by the Labour/SDP split. So Tories who talk about taking radical action ‘in our second term’ should look at America and see just how quickly the political pendulum can swing the other way.

It would be foolish to read too much into this. Scott Brown succeeded mainly because Martha Coakley, his opponent, campaigned so spectacularly badly — losing a 30-point opinion poll lead in the space of two weeks. Worst of all, she took Massachusetts for granted and believed it inconceivable that a state which elected John F. Kennedy and then his brother could ever be the scene of a Republican comeback. But if there is a lesson, it’s that the word ‘inconceivable’ is a dangerous one to use in politics.

Mr Obama will have spent his first anniversary marvelling at how quickly political fortune can change. The Tories had best brace themselves, for the hostility the President faces now may be just a small taste of what lies in store for Mr Cameron.


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