Book review: Things Can Only Get Worse? by John O’Farrell

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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).

John O'Farrell, Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate for Eastleigh

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.

Sort of.

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Book review: Kind of Blue by Ken Clarke

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Published by: Macmillan, 2016

Ken Clarke sits today on the backbenches. He is seventy six years old and since the death of Gerald Kaufman last month is the Father of the House, having served as MP for Rushcliffe since entering the House of Commons as one of Edward Heath’s new intake of fresh  young Tories in June 1970. He can look back on almost a half century in parliament, one of only four men alive to have held two of the four great offices of state: he has been Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. The other three men are Douglas Hurd, Gordon Brown and John Major.

But unlike the last two, Clarke was never Prime Minister. We all must wonder what might have been, as he surely does.

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However, in many ways it’s hard to see how this could have happened. In other ways, it seems bizarre that it didn’t. Look at a list of recent Conservative leaders.The names that are there (Major, Hague, Duncan Smith, Howard) are almost as surprising as those who are not (Heseltine, Portillo, Clarke himself).

Although he is defensive about it in this readable autobiography, Clarke did not excel as either Secretary of State of Health or Education during the later Thatcher, early Major years. But neither of these were ever strong areas for the 1979-90 Tory government, or indeed any Tory government. Clarke was never truly a Thatcherite. But when Clarke became Home Secretary after the 1992 April election and then Chancellor following Norman Lamont’s unceremonious departure in 1993, speculation mounted that the troubled Prime Minister John Major might have unwittingly appointed his own future successor to the Number Two job as Sir Anthony Eden and Harold Wilson (and indeed Thatcher) had before him.

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Although inclined to gaffes before and since, Ken (previously “Kenneth”) Clarke, known for his Hush Puppies, cigars and occasional pints of lager was a surprisingly competent Chancellor overseeing the UK’s recovery from the early Nineties recession. “Go home,” he once bellowed at an under-prepared Robert Maclennan of the SDP in the Commons, “lie down in a dark room and keep taking the pills.” He was popular, well known and a big hitter. But like another clubbable former Tory Chancellor Reggie Maudling, he never got the top job.

The reason was simple: Europe. Clarke was and is a keen supporter of the EU. With so many of John Major’s problems caused by his signing of the Maastricht Treaty, the increasingly Eurosceptic Tories were never likely to replace Major with him.

In 1997, following the colossal May 1st defeat, Clarke’s path to leadership should have been clear. His main rivals Michaels Portillo and Heseltine were out of the race, Portillo having famously lost his Enfield seat, while Tarzan apparently had heart issues. Clarke was far more popular and well known than his main rival, the thirty six year old, much less experienced former Welsh secretary William Hague. Polls indicated that if party members had had a vote, Clarke would have won easily. But the increasingly eccentric parliamentary party was happy to take the increasingly elderly Lady Thatcher’s advice. “Hague! Have you got that? H-A-G-U-E,” the Baroness spelt out to reporters, having just privately been told of the correct spelling herself.

The result? Another massive defeat in 2001. This time, party members too followed the increasingly frail Thatcher’s endorsement again choosing Iain Duncan Smith over Clarke. It was clearly an absurd decision from the outset. IDS was ditched in favour of an unelected Micheal Howard in 2003. Following the third consecutive Tory General Election defeat in 2005, Clarke, now ageing himself and harmed by his business dealings with Big Tobacco lost his third leadership bid to amongst others, a youthful David Cameron. A rare survivor of the Major era, Clarke served as Justice Secretary under the Coalition. In recent years, he has become increasingly gaffe prone. His wife Gillian died in 2015.

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Although it is unlikely Ken Clarke could have overturned the massive Labour majorities won by Blair in 1997 and 2001, had he become leader instead of the pro-war Duncan Smith, it seems likely a Clarke led Tory Party would have opposed the Iraq War, voted with Labour rebels to prevent UK involvement and forced Blair’s resignation. It was not to be. IDS’s Tories misjudged the situation and slavishly backed the war.

As Clarke himself reflects in this readable but unsurprising autobiography, his long parliamentary career has almost exactly coincided with the period of British membership of what used to be called the Common Market.

Ken Clarke is undoubtedly one of the better more decent breed of Tories, a far better man than the Boris Johnsons, Michael Goves, Stewart Jacksons, Jeremy Hunts and George Osbornes of this world. Politically incorrect though he is, one suspects he is liked far more by many of those outside his own party than he is by many of those within it.

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Book review: The Conservative Party by Tim Bale

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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.

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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)

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Fifty years of Tory leadership contests

Margaret Thatcher and John Major in 1991

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.

