Before the next election the Tories will change leader in a bid to maintain their grip on power. With it, they will project themselves as a new government. Last time it happened under John Major the party turned round a 30 point poll deficit with a well organised attack on Labour’s tax and spend. Could it happen again?
Part One: A Country at Ease with Itself
In late 1990 the Conservative Party was reeling from a summer of immense change. Poll tax riots brought the white heat of Orgreave and Wapping to the heart of London, as the entire nation rebelled against a Thatcher policy for the first time. Football, a sport long attacked by the Tories as representative of the worst of British values, reconnected with the people, as 26 million tuned in to Gazza’s Tears at Italia 90. The barren industrial wastelands, a by-product of the previous decade, became the setting for the ‘Rave New World’ of Acid House. Mandela walked free and the Berlin Wall came down. The Labour Party hit a high of 54% in the polls. Change was coming. Neil Kinnock told the 1990 Labour conference that they would be sure to win the next election ‘because it is time for a change.’ The party adopted the slogan ‘It’s Time For Labour’.
Fearful of electoral annihilation with Margaret Thatcher at the helm and increasingly concerned over her belligerence to European integration, the Tories took the decision to wield the axe. Little was known about her successor John Major. Just a month prior to his ascendancy, William Hill offered odds of 8/1 on him becoming the next leader. Ahead of him were Michael Heseltine at 11/8, Kenneth Baker at 2/1, Geoffrey Howe at 3/1 and Douglas Hurd at 7/1. Major emerged from the leadership battle as the ‘clean skin’ a tired government can only dream of. While the cabinet visited Thatcher one by one to force the resignation, Major remained in his constituency, recovering from a wisdom-tooth extraction. Contrary to later mythology, the dental procedure was genuine. Entering the contest as the outsider, he walked into Number 10 as the youngest prime minster of the century following a well organised short campaign of just five days.
Just as Theresa May emerged rapidly in the aftermath of Brexit (while Labour embarked on an exhausting four month internal leadership battle) Heseltine and Hurd soon rallied around Major to give the government some much needed stability. Neil Kinnock was quick to claim that the new found unity was ‘synthetic’ and ‘skin deep’ and predicted that it would unravel quickly, labelling Major a ‘Thatcherette’. Yet some within Labour were already worried. In the week of Thatcher’s resignation the Tories stood on 33% in the polls to Labour’s 49%. Major’s appointment immediately closed the gap.
With the change of leader came a distinct shift in tone. Major had the virtue of being a working class kid done well, thanks to the Tory Party. When he talked of the need for a ‘classless’ society, it was ground in pragmatic life experience rather than deep seated dogma and ideology. Major espoused an authenticity that Kinnock had long lost. By the time John Major became prime minister, Kinnock had led Labour for 7 years. Presiding over one of the most tortuous periods in the party’s history, Kinnock had slowly compromised on his core principles for the lure of electoral credibility. Previous commitments to overturn trade union reform were ditched, as were promises to reverse the privatisation of the major utilities. There was a u-turn on Europe and the nuclear deterrent which had once marked him out as a ‘firebrand left winger’. On the poll tax, he had drawn much criticism on the left for refusing to organise a demonstration for fear “it would be taken over by the Militant Tendency”. When the Labour MP Terry Fields was sentenced to six months in prison for refusing to pay the tax, Kinnock condemned him; “Law makers must not be law breakers. I have always made that clear”
Yet Labour seemed closer to power than ever before. When Mid-Staffordshire was gained by Labour in a by-election on a swing of 21%, the compromise seemed worthwhile. The result turned attention on to Prime Minister Kinnock for the first time, with ITV dedicating a documentary to the subject. Their polling showed that 73% of people believed that Neil Kinnock would indeed become the next prime minister. Yet the poll also showed the shallowness of the support, as only 49% of people believed he had the relevant experience to do the job. For Tory strategists, the path to power was clear; convince the voters that a change of leader had led to a substantial change in government. Major’s understated approach moved him away from the Thatcher era and from the Kinnock project – which was accused of hastily playing catch up with the new political world of spin. Initial polls showed Major to be more popular than his party, just as Kinnock proved to be less popular than his. Two months into the job, Major had made a strong impression on the public with some astounding personal ratings; 78% agreed he was a ‘clear winner’, 76% a ‘good team player’, 89% ‘likeable’ and 86% ‘caring’.
