The outcome of the U.K.'s upcoming general election is no longer a foregone conclusion, with the opposition Conservative Party's steady lead in opinion polls recently narrowing. An election date of May 6 has been floated, leaving plenty of time for the usual twists and turns of election campaigning. All the same, given Prime Minister Gordon Brown's political difficulties and popular fatigue with the Labour Party's long grip on power, a Conservative win is certainly plausible. So what would be the implications of a Conservative victory on foreign and development policy?
Answering this question is tricky, not least because a consistent policy direction in this area is hard to find. Conservative Party media strategy has centered heavily around their leader David Cameron, who has been vocal about home affairs and the government's perceived economic shortcomings, but has stayed pretty silent on the Tories' global perspective. Nonetheless, several themes are emerging.
The Special Relationship?
The Conservatives seem to be attempting a tricky balancing act in the aftermath of the Blair-Bush relationship and the political legacy of joining in two U.S.-led Middle East wars. Cameron has been keen to distance himself from ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair's image as "Bush's poodle," pledging "solid but not slavish" support for American foreign policy goals. But at the same time, key members of his front bench are instinctively Atlanticist and ideologically neoliberal, and would balk at any deliberate attempt from Whitehall to dilute the iconic "special relationship."
Of course, this may be academic in the context of a period of transition in U.S.-European relations. Ratification of the Lisbon Treaty -- much to the chagrin of many Conservative Party members -- has created a single European president and foreign affairs representative, at least partially (though not very forcefully) answering the Kissinger question, "Who do I call if I want to call Europe?" And in any case, there has been little evidence to suggest that President Barack Obama has much interest in sustaining special ties with the U.K. As a State Department official quoted by the Telegraph said, "There's nothing special about Britain. You're just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn't expect special treatment."
Austerity Foreign Policy
The comments signal America's retreat into realism within the current geopolitical context, a retreat that is mirrored in the U.K. by a domestic climate of fiscal austerity and policy caution. Cameron ought to be on comfortable territory here, having previously sketched out a "liberal conservative" foreign policy vision that is long on pragmatism and personally wary of the perceived moral crusading of the Blair years.
But what exactly will Cameron's "liberal conservatism" look like, especially if he is to win over the factions in his party? Early signs are that, should the Conservative Party form the next government, it would squeeze defense and foreign policy spending by reviewing existing defense contracts and looking for opportunities to put off expensive spending commitments.
If that gives little reason to expect a sea change in foreign policy in the event of a Conservative government, under the surface, some interesting discussions are emerging in the nexus between foreign, development and defense policy.
Perhaps improbably, the party has maintained its existing commitment to increase the U.K.'s international development budget in line with the U.N. target of 0.7 percent of GDP. Only the health budget has been similarly firewalled, suggesting an acute awareness from Cameron of the need to rid his party of the "nasty" tag that has ruined its electoral chances since 1992. Yet this firewalling at a time of impending public spending cuts sits uneasily with many Conservative party members, and will inevitably come under intense pressure from other government departments responsible for outcomes far closer to home than Ghana or India.
The Blurring of Boundaries
Nevertheless, the maintenance of development spending could point to some quite significant changes in the structure of U.K. foreign policy. Cameron has already pledged to set up a U.S.-style National Security Council with a full time national security adviser, potentially circumventing some Foreign Office functions. More controversially, party figures have proposed integrating parts of the defense and development budgets, which would maintain development commitments while blurring the policy lines between development, foreign and defense policy. A similar approach in the U.S. during the Bush administration was hugely contentious. And there is an increasing sense within the Department for International Development (DFID) that the Conservatives might "protect" the aid budget, but be harsher on the institution that currently administers it.
A Wild Card?
The joker in the U.K.'s foreign policy deck is Europe -- an issue that has been conspicuous for its absence during the election campaign. Hostility to the EU is deep-seated across much of the Conservative Party's grassroots base, and Cameron has played to this gallery by withdrawing from the center-right European Peoples Party (EPP) grouping in the European Parliament, and potentially isolating the Conservatives from center-right European allies such as Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel. European foreign and defense policy integration does not sit well with Conservative ideals, even if resource-pooling may be smart at a time of financial retrenchment.
Although it's impossible to say with certainty, a Conservative foreign policy will likely have more impact on the instruments and institutions of foreign policy, with an emphasis on austerity and cost-cutting. It could end up blurring policy and spending distinctions between foreign policy, aid and defense, out of concern over balancing the budget and cutting public spending. The European issue remains a great unknown -- along with the outcome of the general election.