1965

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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.

1975

Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher

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.

1989

Margaret Thatcher resigns, Guardian front page 23 November 1990

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?

1990

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 9:  British Prime Minister John Major (L)  and  his deputy  Michael Heseltine answer questions at the morning election conference, 09 April in London,  as sleaze promised to dominate the 22 days left to May 1 elections after local party bosses thumbed their noses at the national leadership and retained   MP Neil Hamilton accused of taking bribes. Mr Major said that Mr Hamilton had the full support of the Conservative Party and hoped he would return to the House of Commons to carry out his work,    and he called on the voters of Tatton to stand behind    Hamilton and elect him as their MP at       elections.  (Photo credit should read JOHNNY EGGITT/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

1995

John Major PM talking to journalists in Downing Street before leaving for Waterloo.

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.

1997

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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.

2001

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.

2005

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.

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General Election memories 5: 1997

tony_blair_1997-cherieAberystwyth, May 1st 1997

“Bliss it was that dawn to be alive. And to be young was very heaven.”

William Wordsworth on the French Revoution.

Why was the 1997 election so great?

Was it simply because I was young? It was not only the first time I was able to vote in a General Election (I was twenty) but the first election where Labour had won in Peterborough or nationwide in my entire life. Indeed, it was the biggest Labour victory ever and still the biggest victory achieved by any party since the Second World War. But just as everyone tends to like the music that was popular when they were young, is my own memory of the election blighted by similar nostalgia?

Perhaps. But, if so, I am certainly not the only one. Many people, some much older than me, seem to have fond memories of it too. Ultimately, it may be the best election many of us ever experience in our entire lives.

It is easy now to forget just how hated the Tories were by 1997. Blair never came close to being anywhere near as unpopular, nor has David Cameron (yet). Gordon Brown and Margaret Thatcher did come close, Thatcher particularly towards the Poll Tax lunacy of her final year in office. But neither were as widely disliked as the Major Government in 1997. The proof is in the results: Labour won a majority of 179, bigger than any other party since 1945 (including any victory by Attlee, or Thatcher). Their margin of victory in terms of share of the vote was also the second greatest since the war (nearly 13% over the Tories).

The problem with the Tories wasn’t so much John Major himself, an amiable figure, despite being a very weak leader. It was the fact that the Tories had been in power for eighteen years and had given everyone a reason to dislike them.

True, if you hated their poor treatment of the NHS, schools and public services, you would probably have already been against the Tories before 1997. Many more were converted to Labour after 1992 by the total catastrophe that was rail privatisation. Nobody wanted it, it was clearly a stupid idea. The Tories did it anyway. The Major government even sold off the railways at knockdown prices. It was a disaster. One we are still living with today.

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Even traditionally Tory groups had cause to hate the Tories. If you had been in the services, you resented the defence cuts and the shoddy treatment of those with Gulf War Syndrome. If you were a farmer, you were furious over the government’s disastrous handling of the Mad Cow crisis. If you were in the business community, you were grateful the economy was doing so well. But after the economic incompetence of Black Wednesday in 1992, many felt our economic recovery had occurred in spite of the Tories not because of them.

If these things hadn’t put you off the Tories, the sleaze, the hypocrisy of the Back to Basics campaign and the government’s total paralysis as the Tories waged a bitter civil war with itself over Europe would have done. The Major Government was a worthless, hateful  shower of mediocrities and richly deserved the fate which befell it.

British Prime Minister John Major (L) and his de

Some deduce from this that Labour thus barely needed to lift a finger to win in 1997. This isn’t true. Contrary to popular legend, governments do not lose elections, oppositions win them. Nobody elects an alternative government without being sure that as the great political philosopher Kylie Minogue put it they are better than “the devil you know”. And Tony Blair and New Labour didn’t put a foot wrong in the three years leading up to 1997.

This is what made the General Election night in 1997 so glorious. The odious Hamiltons: gone, in one of the strongest Tory seats in the country. Sleazemaster David Mellor: gone. Norman Lamont: gone. Thatcher’s old seat Finchley: gone to the Lib Dems. Peterborough gone to Labour. My future home of Exeter fell to Labour’s Ben Bradshaw after a bitterly homophobic campaign by his Tory opponent Dr. Adrian Rogers backfired. The Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind gone.

And best of all,  the most likely next successor to the Tory leadership, Michael Portillo was gone! Today he is an amiable TV presenter who wears odd pink clothes. Readers have indeed proven fascinated by his sexuality making my earlier post https://chrishallamworldview.wordpress.com/2013/05/24/the-rise-and-fall-of-michael-denzil-xavier-portillo/ The Rise and Fall of Michael Portillo (which barely mentions his personal life) consistently the most read piece on this blog.