Major had pulled off the trick that a ‘change’ election had already taken place, which simultaneously undermined Labour’s agenda. In addition to a personal charm, Major made astute appointments around him. His choice of a combative party chairman in Chris Patten proved to be a key move for future battles. Patten was willing to publicly break with Thatcherism and make an enemy of the arch-eurosceptics within the party. He talked of a ‘caring conservatism’ and acted as a shield for Major against the dissenters, sacrificing his own popularity for the good of the project. Then there was the poll tax. Thatcher had built a reputation on never u-turning in the face of conflict. She never gave in to the steelworkers, the miners, the print unions, the LGBT community or any other group who called on her to recourse. The poll tax was one step too far. In order to de-toxify the party it would have to go. Cannily, John Major placed Michael Heseltine in charge of developing a new poll tax policy. In the years since his departure from the front bench, Heseltine had been associated with opposition to both the poll tax and Thatcherism. His appointment signalled a break with the old era. With rapid speed, a government with a parliamentary majority of nearly 100 withdrew their flagship policy. In one fell swoop, the party put an end to four years of bitter struggle.
Major quietly went about business. He championed Opportunity 2000, which aimed to get put more women into the top jobs. Sir Ian McKellen was invited to Downing Street to present his thoughts on change in the LGBT community. The ‘Citizens Charter’ was launched, which brought local services in line with Europe, handing consumers greater protection when buying products and services. Soon though, the party would come face to face with a decade of economic mismanagement. After the Lawson boom, a recession was officially declared in January 1991, after starting in the third and fourth quarters of 1990. By the end of the year, business failures reached a record number, car sales were down, and over 70,000 mortgages were repossessed. Unemployment hit 3 million. The Tories looked intensely relaxed about the damage. The chancellor Norman Lamont told the public to suck it up;”Rising unemployment and the recession have been the price that we have had to pay to get inflation down. That price is well worth paying.” However, the public appeared to forgive John Major. When asked who was responsible for the recession , only 4% answered the Major government.
The extent of Major’s battle ahead was laid bare in 1991, when the party lost 900 seats in the local elections. A few weeks later Labour won the Monmouth by-election on the single issue of NHS privatisation. If the 13% swing could be repeated at the election, Labour would enjoy a 100 seat majority. At a triumphalist rally a day later, Kinnock claimed that ‘victory is not a name strong enough for this scene’ and boldly predicted that Labour would march onto Downing Street. Kinnock’s personal appointment of Peter Mandelson as press officer was lauded on Fleet Street. The winning candidate, Huw Edwards, beckoned photographers to a local park, where he preceded to play on a swing – to emphasise the swing that was heading Labour’s way. The Monmouth by-election woke the Tories from a temporary slumber. Fooled by Major’s excellent personal ratings, the party had been outgunned by Labour’s organisation and single issue based campaigning. The Tory press began to panic. In a call to arms to the leadership, the Financial Times wrote “the complacency of 1987-89 has now been replaced by a nervous anxiety…that is all the more striking for the political professionalism of Labour.” The polls did point to one other important factor. In relation to the economy, voters still believed that the Tories were best placed to pull them out of a recession. A year before Bill Clinton immortalised the phrase, Tory HQ knew that a fourth successive victory could only only be delivered on ‘the economy stupid’.
Part Two: A Question Of Trust
24 years before Boris Johnson stood outside a red bus, Chris Patten and David Mellor stood in front of a billboard that claimed Labour would borrow £35bn to bankrupt Britain. They asked the question; ’35 Billion more Taxes. 35 Billion more debt. Don’t let Labour break Britain.’ Much like the ‘Boris Bus’, the figure was hotly contested. That did not matter. In the near term campaign, the party focussesd relentlessly on Labour spending and shifted momentum to what they hoped would be a ‘tax’ election. The Tories decision to retain the services of Saatchi and Saatchi, to run the advertising campaign, was initially met with criticism from within. At the previous election, Margaret Thatcher had endured strained relations with the firm, culminating in a serious bust up a week before polling day. Chris Patten wanted to return to a dual campaign centred around the strength of the Tory leader and the holes in Labour’s spending plans, just as the party had done in 1979 and 1983. The decision would prove to be a masterstroke.
