At the beginning of the 1990s, single mothers became the ‘enemy of the people’ in the eyes of hard-right Conservative MPs. But when the party looked to moralise on the issue, they discovered that single mothers were not an alien from an unruly underclass – but within everyone’s families, especially the ones of high-ranking Tory Cabinet Ministers.
The resignation of Damian Green has many reaching for parallels with the early 1990s. Labour activists have used #SLEAZE to highlight the actions of Green and others in the ongoing Westminster sex scandal. In the years 1994-95, the world Sleaze entered the national discourse for the first time, used to describe any number of Tory misdemeanours. Just two years prior to that, the Tories had won a record 14.1 million votes. Unlike the insurgency now felt by Labour, in the aftermath of 1992, many people asked the question ‘Can Labour ever win again?’
After enjoying six months of relative calm, events quickly spiralled out of control. A triple whammy of David Mellor’s sex scandal, the sterling/ERM fiasco and a surprisingly unpopular pit closure programme, opened the gates to 4 years of lies, sleaze and corruption – culminating in the loss of 4.5 million votes in the rout of 1997. If Theresa May is relieved to have survived the first six months, she should take note, for John Major it was the beginning of a never-ending nightmare.
Part One: There Aren’t Many Fathers Around Here
The problems began in earnest. Just two months after their stunning election victory, David Mellor was caught on tape by The Sunday People discussing his affair with the glamorous Antonia de Sancha. Of all the sleaze stories that emerged during the period, Mellor’s is the one that has endured on our collective memory. Having given himself the title ‘Minister for Fun’, the press revelled in tales of his sex in a Chelsea shirt and royal inspired toe sucking. Mellor had made an enemy in The Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie, after claiming the media were “drinking in the last chance saloon” over their treatment of the Royal Family. It was unfortunate that Mellor, who was tasked with amending the privacy law, should have such skeletons in his own closet. Initially, Major fought hard to save him, and Mellor used his young family as a prop to defend his virtue and present a faux show of happiness within the home. But when more details emerged about accepting free holidays he was forced to resign.
There were political problems too. The old adage of ‘Events, Dear Boy’ came back to haunt the party. In September, Black Wednesday signalled the end of the party’s perceived economic competence when £10 billion was spent in an attempt to prop up sterling. Although Major’s relationship with The Sun was dwindling, he still rang up MacKenzie during his darkest hour to ask how the paper would play the ERM story. He famously told the PM that “I have a large bucket of shit in front of me, and tomorrow I’m going to pour it over your head.” The next day, the newspaper that had proudly claimed to have won the election for the Tories just six months previous , wrote ‘NOW WE’VE ALL BEEN SCREWED BY THE CABINET.‘
After the 1992 election Major could no longer defer decisions on the Maastricht treaty. He needed to pass the bill through parliament and take on the eurosceptics within his party. It set the scene for a bitter autumn party conference, more reminiscent of past Labour bust-ups, with the pro EU speeches heckled throughout. Sensing an opportunity, Peter Lilley stood in front of the Tory crowd and proudly announced “I’m closing down the something for nothing society.” In a toe curling parody of Gilbert and Sullivan ‘The Mikado’ Lilley identified a list of people he wished to eliminate from the welfare bill: teenage mothers, councillors who draw the dole, absent fathers and ‘sponging’ socialists. That a culture of welfare dependency had risen after 13 years of Thatcherism was overlooked by the delegates,
Over the summer Lilley had laid the groundwork for his speech, by condemning new age travellers, – referring to them as ‘locusts’ – and linking their ‘hedonism’ to rave culture, which continued to thrive despite the efforts of the Entertainment (Increased Penalties) Act of 1990. The media had supported a narrative of youth societal breakdown, linked with a decline in moral values. After a decade of demonising labour militants, football hooligans and ecstasy users, single mothers now fell victim to what the sociologist Stanley Cohen dubbed a “moral panic.” There was substance to Lilley’s posturing, the Tories had set up the Child Support Agency, a Taskforce aimed at collecting money from absent fathers.
Arguing that it was both fiscally and morally responsible, a succession of Tory ministers highlighted the rise of single mothers as a blight on society. The home secretary Michael Howard warned of the threat to the traditional family, while the housing minister Sir George Young, asked the nation;
“How do we explain to the young couple who want to wait for a home before they start a family that they cannot be housed ahead of the unmarried teenager expecting her first, probably unplanned child?”