But in 1997, Michael Portillo was a power-hungry Thatcherite yob. Trust me: we had a narrow escape there.

Major had left the Tories with fewer than half of the number of seats he had inherited in 1990. Justice had been done. New Labour had been elected. A new era had begun. “Bliss it was that dawn to be alive” indeed!

But what about me? I was twenty and as youthful and energetic as ever. I was finishing my first year at the University of Aberystwyth, a seat which actually fell to Plaid Cymru not Labour in that year. And, yes, I was as apathetic as ever.

On the one hand, I met the Labour candidate Robert “Hag” Harris. He seemed decent and looked a bit like Lenin, which at the time I took to be a good sign. I was sorry to tell him I was registered to vote in Peterborough and so could not vote for him. I am disappointed to see now that he has never become an MP in the years since.

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I also wrote letters to friends and family about the election: yes letters! Remember them? My brother even got a pager for his 16th birthday that year! I would not send many more letters, however. I sent my first email the following year.

I saw the New Labour battle bus while travelling between Peterborough and Aberystwyth, presumably with many of our nation’s future leaders on board.

I studied History and in 1997 switched to International Politics. I know I argued with lots of people about politics during that period and who knows, may have even convinced a few instead of pushing them in the other direction.

But officially, yes. I was lazy. I spent the last and one of the most important UK General Election nights of the 20th century, drunk in either the Student Union building or watching the results in one of the hall TV rooms (I am not confused, I was in both of these places).

And yes. I did vote Labour but I was registered to vote in Peterborough not Aberystwyth. There, Labour’s Helen Brinton replaced Tory Party Chairman Brian Mawhinney who, in a huge show of confidence for the party whose national election campaign he was officially running, had fled the seat he had represented for eighteen years for a neighbouring safer Tory seat. It was known as “the chicken run”. So he remained as an MP even though Peterborough was won by Labour.

And even in this, I was lazy. I had arranged for my father to vote on my behalf by proxy. He cast my first fateful vote, not me.

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The Tories: A poem

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We’re the Tories; hear us sing!

Blame Labour for everything.

The last thing we’d do is confess,

That we’re to blame for this whole mess!

Ten years past, our chief complaint,

Was that the markets faced constraint,

We’d have made the markets stronger,

The recession harsher, deeper, longer.

Never mind the crash elsewhere,

It’s easier to blame Brown and Blair.

Our public services are now a mess,

We’re iffy about the NHS,

Shall we “reorganise” it again? Well, we may,

But we won’t say a thing about that before May,

The press is safe from real reform,

While Rupert’s Sun keeps us all warm,

“Vote Tory” stories every day and

Silly pictures of Ed Miliband.

Frankly, we’ll do what it takes to win,

Even invite old UKIP in,

We’ll attack the scroungers, play the race card,

Kick the weakest good and hard,

Our leader Cameron’s liberal underneath,

A bit like Major or Ted Heath,

But like them he’s weak, you’ll see what we mean,

He’ll even sacrifice the European dream.

So if you don’t care about the national health,

Care only really about yourself.

We really are the party for you!

(Though we’ve not won since 1992).

Don’t get us wrong: we love the UK,

We just wish all the people would go away.

Is it 1992 all over again?

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It is General Election year and the Labour leader remains unpopular. After years of attacks from the Tory press, he was lucky to survive a direct challenge to his leadership before Christmas, when many suggested an older man should replace him as leader. Despite this and some evidence of economic recovery, Labour remain narrowly ahead in the opinion polls. A Labour-led hung parliament is seen by many as the most likely outcome in the General Election.

Ed Miliband in 2015? Or Neil Kinnock in 1992? The older John Smith was the potential older alternative leader in 1991, Alan Johnson last year. The parallels are uncanny and not encouraging to Labour who, of course, ultimately suffered a shock defeat to John Major’s Tories in April 1992.

But, let’s not get carried away. There are numerous differences…

Labour actually seem less confident now than Kinnock’s party were then. This makes a repeat of complacent gestures like the overblown Sheffield Rally unlikely.

Despite this and their quite small lead, the electoral arithmetic favours Labour far more. The Tories need to win by over 10% to win a majority. Labour only need 2%.

David Cameron is not John Major: It is also true Ed Miliband is not Neil Kinnock. Kinnock was slightly more popular than Miliband but had already suffered defeat in 1987. But Major, though ultimately weak, was untested and novel in 1992. Cameron has been Tory leader for over nine years.

