Things Can Only Get Worse? Twenty Confusing Years In The Life Of A Labour Supporter by John O’Farrell, Published by: Doubleday
In 1998, John O’Farrell published, Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter, 1979-1997. It was an enjoyable and genuinely funny political memoir of O’Farrell’s life from his teenage defeat as Labour candidate in his school’s 1979 mock election to the happy ending of the New Labour landslide in 1997. Eighteen years is a long time: by 1997, O’Farrell was well into his thirties, balding, married with children and thanks to his work on the likes of Spitting Image and Radio 4’s Weekending, an established comedy writer.
The book was a big hit. But now twenty years have passed again since Blair’s first big win. The story of the two decades since as covered in this sequel is rather more complex.
On the one hand, New Labour won yet another landslide in 2001 and a third big win in 2005. The Tories have never really recovered from their 1997 trouncing, winning a majority in only one of the last six General Elections and even then a very small one (in 2015). And as O’Farrell says, things undeniably got better under Labour, with the government “writing off the debt of the world’s poorest countries…transforming the NHS by trebling health spending and massively reducing waiting lists…the minimum wage, and pensioners getting free TV licences and the winter fuel allowance…peace in Northern Ireland… equality for the gay community…all the new schools…free entry to museums and galleries…” The list goes on (and on).
On the other hand, as O’Farrell admits, there are certainly grounds for pessimism too. O’Farrell often felt conflicted defending the Blair Government as a Guardian columnist in the early 2000s particularly after the build-up to the Iraq War. He had a bit of a laugh campaigning as the Labour candidate for the hopelessly Tory seat of Maidenhead in the 2001 second Labour landslide election running against a notably unimpressive Opposition frontbencher called Theresa May. But the disintegration of Labour under first Gordon Brown and then Ed Miliband was hardly a joy to behold, either for him or anyone else who backed Labour. O’Farrell’s candidature in the 2013 Eastleigh by-election in which he came fourth, was less fun too with the Tory tabloids attacking him by using out of context quotes from his first book. By 2016, with O’Farrell despairing after a year of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Brexit result and the election of Donald Trump, the celebrations of victory night in May 1997 start to seem like a very long time ago indeed.
Thankfully, O’Farrell is always a funny writer, remaining upbeat even when for others, things would only get bitter.
After all, even at their worst, Labour have never been as bad as the Tories. Yes, the Tories: a party who supported the Iraq War far more enthusiastically than Labour did (and indeed, whose support ensured it happened), a party who fiercely upheld Labour’s spending plans in the early 2000s at the time (rightly) only to attack them endlessly (and wrongly) later, a party whose membership enthusiastically chose Jeffery Archer as its choice for London mayor in 2000 and Iain Duncan Smith as their party leader in 2001. The Conservatives were, are and will always be “the Silly Party.”
This is an excellent book. And thanks to Theresa May’s calamitous General Election miscalculation, it even has a happy ending.
With all the publicity about Labour recent and genuine problems, it’s easy to forget that until comparatively recently, the Tories were in similar dire straits. Tim Bale’s provides an excellent reminder of this.
Perhaps some of you disagree? Well, let’s us consider the electoral hole Labour currently finds itself in. Certainly, the loss of Scotland has been a disaster for the party and opinion polls currently offer few encouraging signs of any nationwide recovery. On the other hand, the Tories have one of their smallest parliamentary majorities since the war. In 2010, at the height of the slump, they didn’t even win a majority at all. Labour have not suffered a heavy General Election defeat since 1987, close to thirty years’ ago.
Compare this to the Tories. In 1990, John Major became Prime Minister inheriting virtually all of Thatcher’s majority from that same 1987 landslide, by then around a 100 with nearly 400 Tory MPs. By the time Major stood down from the leadership in 1997, the party was in opposition, many of the traditional Tory papers had turned on it and barely 160 MPs were left. The Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, the former Chancellor Norman Lamont and Defence Secretary and until that point, presumptive Tory leadership successor Michael Portillo had all lost their seats in the May 1997 Tory bloodbath. Of all the party leaders in the 20th century, only David Lloyd George presided over a similar decline.Things could only get bitter.
