Listening to Conservative Ministers speak, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they were the ones in opposition. Matt Hancock talks of the elderly social care crisis, Priti Patel has criticised local councils for the rise in poverty and the Prime Minister rejects that austerity has anything to do with him. On Marr, the release of the London Bridge terror suspect was blamed on the last Labour Government. This is not the behaviour of a government seeking a renewed mandate but one that hopes to win on a mandate for change.
By pitching his administration as a new government, Johnson hopes to draw on previous Tory victories for inspiration. And whilst there is no love lost between him and John Major, they both inherited unpopular Conservative government’s, seeking re-election for the fourth time in the middle of a crisis of their own making.
Back in the Autumn of 1990, the Labour Party was on course for election victory. Hitting 54% in the polls, the country rebelled against a key Thatcherite policy – the poll tax – on mass for the first time. Neil Kinnock confidently told his party conference that the ‘time is coming’ for a Labour Government
But It would be the Conservatives, not Labour who enacted the change.
Fearful of electoral annihilation with Margaret Thatcher at the helm, MPs took the brave and emotional decision to remove their greatest post-war election winner.
The Rise of Ordinary John
The emergence of ‘Honest’ John Major offered a distinct shift in tone to a weary electorate. The Thatcher era was typified by the constant battles, be it with the trade unions, the miners, Europe or the ‘wets’ within her own party.
Major’s rationale was to offer a different image. He later admitted that ‘after the pomp and circumstance of the Thatcher years I was keen to present an antidote to that’ and ‘to show it was possible to be Prime Minister and remain a human being’
In the 1990 leadership contest, Major was pitched by his allies as the ‘classless, young, approachable, meritocratic, compassionate yet not in any sense a softie’ break with the past
His ‘ordinariness’ became a virtue through skilfully co-ordinated gestures such as eating in Happy Eater Café’s and attending sporting events. The effect was exemplified in a Sunday Times Profile of him, entitled ‘The Importance of Being Ordinary’ where Major was sold as ‘an ordinary man in an extraordinary position’
It worked, and within a few months, Major had closed the poll gap to give the party a fighting chance at the next election. Having changed the style, the Tories also had to change the policies. The poll tax was the toxic issue of the age and in a symbolic shift in style, Michael Heseltine – the long-time enemy of the Thatcherites – came back to work on a solution
The appointment blunted Labour’s attack line, particularly when Heseltine invited Neil Kinnock to join a review process to move the issue ‘beyond the narrow bounds of party conflict.’ Such offers would have been unimaginable just a few months previous.
The task for the Tories – to win a fourth consecutive term – was still a huge and unprecedented one. After the Nigel Lawson boom, a recession bit hard into the British economy in 1991. By the end of the year, mortgage repossession had spiralled and unemployment rose to 2.5 million.
A decade in power had created a sense that the party no longer understood ordinary voters. Chancellor Norman Lamont only added to this by claiming that unemployment was a price ’well worth paying’ to bring down inflation. The change of leader had however given the party extra leeway and only 4% of people blamed Major for the recession.
Weaponising the NHS
It was in the day to day experience of public services that Labour hoped to capitalise on Conservative failings. During the 1991 party conference season, the NHS, the Times argued, was becoming the ‘main electoral battleground’.
The paper warned that Labour could exploit the ‘decay of the public sector’ just as Mrs Thatcher had politicised the trade union issue in 1979
Major opted to neutralise the issue rather than ignore it. He admitted that there had been problems and offered a solution through his Citizen’s Charter, which would give greater rights to users of public services.
Crucially, he made a virtue of his working-class background, telling voters he understood the importance of the NHS because ‘I am – and always have been – one of those people’ who relied on it’.
By the time of the 1992 election, eleven million voters were said to be ‘undecided and the task for the Tories was to win over the undecided voters who wanted change but had severe reservations about Neil Kinnock.
The Tories used Major’s popularity and put him front and centre of a presidential-style campaign. He was plastered on manifesto cover, profiled in the election broadcasts and lauded in poster advertising as the ‘working-class kid from Brixton’.
He claimed at the manifesto launch that the policies ‘are all me, every last word of it’.
Initially, the new approach to campaigning appeared to backfire. Conservative strategists claimed that Major was ‘no campaigner’, frightened of ‘the really big issues’ and was struggling to connect because ‘people don’t elect leaders because they are nice’
However, over the course of a long campaign, pre-conceived ideas about the party leaders came to the fore. Kinnock was no longer the fresh face, deeply unpopular in personal ratings and a completely different figure than the one elected in 1983.