Ultimately, the combination of UKIP and Coalition politics, in fact, means Labour’s chances this year are better than they have been in a decade.

General Election memories 4: 1992

Peterborough,
April 9th 1992

Britain's Prime Minister John Major waves to the c

The world changed a lot between 1987 and 1992.

The Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, ending the Cold War in the process. Nelson Mandela was freed in South Africa, but a new threat emerged in the Middle East in the form of Saddam Hussein.

In Britain, there was less change. I was fifteen now, but Britain was still under the same government as it had been under when I was two years old.

But even there, there had been change. By 1990, the Tories finally recognised that Margaret Thatcher (by then intent on promoting the Poll Tax and inclined to speak about herself using the royal “we” as in “We are a grandmother”) was far more unstable than anyone on the supposed “loony left” had ever been. Keen to avoid certain defeat, they brutally dethroned her. A necessary measure, certainly, but one the party does not seem to have ever fully recovered from, even now.

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Instead, we now had John Major of Huntington, Peterborough’s neighbouring seat as Prime Minister: a far more agreeable choice. Amiable and pleasant, Major would turn out to have no aptitude for leadership whatsoever, but we didn’t know that in 1990. He hadn’t been tested. Even with a recession on, the Tories surged from a position of certain defeat under Thatcher to the point of being virtually neck and neck with Labour under Major. But this still represented Labour’s best chance in my lifetime, up to that point. Labour were about 2% ahead of the Tories throughout the 1992 campaign. At least, that’s what the opinion polls said.

Of course, as mentioned, I was now fifteen, not ten, so was undergoing a bit of change myself. My voice was wobbly and would often break at the end of sentences. I drew, swam and cycled less. I still read comics (now, arguably more grown-up ones like 2000AD: I had two letters published in the Galaxy’s Greatest comic at around this time). I was also starting to move onto “grown-up” novels like 1984 and Catch-22 although still mostly read Terry Pratchett books, meeting the great fantasy author himself during a book signing in Queensgate shopping centre. I ignored his younger friend completely: someone called Neil Gaiman. I’d also helped write a comic (“Flob”) with some friends. My contributions were I think mostly Viz-like and I doubt they have stood the test of time very well.

Margaret Thatcher and John Major in 1991

Home life had changed little. My older brother was about to get married and my sister, also now in her twenties, was close to the same situation. I was so self-absorbed at this point, I’m surprised I even noticed.

We had an Amiga computer and a Sega Game Gear. But this was 1992. Unlike teenagers today, I had never been online, sent an email, written a text or played a Wii. If you had told me I would one day be a blogger or work on a DVD magazine, I would not have not have understood what you were saying. A better, simpler life? No. It was rubbish. For one thing, if I wanted to know who directed Flight Of The Navigator, today I could find out in seconds. In 1992, I would have to go to the library (assuming it wasn’t a Sunday) and look it up in Halliwell’s Film Guide. And yes, that is the sort of thing I like to know sometimes (it’s Randal Kleiser, incidentally. He also directed Grease).

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Change was not a key feature of life in my secondary school either. The Third Year became Year 9 (my own year) but that was about it. The headmaster was very traditional. We were required to stand every time he entered the room until he told us to sit down again a few seconds later (presumably we would have got in serious trouble if we’d refused to stand? Nobody ever attempted this).

Our school’s founder Henry VIII stared down at us from his expensive Holbein portrait in the dining hall. We were not a public school but there was a boarding house nearby mostly filled with the sons of those employed on nearby airbases. These jobs mostly no longer exist. Homework was called “prep”.  The arrival of “short sleeve order” was occasionally announced in assembly. God knows what it meant. I never understood. It may have actually been called shirt sleeve order. I don’t remember getting in trouble over it anyway.

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The school was hardly very representative of Peterborough’s large Indian and Pakistani population either (the Polish influx had not yet arrived). David Lammy (later a minister in the Blair and Brown governments) had been the school’s first black head boy a couple of years earlier but he had been exceptional. There is barely a brown face in any school photos at the time.
School election: 1992.

I did not excel in my new secondary school environment doing badly early on and quite well by the Sixth Form. I was in between these two points in 1992 and was doing okay. The school Mock Election held a week before the actual one piqued my interest although I would have been far too self conscious to stand myself.
Our school was relatively small: about 750 pupils. About 600 or so voted. In reverse order of success, the candidates/parties (people’s names are changed) were, as far as I remember:

The Meritocrats: A silly novelty party fronted by the older brother of one of my friends (I don’t think the younger brother even voted for them). They had funny posters featuring identical pictures of the candidate over a statement saying: “Ian cares for the environment” or “Ian cares for babies.”But the “silly vote” was entirely swallowed up by the Revolution Party (soon to be discussed) and this one only got about 25 out of six hundred and something votes.