This was not all Major’s fault. In fact, he was generally more popular than his party. Thatcher had been leading the party to certain defeat. Major probably saved them in 1992.
The Tories comforted themselves with three things. One,the 1997 New Labour victory was a defeat for the Conservatives, but a victory for conservatism. This turned out not to be true.
Secondly, they tried to pretend they hadn’t really lost by much. The result was a statistical fluke. This wasn’t true either. Labour had won by the second biggest margin in the percentage share of the popular vote achieved since 1945. Their majority of 179 was bigger than any achieved by Attlee or Thatcher. The Tories now had no MPs in Scotland or Wales. The result had been a calamity for them.
However, after their big 1906 and 1945 defeats, the Tories had bounced back quickly. This third point was certainly true.
But it didn’t happen this time. William Hague was a disaster as leader. In the 2001 election, the party made only one net gain. They then compounded their error in 1997, by rejecting more plausible candidates like Ken Clarke or the returned Portillo in favour first of the disastrous Iain Duncan Smith in 2001 and then Michael Howard in 2003! They came tantalisingly close to rejecting David Cameron in favour of the un-electable David Davis following the third substantive Tory defeat in 2005.
Today Labour undeniably have leadership problems. But Tories take heed: within a decade the tables may have turned just as dramatically again.
The Conservative Party From Thatcher To Cameron: Tim Bale (Polity, 2016)
It is easy to forget amidst all the current Labour leadership hoo-hah, that it is fifty years this month since the very first Conservative leadership contest. Generally more unpredictable than their Labour equivalents, let’s recall this and every such contest since…
1963: Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan resigns on the eve of the party conference. The resulting chaos convinces most that the “magic circle” process of consultation needs to be replaced by an election of MPs. Macmillan’s successor Alec Douglas-Home resigns as Tory leader after losing the 1964 General Election and begins devising the mechanism for the first Conservative leadership contest to be held amongst MPs.
Edward Heath beats the favourite, former Chancellor, Reginald Maudling to win the leadership. Enoch Powell comes third.
The right choice?: Probably. Heath at least won the 1970 General Election. ‘Reggie’ Maudling ultimately fell foul of his business connections and resigned as Home Secretary. Powell with his inflammatory 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech (and his 1974 pre-election decision to urge voters to support Labour) proved ill-suited to frontbench politics.
Former Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher unexpectedly deposes Heath (now back in Opposition) and proceeds to beat Geoffrey Howe, Willie Whitelaw, Jim Prior, Hugh Fraser and John Peyton for the top job. Heath descends into “the incredible sulk” for the next thirty years.
The right choice?: Undoubtedly. Whatever else she may have been, Thatcher was a boon to the Tory party, ultimately delivering them three landslide election victories. This wasn’t obvious in 1975, however, and Heath’s popularity with the public continued to outstrip hers until the early Eighties.
Unknown pro-European back-bencher Sir Anthony Meyer (dubbed “Sir Nobody” by the press) mounts a “stalking horse” challenge to Prime Minister Thatcher’s leadership. He loses, but the number of abstentions is high, a fact largely overlooked at the time.
The right choice?: Could the brutality of Thatcher’s departure have been averted had she gone a year earlier? Who knows?
In a hugely dramatic coup, Margaret Thatcher is challenged by her former defence secretary, Michael Heseltine. She technically wins but not by a wide enough margin and reluctantly resigns. Little-known Chancellor John Major beats Heseltine and Foreign Secretary Douglas “too posh” Hurd in the second round.
The right choice?: In the short run, yes. Major replacing Thatcher saved the Tories from certain defeat in 1992. In the long run? Perhaps not. Thatcher – a woman with no interests outside politics – became a perpetual thorn in Major’s side and the scars of the contest took many years to heal.