Michael Portillo wrote in The Times that ‘Teenage pregnancy often leads to a whole life of state dependence.’ It was a clear strategic move from the party, in order to usher in the freezing of single parent benefit. The demonisation of single mothers coincided with a deep recession, which led to a record number of house repossessions in Britain. In 1991 and 1992, 143,000 mortgages were repossessed. In 1989 the figure had stood at just 12,000. Local councils came under increasing pressure to meet the rising demand for social housing. It’s an irony of the Thatcher era that more people became dependent on welfare to survive. In ignoring the effect of the right-to-buy, blame was aimed squarely at single mothers, whom Lilley claimed became pregnant deliberately just to jump the queue.
Yet figures from the period showed that just 0.3% of heads of council homes were women under the age of 20. The rhetoric was aimed at creating an atmosphere in which anti welfare measures could present as necessary. Underlying the criticism were two assumptions: that single mothers represented an unaffordable drain on the welfare bill, and that the state should actively intervene with measures to curb the numbers. John Redwood, staking an early claim for the Tory leadership, visited the St Mellons housing estate in Wales. After the visit he gave a speech to the party, in which he spoke of the horrors he had found there;
“I was told that 64% of the families were single parent families, I asked what action if any was being taken to involve the menfolk of the community rather more in helping bring up the children they had fathered. The reply was interesting, I was told ‘there aren’t many fathers around here’. In that community people had began to accept that babies just happened and there was no presumption in favour ot two adults creating a loving family background”
St Mellons quickly became a media symbol of collapse in the nuclear family. Iain Duncan Smith had a similar ‘epiphany’ in 2003 at the Easterhouse estate in Glasgow, an experience he claimed would inspire the creation of Universal Credit .The 1993 intervention by Redwood propelled him into right-wing stardom. Much like Jacob Rees-Mogg has done in recent weeks, the right wing press put forward the fresh-faced cabinet minister as the ‘true’ defender of Tory values.
The debate was magnified to the extent that the Archbishop of Canterbury, called on the government to stop “beating these single mothers with big sticks”. Redwood had been completely misinformed. The true figure of single parent households on the estate was 17%, which was in line with the national average. The police undermined Redwood’s proposal to force fathers back into the home, claiming it was ‘pie in the sky’ as many of the women had intervention orders against violent partners. Six days after the speech, Tim Yeo – the environment minister – fathered a daughter. Unfortunately for him, his wife was unaware of it.
The framing of single mothers as an enemy was important. Senior cabinet ministers would often talk in cold statistics, relating it to welfare budgets, housing and domestic political issues. The tabloid press would then exemplify this by raising human interest stories, making minor celebrities of absent fathers and welfare ‘cheats’. The argument was often framed against the moral attitude of the women involved in the pregnancy, with their promiscuity seen as a burden the state. The attempt at a culture war was further linked to the rise in video nasties, street crime and drugs. Inevitably, when debate over cuts in public spending arose in 1993, the single mother was public enemy number one. In the British Attitude Survey that year, only 7% of respondents said that extra funding for them should be the top priority. In a mark of how far we have moved as a nation since, 40% of people believed that raising pensioner benefit should be the highest priority.
The Labour party did little to defend the people being portrayed in this way and their new shadow home secretary, Tony Blair, actively encouraged a tough stance. After the 1992 election defeat, Blair had been offered any role within cabinet (besides chancellor). In choosing home affairs, Blair picked up the party’s historic poisoned chalice. Recognising that Labour had been seen as soft, he hardened the rhetoric. Noting in his memoirs later, he claimed to have “…hated the liberal middle class view towards crime. Usually they weren’t the victims, but the poorer ones – the very ones we said we represented – were.” Blair first touched national consciousness with his ‘Tough on crime, Tough on the causes of crime’ speech, which had been written by Gordon Brown. The press ran with it; ‘Even Labour now wants people to talk about right and wrong’, said a Times editorial in February 1993.
It would be the death of James Bulger that best connected Blair with the electorate at large. Setting the tone for the next decade, he argued that the murder was akin to “hammer blows struck against the sleeping conscience of the country, urging us to wake up and look unflinchingly at what we see”. This was not – as once the party would have done – an attempt to connect the murder with the failings of Thatcherism, unemployment and economic inequality. Blair made it a moral issue: “We cannot live in a moral vacuum. If we do not learn and then teach the value of what is right and wrong, then the result is simply moral chaos which engulfs us all.”
