George Osborne

Could a Tory vote for Kerry?

John Kerry has a lot of support among Conservatives, says George Osborne, but although there is no tribal reason for Tories to back Republicans, Bush remains a better bet

Text settings

Welcome to CNN’s Presidential Election Night Special. We’re just getting the results in live from the 51st State. We can confirm that the Great State of Great Britain has voted overwhelmingly for Senator John Kerry. This is a big blow for George W. Bush, and a humiliation for Governor Blair, who viewers will remember strongly backed the President during the campaign.’

If Britain could vote this November, no one doubts what the result would be. Kerry would win by a landslide. He’d win votes across the board. Not just on the Left, but on the Right too. In fact, Kerry would probably get more votes in the Tory shires and suburbs than he would from Labour’s urban heartlands. Because here is the truth that dare not speak its name: many Conservatives don’t much like Bush.

Not all Conservatives. I’m a signed-up, card-carrying Bush fan. I have been ever since I met him when he was governor of Texas. So too is Michael Howard. He shares with George Dubya a passion for baseball. When they met on the recent state visit, they spent half their time poring over Major League batting averages. Then there’s William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith. The President made an effort to see both of them when he didn’t have to, so they like him too. But even among Conservative MPs, let alone with Conservative supporters in the country, it pains me to report that we Bushites are a minority.

This week I carried out my own focus group on the Tory benches in the House of Commons. Here’s what they think of the President — off the record, of course. ‘George Bush scares the hell out of me,’ said one MP. ‘Bush is a man who might wail at the Moon — I don’t feel comfortable with him, unlike Kerry,’ said another. ‘I take exception to the way Bush trashed Kyoto’ was what a Tory frontbencher told me. ‘Personally, I would vote for Bush but I think Anglo-American relations would be better if Kerry won’ was the assessment of another.

Of course, there’s nothing in the political rule book that says Conservatives must always support a Republican president. Indeed, you can point to a long tradition of Conservative leaders getting on famously with Democrat presidents. Winston Churchill was hardly off the phone to FDR. Macmillan and Kennedy became firm friends and swapped stories about their sexual conquests — although, to be fair, the conversation was fairly one-sided. It was only Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan who invented the idea that the Tories and the Republicans were inseparable ideological allies in the fight against the forces of the Left.

Even so, it is striking that so many Conservatives are suspicious of this Republican President. What has happened? There is no single, simple reason.

Partly, it’s because we’re behaving like a child whose best friend has just gone off and become friends with the popular kid we hate. George W. Bush was supposed to be our best friend. After years of having to put up with the Clinton–Blair love-in, we thought at last we had someone in the White House who wouldn’t fall for Tony’s cheesy smile and promise of undying devotion. Then the new President appears in front of the cabins at Camp David and tells the world that he’s got so much in common with the Prime Minister, they even share the same Colgate toothpaste. Next thing we know, they’re standing shoulder to shoulder against tyranny and going to war together. Even I reach for the sick bag every time I hear the President tell us again about how great ‘our guy Tony’ is. Many Conservatives like the idea of the anti-war John Kerry in the White House just so they can see Tony Blair squirm.

Then there’s George W. Bush’s use of language — not just the mangled sentences, but also the folksy evangelism and frontier cowboy talk. It plays well in the key swing states of Middle America but it frightens Middle England. Frankly, most Conservatives tend to like their politicians to sound a bit more pompous, a bit less dangerous and, yes, a bit more intelligent. Perhaps because we are supposed to be the Church of England at prayer, we Tories are also deeply suspicious of anyone who talks too much about their relationship with God — we all chuckled when Jeremy Paxman asked Tony Blair whether he prayed with George Bush. John Kerry’s Boston vowels and secular values are much more reassuring to Tory ears.

Next to consider in the balance are the Conservative party’s complex feelings about the war in Iraq, and the President who led our Prime Minister into it. Conservatives supported the war, but not with universal enthusiasm. I was a hawk, and remain one, but I remember a very lively debate in the 1922 Committee about whether we should back Tony Blair in the crucial vote. That debate reflected a broader Conservative ambivalence about foreign policy crusades and interfering in another country’s affairs. Like Senator Kerry, the great majority of Tory MPs ended up casting their vote for war; but like Senator Kerry too, they now want to get at the truth and (let’s be honest) try to exploit the uncomfortable position Tony Blair and George Bush find themselves in. Support for the war among Conservatives in the country was never absolute, and has steadily diminished. There is a lot of mumbling these days about how the intelligence services have been compromised, and about how the army is overstretched. The retired colonels from Surrey suddenly find they have quite a lot in common with the Vietnam vet from Massachusetts.