Labour hoped that Shadow Chancellor John Smith would play a more pivotal role in the campaign but this quickly unravelled following the Shadow Budget and the Conservative’s brutal attack on Labour’s taxation plans.
Labour’s trump card, the issue of NHS, was then undermined by the question of trust in Kinnock.
Phillip Gould’s rationale was simple; to create a broadcast ‘so controversial, so shocking in its impact that it would turn the election for Labour’.
The story of two girls – one whose parents could afford private healthcare and another who faces delay on the NHS – was seen as ‘genuinely ground-breaking’ in term of its immediate effect.
It quickly turned into an issue of trust in Kinnock when the validity of the story was questioned. The press dubbed the broadcast Labour’s ‘Big Lie’ and The Sun encapsulated the mood of Fleet Street, asking ‘If Kinnock will tell lies about a sick little girl, will he ever tell the truth about anything?’
Labour had to tone down the NHS rhetoric as a result.
A Question of Trust
The question of trust became the dominant theme of the campaign’s final few days. Kinnock remained the favourite to lead a minority government as Major launched into his final defence of the union. He warned of the break up of Britain through Scottish devolution.
Labour struggled to portray John Major as a continuation of Thatcherism. When Major pulled out the ‘soapbox’ to address voters in high streets across the country, the contrast with Thatcher’s staged rallies could not have been starker.
Labour, by organising their ill-fated rally in Sheffield, were still playing by the old rules.
Honest John was in. Despite the odds, he confounded the bookmakers, pollsters and media commentators to deliver a fourth successive victory for the Conservatives.
The public had given a signal for change, but it was Major, not Kinnock, who appeared to offer it.
Within weeks the electorate deeply regretted their decision. Labour raced ahead in the polls as Britain exited the ERM and Major was forced to increase taxes.
Major was not the change candidate which opened the platform up for New Labour so spectacularly five years later.
Boris Johnson is now attempting to do a Major; to exploit Corbyn’s unpopularity and project himself as a distinct break from the Cameron and May era.
If the polls are correct he will win a fourth election victory with a mandate for change. But that might be just the beginning of his problems.
Major, J., The Autobiography.(London: HarperCollins, 1999) p210
“Caring but no softie.” Times, 23 Nov. 1990, p. 3. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/9Tp7j6. Accessed 14 Mar. 2019.
Amiel, B The Sunday Times Magazine ‘The Importance of Being Ordinary’29THMarch 1992 pp16-26
King, A. & Crewe, I., The Blunders of Our Governments.(London: Oneworld Publications, 2014) p63
Webster, Philip. “Heseltine offer to Labour on poll tax reform.” Times, 6 Dec. 1990, p. 1. The Times DigitArchive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/9Y25k1. Accessed 21 Mar. 2019.
Bassett, Philip. “Miners-jobs cut as total out of work nears 2.5m.” Times, 17 Oct. 1991, p. 2. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.gale.com/tinyurl/CLXeZX. Accessed 25 Nov. 2019.
Webster, Philip. “Kinnock accuses Lamont of oozing smug contempt.” Times, 6 June 1991, p. 5. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.gale.com/tinyurl/CL84r2. Accessed 24 Nov. 2019.
Britain at the Polls 1992.(New Jersey: Chatham House, 1993) p200
Oakley, Robin. “Kinnock taunts Tories on NHS.” Times, 2 Oct. 1991, p. 1+. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/9VRgT1. Accessed 3 Apr. 2019; Riddell, peter. “Brighton rocks to leader’s triumph.” Times, 2 Oct. 1991, p. 1. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/9VRhA0. Accessed 3 Apr. 2019.
“Winter’s Battlefield.” Times, 8 Oct. 1991, p. 17. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/9VTPx8. Accessed 17 Mar. 2019; John Major.” Times, 12 Oct. 1991, p. 15. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/9VVdZ8. Accessed 17 Mar. 2019.
Major, J, 1991 Conference Speech Accessed at http://www.johnmajorarchive.org.uk/1990-1997/mr-majors-1991-conservative-party-conference-speech-11-october-1991/
Oakley, Robin. “Worried Tories pin hopes on 11m don’t know.” Times, 30 Mar. 1992, p. 1+. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/9Y6VJ4. Accessed 21 Mar. 2019.
Major, J., The Autobiography.p300
Baxter, S. New Statesman: Tory Worries: Getting It Right03/04/1992 p13