By now perpetually embattled PM Major pre-empts ongoing leadership controversy by resigning as leader and inviting people to “put up or shut up” and challenge him. He defeats former Welsh secretary John Redwood but only narrowly beats the own private target set by himself below which he would have resigned. Bigger guns Ken Clarke, Michael Portillo and Heseltine again, thus do not enter the contest, as might have been expected otherwise.
The right choice?: It seems doubtful anyone could have saved the Tories from electoral disaster in 1997 by that stage.
Little-known 36-year old former Welsh secretary William Hague beats Clarke, Peter Lilley, Redwood and Michael “something of the night about him” Howard after the party’s devastating election defeat. Heseltine’s heart condition rules him out. Portillo famously loses his seat, preventing him from participating in the contest.
The right choice?: Probably not. Hague proved an inexperienced and inadequate leader. Voters would have preferred the more effective and experienced Ken Clarke.
Iain Duncan Smith beats Clarke in a ballot of party members. Michaels Portillo (now back in parliament) and Ancram all lost out early on in a ballot of MPs as did David Davis.
The right choice?: Definitely not. IDS was a disaster as leader and was deposed in favour of an un-elected Michael Howard in 2003. Any of the other candidates would have been better. Clarke’s election as Tory leader might also have prevented UK involvement in the Iraq War after 2003.
In the year of Ted Heath’s death, David Cameron beats David Davis for the leadership. Liam Fox and an ageing Clarke lose out early on.
The right choice?: Probably, yes. Cameron finally delivered victory this year. their smallest post-war majority, yes. But a win is a win.
As Michael Portillo approaches his 60th birthday this weekend, it’s easy to forget that this gentle, amiable TV presenter was not only the fierce young embodiment of a resurgent Thatcherite Right and also a prospective Prime Minister. But flashback to twenty years ago and it was a very different story…
With the possible exceptions of Boris Johnson and Michael Heseltine, Portillo excited Tories more than any other post-Thatcher politician. The son of a left-wing refugee from the Spanish Civil War, Portillo was an unlikely Tory hero. Like William Hague, he was vulnerable to charges of teenaged political geekery. But it was Labour’s Harold Wilson, Portillo idolised, not Thatcher. He even had a picture of the four time election winner pinned inside his school locker. This only changed when he began experimenting with conservatism at university.
By the time of John Major’s surprise victory in 1992, Portillo’s Thatcherite credentials were impeccable. He had been close to the lady herself since the Seventies. Although not yet forty and as Chief Secretary of the Treasury, the most junior cabinet minister, Portillo began being touted as a possible successor to the already troubled Major. He was younger and healthier than Heseltine and more agreeably Eurosceptic than the other apparently most likely successor, the Chancellor, Ken Clarke.
Portillo was certainly a mischief-maker and a party conference rabble rouser even if his absurd “Who dares wins” speech was poorly received. A panel of disillusioned Tory voters on Newsnight who had never seen him before, universally backed him as exactly the sort of leader they would like to see. On Spitting Image, the puppet of Jeremy Paxman was endlessly distracted by Portillo’s “nice hair”. Malicious rumours flew elsewhere that he was having a gay affair with colleague Peter Lilley (untrue). Portillo was appointed Employment Secretary, a decision likened to “putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank” by some. Portillo was undoubtedly one of the Eurosceptic “bastards”, John Major complained that he could not sack, in comments that were accidentally caugh ton air. There seemed to be no stopping him.
That said, in 1995, when Major resigned, inviting opponents to “put up or shut up” and stand against him, Portillo dithered just as David Miliband did over whether to challenge Gordon Brown a decade or so later. Portillo came off badly – telephone wires were seen being installed at his potential campaign HQ, presumably as a preparatory measure in case Major fell suddenly. John Redwood, another Rightist, boosted his profile immeasurably by standing against Major and losing. But Redwood, unlike Portillo, had never stood a chance. Portillo was given the post of Defence Secretary, a tricky position to cause mischief in (Thatcher had appointed her nemesis, Heseltine to the same position in 1983). Portillo was surely sensible to wait until the Tories lost in 1996 or 1997(a defeat which was almost universally expected, by this point) and then stand for leader then?
