Britain's Tories have a commitment problem. The last time they were in government, their policies were overshadowed by details of escapades with, um, not their wives. Now -- better for their spouses and worse for their constituents -- they're instead regularly cheating on their principles.
In the latest infidelity, top Tory Michael Howard will skip next week's GOP convention in New York, weakening the strong alliance between Republicans and Tories nurtured during the Thatcher-Reagan era. Instead, he's sending a few deputies. A party spokesman attempted to play down the decision, telling me: "it's unusual for a leader to attend," and "Mr. Howard is just very busy."
Oh really? "Unusual," say, compared to the 2000 Republican convention that then-Tory supremo William Hague attended with an impressive delegation of top Tories? (Mr. Hague went on to endorse Mr. Bush as far as protocol would allow.) "Very busy" while the British parliament is in recess (till Sept. 7), and the country's entire political elite are on vacation? Right.
The party spokesman denied -- before I even asked -- that it had anything to do with Iraq. When denials pre-empt questions, the truth is normally therein. Mr. Howard performed one of the most unbelievable back-flips in the Iraq debate -- from originally urging British Prime Minister Tony Blair to go to war, to now leading the Jerry Springer Show-sounding "lied to, betrayed, want him out of the House (of Commons)" charge.
All of Mr. Howard's attacks on Mr. Blair -- intelligence failures, planning mistakes, prisoner abuses etc. -- are all attacks by association, if not directly, on U.S. President George W. Bush.
Suddenly concerned about consistency, Mr. Howard is no doubt worried that his attending the convention will be seen as endorsing the president and thereby supporting the war. Which -- to clarify for readers understandably confused -- he did, but doesn't now (at least as of the time we went to press).
It's not only in foreign policy that the Tories are experimenting with different positions -- much to the disgust of us small "c" conservatives. After one particularly frustrating prime minister's question time -- the weekly joust between the prime minister and leader of the opposition -- I remarked to a Conservative MP that the debate left me confused about who was leading which party.
Mr. Blair had been arguing to introduce the free market into higher education, and the Tories as per usual threw principle to the wind and shamelessly opposed. The MP, "ummed," "ahhhed," politely coughed, looked sheepish, and then changed the subject.
Opposing is all the Tories really seem to do these days. The once powerful party of principle has turned into an opportunistic party of opposition. Exciting free-market ideas used to constantly originate from their ranks. Now the only real excitement comes from their regular leadership contests.
The almost knee-jerk opposition to any of Mr. Blair's policies bears an uncanny resemblance to their old responses to accusations of impropriety. The golden rule of sleaze was: no matter what the accusation, deny everything, and if necessary justify the lies later.
When an MP was caught with another woman, he'd deny, deny and deny.
Confronted with graphic pictures, he'd then attempt to explain how his adultery wasn't really contrary to the party's "family values"
Now it's the same in politics. No matter what free-market policy Mr. Blair puts forward, the Tories automatically oppose. They then try to explain how their opportunism -- sorry, opposition -- is somehow consistent with their supposed free-market values. No doubt if Mr. Blair were so cunning as to read out an old speech of Lady Thatcher's, the Tories would denounce the policies as being against everything Britain ever stood for.
Mr. Howard at least hasn't betrayed Lady Thatcher on GOP-Tory relations to the extent of publicly courting Mr. Kerry. Some of his lieutenants, however, are openly having an affair. For example Alan Duncan -- shadow secretary of state for constitutional affairs -- told me he is endorsing Mr. Kerry, whose key policy pillars appear to be protectionism, taxation, and pacifism. Mr. Duncan & Co. had better stay clear of the Iron Lady's legendary handbag.
When the Tories had both mistresses and principles, both the gossip columns and opinion pages keenly followed the party. Now nothing newsworthy comes from their ranks in or out of the political arena. And they wonder why voters show no interest in them.