It is very rare for a government to quickly look within itself and rectify image problems. Patten identified communication as the priority and plumped for future Labour MP Shaun Woodward to revamp their operation. His remit was to do what Mandelson had done for Labour. Although Major was reluctant to be packaged, his appeal to the public was something the party could build on. The result was Major: The Movie, a broadcast that focused solely on his journey from Brixton’s Coldharbour Lane to Downing Street. Visiting old shops and neighbours, Major weaved effortlessly amongst market traders and fly pitchers. The broadcast juxtaposed ‘Honest John’ with the US style razzmatazz of the Labour campaign. There was political substance, with Major explaining why people shouldn’t assume he should be a socialist just because he’s working class. In terms of personal ratings, Major flipped the fortunes of the party from Thatcher’s -37.5 to +22.
Cashing in on the personal ratings, John Major began the election campaign in March 1992 with a series of ‘Ask John’ events. This quickly developed in to the infamous ‘Soapbox’. Yet the Tories quickly lost control of the narrative. In the first week of the campaign, the party was accused of exerting a boring and negative style. Just as in 1987, 2015 and 2017, Labour were praised for running the best campaign. The Sunday Times claimed that Mrs Thatcher had told friends “there is not enough oomph, enough whizz, enough steam.” The crucial task for Labour was to sustain the anger against the government until the final day. Ammunition for the press would be provided in the form of the ‘shadow budget’ which laid out Labour’s tax plans. Under the Smith plan, Labour claimed that 80% of voters would be better off with a rise coming in a new top rate.
With 10 days to go, Labour maintained a 2pt lead. With this, the City began to shake. In one afternoon billions of pounds were wiped off shares in preparation for a Kinnock premiership. Labour feared the run on the pound had been staged to support the Tory campaign. The Guardian, a supposed friend of the party, claimed that half of Britain’s wealth could be leaving the shores as key businesses ‘move capital abroad’. The market moves heightened fears of an interest rate rise ‘within days of Kinnock entering Number 10’. Tory HQ, The Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Daily Star and The Times ran with the story. It was followed by a co-ordainted attack from Fleet Street, to ensure tax became the dominant story. With a week to go, the Tories increased their lead on tax from 8% to 21%. 62% of the public believed Labour would increase tax on them personally.
Labour began to run out of steam as Kinnock made himself an easy target. With the polls neck and neck, the Tories attacked a potential coalition between Labour and the Lib Dems. Kinnock fell into the trap of talking up a ‘grand coalition’ and refused to dismiss the introduction of proportional representation. It was designed to soften the Labour image and encourage swing voters over. It had the opposite effect. The press began to frame the election as a comeback for Major as the Tories grew stronger in the campaign. When Kinnock addressed 10,000 supporters at the Sheffield Rally, it seemed a little premature. The Tories culminated their campaign in conjunction with The Sun with nine pages of ‘Nightmare on Kinnock Street.’ No one could be quite sure of the media effect. Labour remained on course to become the biggest party in a hung parliament. As the exit poll was released, the BBC had a range of results; from Tories short by 25 to Labour being short by 13. But John Major had triumphed against all the odds. The Conservatives received what remains the largest number of votes in a general election, breaking the previous record set by Attlee and Labour in 1951. The scar of the losing the ‘unlosable election’ would haunt the next generation of Labour politicians, including John McDonnell, who narrowly lost Hayes and Harlington by 53 votes.
In terms of the election cycle, 2018 is the year 1988. Back then, John Major had yet to enter the cabinet. The next Tory prime minister will no doubt be cut from the same mould. A toxic blend of Mogg, Gove and Johnson would be a big gamble for a party seeking a fourth election victory. In four years time we expect the conditions to be the same as 1992. It will be an election set against a backdrop of patriotism, betrayal, fear and economic decline. Labour’s policies will be attacked for being well meaning, but unaffordable for a country on the brink of economic collapse. The right wing press will portray Labour as the party to repossess your house, hand out benefits to ‘shirkers’ and keep the door open to immigrants and refugees. McDonnell will be the man who cannot steer the ship through another Tory recession. It will be a ‘Britain First’ election. Labour must be prepared for the fight of their lives.