1997 Election: “Was It Delboy Wot Won It?”


Its Christmas 1996 and Labour are 36pts clear in the polls. 

With the Tories in disarray, the Major Government clutches at one final straw. 

They think Only Fools and Horses might cost them some votes…

Christmas 1996 and the nation is anticipating the final Only Fools and Horses trilogy. On three consecutive nights, over twenty million watched as Del and Rodney became millionaires. 

On Dec 12, 1996, Labour scored a decisive victory in a parliamentary by-election, stripping Prime Minister John Major of his majority in the Commons. 

Opinion polls point to a substantial Labour victory should an election be called. In a poll before Christmas, Labour open up a 36pt gap

Labour 59%

Tories 22% 

Liberal Democrats 12% 

As Only Fools and Hoses aired, the Tories were “indignant” at what they saw as more unhelpful Labour propaganda. 

They highlighted four scenes from the show in which characters were reading the Daily Mirror…..

Virginia Bottomley ordered officials at the Department of National Heritage to scrutinise the internal rules for BBC producers covering “product placement” to see if they need to be tightened. 

The Mirror was seen in four scenes, read by three characters and mentioned once.

Del was shown reading the newspaper, while a publicity poster in Sid’s Café advertised the paper. 

In another scene, Mike, the landlord of the Nag’s Head, was shown reading the paper, as was Rodney. 

Mrs Bottomley, who was  no fan of the Daily Mirror or Del Boy, said: “The behaviour of the BBC, which is funded by public money, must be seen to be beyond reproach. 

“There is also a place for light-hearted fun, but product placement must be vigorously observed. The BBC is a major national institution which must be protected against allegations of unfairness.”

After a complaint from a Tory supporting paper, She said she wanted to know whether the show’s content “determined and justified this apparent preferential treatment.”

Mrs Bottomley was not one of the 20 million people who watched the episode. She admitted to the Times that  “but I have to admit that Only Fools and Horses is not my programme”. She watched the film Dial M for Murder instead. 

Lord Rees-Mogg, a former BBC governor, said: “The BBC should conduct a thorough inquiry. I suspect they may conclude this was indiscreet but innocent. But they must establish whether there was deliberate product placement.”

But a BBC spokesman said that in other scenes characters were seen reading papers including the Daily Star and Racing Post.

The Daily Mirror stoked the controversy with the headline: “Only fools don’t read the Mirror”

Brendon Parsons, the deputy editor of the Daily Mirror , said: “I wonder if she would have made the same complaint if it had been a Tory-supporting newspaper that was being read with such pleasure.”

A BBC spokesman said: “The nature of the plot required that some of the leading characters read popular newspapers. At least one racing newspaper was in the same programme. It made the scenes seem more authentic. We reject any allegation of product placement. Del Boy reads popular newspapers.”

A spokesman said: “The plot of Only Fools and Horses required the characters to be reading a popular newspaper.

Another spokesman said: “It is the sort of newspaper Del Boy would read. But you can never tell with him. Next time he could be reading the Financial Times . We are very proud of him.

Stars of the show were baffled by the uproar. David Jason said: “The viewing figures speak for themselves.”

Buster Merryfield, who plays Uncle Albert, said: “I don’t think it was anything intentional. The Trotters had the papers in their flat and on that particular morning it was the Daily Mirror.”

Shadow Heritage Minister Lewis Moonie declared: “You have to ask whether she would have done this if the programme had featured a Tory newspaper rather than one that is constantly criticising her Government

“The Secretary of State ought to have more important things to get involved in.”

Labour MP Joe Ashton, a member of the Commons heritage select committee, said: “To use Del Boy’s phrase, she is a plonker.

“What’s more, I would expect people in the show to be reading the Mirror. They are smart, working-class people, after all.”

Enjoying the attention, the Mirror sought to find public support. 

Mechanic Richard James Lee, 23, from Canterbury, Kent, said: “She is a real plonker for bothering about this. Everyone knows the Mirror is a great paper and the two just go together like apples and pears.”

Public relations officer Charlotte Harris, 28, from Brighton, said: “Only Fools and Horses was fantastic. I watched it but didn’t really notice the paper.

“Even if Del Boy was seen glued to the paper, I think a Government minister has better things to do. It just makes her look a right dipstick.”

Financial analyst Marianne Hill, 26, from Camden, north London, said: “Just because Del Boy and Rodney read the Mirror it doesn’t mean anyone else is going to feel they have to as well.

“Virginia Bottomley has made herself look like a right plonker.”

Five months later, Bottomley was one of senior Tory Ministers to survive….just. Her vote share was down by 13.9% and across the country seat after seat turned red.

Perhaps it was Delboy wot won it…….

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