In the aftermath of the murder, Blair received much attention and the press scrambled to reflect the new world. The Sunday Times, under the stewardship of arch Thatcherite Andrew Neil, became the fiercest critic of the decline in moral standards. In the weeks that followed the murder, the paper published a series of provocative reports on the ‘underclass’. They included; Are our children out of control?: A Youth Crime Wave is Striking at the Heart of the Nation’s Moral Fabric’ and ‘The daily diet of crime that sickens the people of Britain.’ Under pressure to save his leadership, John Major’s declared that society should ‘condemn a little more and understand a little less.’ In the week of the murder, public concern for law and order doubled, becoming the number two biggest concern for the public, behind unemployment.
By July 1993, the single mother was part of public discourse in the way migration has over the past few years. Being assessed in terms economic costs as well as moral and social costs to the nation. The Sunday Times again led the way, with a four page special on ‘Wedded to Welfare’ which argued “Over the past 20 years, an assorted collection of sociologists, feminists, left-wing idealogues and agony aunties have made the abnormal family into the norm.” Their list of catalysts included Neil Kinnock, Harriet Harman, the GLC and Germain Greer.
Part Two: Back To Basics
After the 1992 election, The Sun focussed on the chancellor Norman Lamont, with an array of stories, venturing from the surreal to the trivial. The paper revelled in the news that he had rented out the basement of his Notting Hill flat to a ‘sex therapist’ by the name of ‘Miss Whiplash.’ It became more serious for the government when the national audit office, investigated the decision to provide Lamont with £3000 of taxpayer money to evict her from the property. As the tabloids delved deeper into his private life, it emerged that he had overspent his credit limit with Threshers, a high market off license and had been sent five written warnings about failures to make payments. For a chancellor steering the country through a recession, it asked the obvious question about capacity to manage the economy, when he couldn’t manage his own bills. When he was finally sacked, The Sun celebrated with headline of ‘SPANK YOU AND GOODNIGHT.’
The events gave a rejuvenated Labour party a 20pt poll lead. John Major used his September conference speech to return ‘Back to Basics.’ Major had intended the speech to encourage old school values of the 1950s – a smaller state, trust in the community, traditional subjects taught in schools, all underpinned by self-reliance, decency and respect for the rule of law. Aside from his own affair with Edwina Currie, yet to be made public, Major recognised that the Tories had no place in lecturing on individual sexual behaviour. Yet it quickly became associated with it.
Sex was put back on the spotlight as Steven Norris’ five affairs were exposed, earning him the nickname ‘Shagger Norris’. A year earlier, at the 1992 conference, Tim Yeo had begun a fling, which resulted in the birth of a baby girl. The News of the World exposed the story, and became the first to link it in with the ‘back to basics’ narrative. Although Yeo was not a moralising Tory MP, he became the victim of the new self-inflicted climate. After two weeks fighting the story, he was gone. The press quickly caught on to the public appetite for a political sex scandal. Max Clifford, the disgraced sex offender who died in prison last week, was at the peak of his tabloid power. He added his own political dimension to the stories;
“I saw how the Tories were ruining hospitals, closing wards and cutting down on nurses…I saw for myself the pain and indignity they suffered from the decline in the services provided..I was glad it was damaging but I didn’t put an advert in one of the papers saying, “Do you have any sleazy stories about Tories? Contact this number.” It just happened.”
As the new year broke, January 1994 would become the point of no return. Alan Duncan was caught up in a scandal over the sale of a council house and was forced to resign. Then a few weeks later, a tragic story emerged about the suicide of Diana Caithness, the wife of the minister for aviation. Diana, killed herself with a shotgun after she found out about her husband’s affair. The press covered the story in great detail, but the majority of the public read it as a human tragedy rather than a sleaze story. If Major was hoping for a respite, he wouldn’t be in luck. David Ashby MP, whilst on a rugby tour, shared a bed with a male ‘friend’ in order to save money on a hotel bill. Smelling blood, the press visited the hotel and measured it – in order to see whether they both could have fitted in without having sex. It was followed by another story about Gary Waller, the Tory MP for Keighley, who denied an affair, but then subsequently admitted to fathering a secret child in 1988.