Then there’s the plain fact that George W. Bush has not pursued a consistently conservative policy. He cuts taxes, but he also levies steel tariffs and approves huge farm subsidies. He preaches fiscal responsibility, but turns a healthy budget surplus into a groaning budget deficit. He talks of reforming social security, but he also champions a new multi-billion-dollar prescription drug welfare entitlement. For Conservative thinkers looking around the world for an exciting new domestic agenda, the Bush presidency has not lived up to the promise of Compassionate Conservatism. For Conservative modernisers who were enthused by the way Bush reached out to minority groups in his election, the news this week that the President is now calling for a constitutional amendment to enshrine the sanctity of marriage is disappointing. At least John Kerry’s uber-liberalism is consistent.

So is it time for the Tories to get out the bunting for the lantern-jawed Bostonian Brahmin? Should we be sucking up to the decorated war hero who married well (twice) and is related to William Rees-Mogg? Should we be sitting at the feet of a political Houdini who showed us Conservatives how you can be written off in politics one day, and then be leading a popular incumbent in the polls the next? No. No. Absolutely, definitely not. It would be an awful, terrible mistake.

If John Kerry is the answer, then what on earth is the question? He is Walter Mondale without the optimism. In his 19 years in the US Senate, he has not achieved a single thing of real interest. His campaign is totally devoid of new ideas except for a dangerous flirtation with protectionism, and has thrived almost exclusively on the back of the remarkable implosion of Howard Dean. If you think Bush’s speeches are wooden, then John Kerry’s are like a forest of giant redwoods. He is so averse to taking a definite stand that when he was asked who his political hero was, he picked four just to be safe — Lincoln, both Roosevelts and Kennedy — none of whom was what you might call original. And if Tories think that a President Kerry would embarrass Tony Blair, then they have yet to realise that our Prime Minister is beyond embarrassment. He would be o n the first plane to Camp David to glad-hand the new President, and if he has to change toothpaste brands to cosy up to him, then you can bet that he’ll be round to Boots in a flash.

No. Conservatives should stick with George W. Bush and learn from his political successes. For he remains the outstanding example of a centre-right politician who understands that the world has changed since the high days of Thatcherism and Reaganomics. Instead of relying on a dwindling political base, Bush is the first conservative politician to realise that he has to go out and create a new coalition of support.

So he talked a lot about inner-city education — hardly a traditional Republican subject — not because he expected to win votes in those areas, but because he understood that middle-class suburban voters cared about the state of urban America. He has made a huge effort to reach out to Hispanic voters, not only making the effort to speak Spanish to them but also risking the wrath of the Right with liberal immigration policies, because he knows the Republican party is finished if it does not win the votes of minorities. In his State of the Union speech last month he devoted a big section to healthcare, because he’s not prepared to let the Democrats monopolise an issue of such enormous concern to America’s ageing population. His middleclass tax cuts, once derided by the Democrats, are now accepted by John Kerry because everyone knows that not only have they been popular but they have also helped drive economic growth.

I am not blind to Bush’s faults, but others should look harder to see his strengths. He found an answer to this question: what is the Right for in the age of Clinton–Blair? The Conservatives would do well to listen and learn. The supreme test, of course, is whether Bush’s new electoral coalition will see him through the coming presidential election. Of course it is going to be close — after all, it could not have been closer last time. As someone observed to me recently, presidents with approval ratings below 46 per cent at this stage invariably lose, and presidents with approval ratings above 53 per cent invariably win. President Bush’s approval rating is 49 per cent — bang in the middle.

The latest opinion poll puts him 10 percentage points behind John Kerry, but then the last six weeks have been great for the Senator and lousy for the President. We have nine months to go until November. Kerry has run out of money, although there will be union funds to come. Bush has not yet touched his $175 million war chest. It will be a long, tough, divisive, expensive and painfully close contest. But my money’s on the President, and so should be the money of all Conservatives.

George Osborne is Conservative MP for Tatton.