Britain's Conservatives are currently re-branding themselves in a desperate effort to shed the "nasty party" label that has clung to them in recent years. Under their new photogenic leader, David Cameron, they have abandoned support for selection in schools and vouchers for the use of public services and pleaded the fifth on tax cuts. The emphasis has instead been on environmentalism, general well-being, and flexible working. This desire to avoid being seen as "right-wing" has colored Conservative foreign policy too, with both Cameron and the party's foreign affairs spokesman going out of their way to criticize Israel during its recent conflict with Hezbollah.
So, on one level it is mildly surprising that they are over the moon to have secured John McCain, the most influential hawk in the U.S. Senate, as the guest speaker for their party conference. But the McCain magic works across the pond. The Guardian's report on the invitation describes the senator as having "clashed with the White House on key aspects of the way the Iraq war has been handled as well as speaking out against the use of torture and the Guantánamo Bay detention camp." In other words, he's the acceptable face of neo-conservatism.
McCain's appearance will benefit both Cameron and himself. It will enable Cameron to demonstrate that he's seen as a serious player on the world stage and a potential prime minister. And it enhances McCain's image as the president in waiting. (Aspirant foreign leaders aren't beating a path to Mitt Romney's door - let alone George Allen's.) The person who'll be peeved about it is Tony Blair's likely successor, Gordon Brown. He'll be furious to see Cameron being treated as a power player and he'll loathe the fact that the Conservatives will use the McCain visit to paint Brown as the past.
There is, though, a way for Brown to steal Cameron's thunder: Invite Barack Obama to Labour's party conference. The sight of the Democrats' rising star praising Brown's work on Africa would pre-empt Conservative attacks on Brown. Being eulogized by an opponent of the Iraq war would also subtly distance Brown from the most unpopular aspect of Blair's foreign policy. Plus, Obama is far closer to the mainstream of British politics than McCain and the best platform speaker around. There's something in it for Obama, too. The trip, like his visit to Africa, would help give him the statesman-like heft he'll need if he decides to run in 2008.
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