Few had anticipated the Tories would lose quite as heavily as they did, however. The opinion polls were actually quite accurate but even Labour’s leaders, cautious after the 1992 shock, only expected a majority of about 40. They in fact achieved 179, the largest majority achieved by any party since the war.
Portillo certainly wasn’t expecting to lose his Enfield seat although had steeled himself by the time the result was aired on TV, a clip later voted one of the “best TV moments ever.” Unlike the disgraced former Heritage Secretary, David Mellor who had a public row with Referendum Party leader Sir James Goldsmith when he lost his seat in Putney, Portillo maintained an air of dignity. But Portillo’s defeat to Labour’s young Stephen Twigg was a total surprise. He had been widely expected to be elected as the next Tory leader. In a night of big Tory scalps (Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, ex-Chancellor Norman Lamont) Portillo’s was the biggest. “Were you up for Portillo?” became the big question of the next day. Subsequent elections threatened to have “Portillo moments” – Peter Mandelson almost fell in 2005, Ed Balls came close in 2010. But none delivered. Blair, born in the same month as Portillo had proven to be his political nemesis.
The subsequent 1997 Tory leadership contest must have been especially galling for Portillo as had he been an MP, he would have surely won easily. Heseltine, Portillo’s main prospective rival, did not stand due to health concerns. Clarke, the most popular and well-known candidate was rejected by Tories as too pro-Europe. Lady Thatcher’s endorsement and the support of Tories went to a young right-winger, William Hague. At thirty-six, Hague was eight years younger than Portillo, little-known, inexperienced and unpopular. On the other hand, with such a huge Labour majority to overturn, the likelihood of anyone, even Portillo, leading the Tories to victory within a decade looked slim. The job was a poisoned chalice.
Had Portillo stayed where he was ideologically, he would probably have succeeded Hague as leader. He won a by-election in Alan Clark’s old rock solid Kensington and Chelsea seat in 1999 and quickly moved to Hague’s front bench. The Tories barely gained any ground in the 2001 General Election and Hague quit. Surely now was Portillo’s time?
But Portillo was no longer the right-winger he had once been. He had genuinely had a rethink during his time out of parliament and had re-positioned himself basically as a “compassionate conservative” similar to David Cameron today. This and revelations about homosexuality in his student days, harmed his standing with the notoriously homophobic Tory Party. In a notoriously eccentric decision, Tories plucked for Iain Duncan Smith over the more popular, experienced and well-known Portillo and Ken Clarke. Smith turned out to be the worst Opposition leader in living memory and was ditched in 2003. Not yet fifty, Portillo grew disillusioned, concentrating instead on a career in the media. He stood down in 2005 and is no longer a Tory Party member today.
Perhaps Portillo’s misfortune was simply timing. Portillo would probably never have overthrown Major in 1995 but had more Tories voted for Redwood, Major might have fallen and Portillo, slightly hampered by his youth (he was then only forty-two) might have succeeded him. But would he have wanted to be PM for just two years with New Labour’s ascent in 1997 so inevitable by that point anyway? He would surely have been blamed forever for the Tory defeat.
Alternatively, had Labour won by a smaller margin in 1997, Portillo would have maintained his seat and probably won the leadership. But the “what if…?” scenario does not help. Although a leading member of the government, the scale of the defeat was largely beyond Portillo’s control.
Portillo’s third chance in 2001 was effectively wrecked by his new moderate position. This was quite sincere and not a cynical tactic. Besides Portillo was not to know just how eccentric the Tories would be by 2001. A shallower politician would have become leader. It seems unlikely but not impossible he could have beaten Blair in 2005 anyway.
Perhaps he could have stayed on and won the leadership in 2005 instead of Cameron? Or maybe, had he become leader in 2001, he would have done well enough in 2005 to stay on as leader and then won in 2010? He would still have been two years’ younger than PM, Gordon Brown.
But one senses his heart was no longer in it. Ultimately, Portillo’s failure to become Prime Minister was not wholly down to ill-judgement. He was also unlucky.