[Previously by David Orland: UK Elections: Tories Finally Make Immigration An Issue]
As the first results from Thursday's UK elections trickled in after midnight, there came news of a surprising series of Tory victories in southern England, with swings as high as 6% in some areas of London.
Reacting to this news, Labour's Minister for the Environment Margaret Beckett told the BBC she had a "horrid feeling" that the Tories' focus on immigration during the campaign might actually be paying off.
Sort of. As more results came in, it became clear that the Party's early gains were a blip in an otherwise modest improvement. With all votes tallied, the Tories walked away from the election with a net gain of 35 seats (for 197 overall). The Tories' share of the popular vote improved by only 1 point on the last election.
It wasn't the disaster many had predicted in the days leading up to the election. But it was not quite the strong showing the Party needed if it was to decisively reverse its decade plus slide into irrelevance.
As I pointed out at VDARE.COM two weeks ago, Conservative leader Michael Howard's decision to put immigration and asylum at the center of his Party's campaign made the best political sense. Over the past year, immigration and asylum have regularly appeared at or near the top of public issue surveys. They also happen to be the sole areas in which the Tories consistently out-perform Labour in the polls.
A successful campaign plays to a party's strengths. The Tories only had one.
In this respect, Michael Howard made the best of a bad situation, putting Labour on the defensive for its disastrous record on immigration and resolutely holding the line when confronted with the usual chorus of reproach and insinuation.
But in the last week of the campaign, the Tories backed off immigration. They refocused on Tony Blair's conduct leading up to the Iraq War.
It was a bad move. Small right-wing parties like the UKIP and the BNP did well in key constituencies.
Significantly, since the election, Michael Howard and other Tories are said to have concluded that staying on the immigration message could have gained them enough seats to make a decisive difference.
As Nicholas Watt reported in the leftwing Guardian newspaper:
"Michael Howard is kicking himself that he backed away from a big push on immigration in the final days of the election campaign - a decision which Tories believe may have cost them at least 10 extra seats in parliament.
"As the Conservatives embark on a fresh round of soul searching, Mr Howard believes he could have finished off Tony Blair because a further 10 Tory MPs would have cut Labour's majority to below 50, dealing a fatal blow to the prime minister.
"Mr Howard, who focused strongly on immigration in the early part of his campaign, abandoned plans to return to the charged issue in the final days because he wanted to present an upbeat message of what he would do as prime minister.
"But aides believe a harder message could have handed the Tories seats such as Crawley, which Labour retained by 37 votes and where the BNP did well. 'We should have had a final go on immigration,' one Tory said." [Tories say backing off immigration cost 10 seats, May 9 2005]
The Conservative Party might have improved its share of the vote by broadening its campaign to other National-Question issues—the European referendum and the Euro were notably absent from the campaign, even though a majority of voters oppose both.
But for over a decade, the Tories have labored under a cloud of public distrust and worse. If they avoided another disaster in this election, it was in large measure due to Howard's stance on immigration.
As the Party remakes itself in the wake of Howard's surprise announcement that he will be stepping down, the question it needs to ask is not what went wrong but rather what went right—and then keep doing it.
Immigration is surely part of the answer.
The British public, for its part, has already won something. In Britain, as in the US, the past fifteen years have been a time of elite consensus on immigration and official multiculturalism. By putting the issue back where it should have been all along at the center of political debate Michael Howard has given a voice to British opinion and forced a number of important promises from Tony Blair.
It will be up to his successor to make sure Blair keeps them.
Doing so is the Tories' last best chance—yesterday as today.