For my job, I have the pleasure and pain of attending the annual conferences of each of our main political parties in the UK. Liberal Democrat and Green activists were firmly behind Senator Barack Obama. The Labour Party (as opposed to the Government itself which has to keep officially neutral) are staunch supporters of the Democrats. At every event I went to and in the bars late at night there was a huge wave of enthusiasm for Obama. Now youâ€™d expect the Conservative party to be very different. Historically, its ties with the Republican Party have been strong. Yet what I found at the Conservativeâ€™s conference was a surprising picture: party activists, officials and Members of Parliament fairly even divided about which candidate they would support if they could vote. There were some ardent McCain followers, but also plenty of (at that stage less vocal) Obama fans. Interestingly, Sarah Palin provoked a negative reaction amongst many who otherwise would have been natural McCain supporters. I was taken aback by the level of visceral hatred of her by some Conservative women.
Now, after weeks of poor performances and floundering strategy by the McCain campaign, the tipping point has been reached. Now it is okay for Conservatives to openly voice support for Obama.
â€œI never thought the day would come when I would not support a Republican candidate. Ronald Reagan is one of my political inspirations, but he is probably turning in his grave when he sees what has happened to the party he led with so much distinction. It has turned from the Grand Old Party into a narrow religious sect. It has lost its compassion in a desperate rush towards social fundamentalism at the same time as losing all sense of fiscal responsibility.
I have doubts about Obama's Iraq policy, I have doubts about his big government agenda but I have come to believe that he is what America needs if it is to restore its reputation in the world. He radiates optimism. He has the zeitgeist in a way that McCain doesn't even know what the word means. I am not going to pretend I am totally in tune with Obama, because I am not, but on balance I think he would be a better President than McCain, both for America and for the rest of the world.
I am sure many Conservative friends of mine will be both surprised and horrified that I could bring myself to support someone who many on the right see as a man of the left. I don't see him that way at all. But my support will be more tacit than active. I'm not going to suddenly turn into an Obama cheerleader. If I like something McCain or Palin say or do, I shall say so. Anyway, let me know what you think. I'm putting on my body armour…â€
And sure enough there was a strong reaction. Not just on Iainâ€™s own blog. Hereâ€™s a flavour of what ardent right-wing blogger Donal Blaney wrote in response:
â€œJohn McCain is certainly not my perfect candidate for the US presidency. I am also conscious that Sarah Palin's rapid ascent has not been without incident either. But I would feel far happier in a time of war with McCain in the White House than Obama. McCain is a war hero who has stood up to vested interests for decades. He was proven right over Iraq and the surge. He will cut taxes and spending, unlike Obama who wants to bring class war – and race war – to the streets of America. McCain is no Reagan, I agree – but he's a better man than Obama.Â The notion that someone who reveres Margaret Thatcher as much as Iain does (and who campaigned for the freedom-loving David Davis with such zeal as he did) can now back Obama is the very essence of self-indulgent opinionating.â€
â€¨In the past few days we have seen Boris Johnson â€“ the new mayor of London, arguably the second most powerful Conservative in this country, and also a very early adopter of blogging â€“ come out in support of Obama. On his blog Boris writes:
â€œThere are all sorts of reasons for hoping that Barack Hussein Obama will be the next president of the United States. He seems highly intelligent. He has an air of courtesy and sincerity. Unlike the current occupant of the White House, he has no difficulty in orally extemporising a series of grammatical English sentences, each containing a main verb. Unlike his opponent, he visibly incarnates change and hope, at a time when America desperately needs both. It is no disrespect to John McCain – a brave and principled man – to observe that he has chosen a difficult time to stand on the Republican ticket.
If Obama wins, then black people the world over will be able to see how a gifted man has been able to smash through the ultimate glass ceiling. If Obama wins, then it will be simply fatuous to claim that there are no black role models in politics or government, because there is no higher role model than the President of the United States. If Barack Hussein Obama is successful next month, then we could even see the beginning of the end of race-based politics, with all the grievance-culture and special interest groups and political correctness that come with it. If Obama wins, he will have established that being black is as relevant to your ability to do a hard job as being left-handed or ginger-haired, and he will have re-established Americaâ€™s claim to be the last, best hope of Earth.â€
The backlash is still there from a few die-hards. One of the most dismissive is this post by Gerald Warner, who writes on The Telegraphâ€™s blog. The title says it all: ‘Conservatives for Barack Obama are a stampede of ideology-free lemmingsâ€™. And he continues in a similar vein:
â€œThis fashion statement by a bunch of British Tories will not help Barack Obama: in the unlikely event that anybody in America notices, it will simply confirm Obama as the foreigners’ choice for the Oval Office. On the other hand, it is extremely damaging to the soi-disant Tories who are uttering the kind of drivel Boris delivered yesterday. It betrays that contemporary British Conservatism has no roots, no principles, no philosophy and no agenda. What are we to think of people who call themselves conservatives, but want to see the most powerful country in the world governed by the most extreme-left politician to operate there since the inception of the United States in 1776?â€
Whatever happens on 4 November in the US, these elections seemed to have already generated a lot of controversy, soul-searching and difficult personal choices on the right of British politics.