In February 1994, the party was rocked by the death of Stephen Milligan, who was found dead by a friend, lying on a table wearing stockings, with his head in a plastic bag and a electrical cable round his neck. An inquest ruled he had died of autoerotic asphyxiation. The death provoked questions about the relationship between the police and the media, after the press circulated details of the story just two hours after his body was discovered. The media quickly turned away from the story, and luckily for them, another scandal emerged. This time, Hartley Booth was discovered to have had an affair with a young researcher. To the media’s delight, it emerged that she now worked for the Labour Party and had been a young Trotskyite.
In the week following Booth’s revelation, a Gallup poll in The Sunday Telegraph suggested that 64 % of voters, a quarter of them Tory, now believed that the party was ‘very sleazy and disreputable’. The hypocrisy of the party as a defender of family values was exposed as never before. As stories emerged of Alan Clark’s affair with a mother and daughter, the party lunged from crisis to crisis. In May 1994, just before the death of John Smith, the government whip Michael Brown resigned after allegations of a homosexual affair and ‘three in a bed romp’ with 20-year-old students. And on it went.
A government that loses control begins to see enemies everywhere. The pressure had become so intense, that Peter Lilley forgot about his little list. He accused the media of “harassing and pillorying” MPs by assigning journalists to look into their private lives;
“By definition, we are all fallen creatures…Do they want a government or parliament of people who never committed any sin? It would be a bizarre place.”
It marked a different tone than the Lilley of just two years ago. Yet the harder the press pushed, the more the public responded. If the Tories attacked or defended ‘sleaze’ they were portrayed as having something to hide. Unfortunately for their fortunes, many of them did. In October 1994, Tim Smith and Neil Hamilton were caught up in the cash for questions affair. The Guardian reported that the pair had been paid by a lobbying company acting on behalf of Mohammed Al Fayed, to ask questions in the house, over the sale of Harrods. Rather than admit defeat and quit, Hamilton decided to issue a writ for libel. He began to make light of the situation, making a joke about declaring for a biscuit whilst on a visit to a school in his constituency. When Hamilton was forced to drop the libel, it allowed The Guardian to print the damning headline “A liar and a cheat”.
John Major was finally forced to act. He set up the Nolan Committee to look in to the conduct and interests of MPs. Towards the end of 1995, other failings of the Thatcher era began to dominate the media narrative. There was outrage as it emerged that the chief executive of British Gas received a 75% pay rise, allowing Labour to push ahead with their popular windfall tax on energy companies. The tide began to turn Labour’s way. That November, Labour won its first vote in the commons over a VAT rise on fuel. A week after the vote, Labour won the Dudley-West by-election on a record post war swing.
It is in this context that Blair and Alistair Campbell began to assert their control over the Labour message. Backbenchers were slapped down to size. It was during this period that Blair told The Evening Standard; “You really don’t have to worry about Jeremy Corbyn suddenly taking over – I know everything that’s going on in his constituency party.” When Clare Short attacked Blair’s inner circle – ‘I sometimes call them the people who live in the dark. Everything they do is in hiding.’ – the Tories jumped on it.
It took time for the Tories to adapt to Blair’s leadership of the party. Initially the Tories had a mixed message; simultaneously accusing Blair of stealing their policies and potraying him of being a secret socialist who didn’t actually believe in them. Yet the attacks had little impact. Their private polling showed that 70% of voters believed in the sincerity of Blair’s message. Their was one final proposition to save their government. In 1996, Maurice Saatchci highlighted this issue of Europe as a key concern for voters. In this area, the Tories could maximise their base. The proposition of a ‘Euro Labour, Euro Danger’ campaign was put forward. Major, supported by Heseltine and Clare, vetoed the move, due to concerns about the dangerous nationalistic rhetoric. It would however form the basis of Hague’s 2001 election strategy, which ended in abject failure.
It was at this point that the Tories sensed an end to their reign. It was Jim Callaghan who once said that;
“there are times, perhaps once every thirty years, when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of.”
The Sun, the long time enemy of Labour finally came out in support of the party in March 1997. In justifying their support they argued “Too many Conservative MPs have been exposed as perverts, liars and conmen.”
There will be no repeat of that rhetoric this time. As we approach 2018, the political landscape has become much darker, and issues once seen as a resigning issue are now nothing of the sort. This time the Tories are on the right side of the EU battle for The Sun and much will be done to keep Corbyn away from Number 10. But just as Major enjoyed a few months of post election joy, May will be at the bequest of unknown events that will destabilise her premiership. Back in 1997, Ken Clarke claimed that ‘Bad luck will be engraved on our gravestone.’ It remains to be seen what will be written on Mrs May’s.