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Labour: The Labour candidate was actually a friend of the Tory candidate in my 1987 junior school election. I was incredibly socially awkward at this point but I attempted to hang out with her and a couple of boys who were running their campaign. I didn’t contribute anything meaningful. I attempted to submit some cartoons of John Major (about the only politician I could ever draw, then and now) but these weren’t great and understandably were not used. I couldn’t colour in and am not sure the jokes worked anyway: one was an attempt to parody the famous ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ poster from 1979.

That said, the posters they DID use – “hilarious” ones featuring a photo they had found of the school Tory candidate standing next to a wheelie bin beneath the legend “Is this man looking for a new job?” were crap too. Presumably they were suggesting he was looking for a job as a bin man? Of course, standing next to a bin wouldn’t achieve this. And he didn’t need a new job anyway? He was still at school. It didn’t work. That said, the Labour lot were an intelligent well-meaning bunch but my school was always overwhelmingly, hopelessly Tory. My younger brother who was at the school later confirms that the Conservatives even won heavily at the school in the mock election of 1997. Yes, even in 1997! I don’t think Labour got even a tenth of the vote in 1992.

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The Lib Dems: A boy from a lower year whose name I’ve forgotten. He did well as a candidate and got about 120 or so votes I think. I’m doing pretty well to the remember the campaign as well as this, to be honest. I doubt many other people can, probably not even those who were actually candidates at the time.

The Tories: Another boy from my year, a Scot, a Christian who despite my fledgling socialist and atheist tendencies, I was on friendly terms with. He came a good second and now, I believe, has a politics-related job.

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The Revolution Party: Peterborough was teetering very close towards electing a Labour MP (potentially its first woman MP too), one Julie Owens, just as the national election seemed poised to give Labour the keys to Downing Street. But my school was not very representative in this respect. A debate on banning fox-hunting in one class ended with a clear vote opposing any ban: pretty unusual for any group of urban British 1990s teenagers then, or I would suspect, now. The news that Margaret Thatcher had fallen in 1990 was greeted by concern amongst some classmates that Labour might get in by many, some fearing this would lead inevitably to a nuclear war. In short, most pupils like their parents, were Tories. But they were still teenagers (mostly) and there was a hint of rebellion in the air. The general feeling was that our traditionalist headmaster who was widely assumed – quite wrongly I later learnt – to be a Tory and would be most annoyed by a silly gimmicky party hijacking the election. This last bit probably is true.

So this is what happened. Fronted by a Sixth Former, the Revolution Party had the best election poster (which stated simply that “Lenin was a chap”) and used cheaply bought stickers featuring the dog Odie from the Jim Davis Garfield cartoon strip as their symbol. Although hardly very anti-capitalist in retrospect, this really took off as a gimmick. For about an hour or so during one lunchtime, I got slightly carried away and briefly wore an Odie sticker on my maroon lapel myself. But I didn’t repeat my 1987 betrayal.

I still voted Labour. I wasn’t that disappointed when Labour almost came last though. The real result during the school’s Easter Holidays would be different, I knew. Peterborough would fall to Labour and Neil Kinnock would lead Labour back into power.

John Major in 1992

The real election.
I did not stay up to watch all the results for some reason: a fortunate move in retrospect, although my younger brother, by now eleven but still indifferent to the result, camped out in our back garden in a tent. This wasn’t because of the election. It was just something he liked to do. Apparently some people still like to go in tents for fun today.

Like most people I expected Labour to win narrowly. While as the ITV puppet-based comedy Spitting Image pointed out, “You can’t hate John Major,” the Tory campaign seemed weak at the time. Initially Major began with staged unconvincing “informal chats” with party supporters. “What would you say to younger people to warn them of the dangers of a socialist government?” was typical of the challenging questions the PM met with. The Tories thus soon resorted to the “Major standing on a soapbox in the street” strategy. This is now remembered fondly. But even this was attacked at the time notably by Edwina Currie, in retrospect, probably vengeful after the end of her affair with Major in the Eighties. She complained Major looked more like an Opposition leader than a PM on his soap box.

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The great irony of Labour’s Neil Kinnock’s career was that having effectively saved the Labour Party from destruction in 1983, he had now become their biggest obstacle to power. John Smith, Robin Cook, Margaret Beckett, Jack Straw, Jack Cunningham, Bryan Gould, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair: the frontbench otherwise looked hugely talented in 1992. Kinnock meanwhile seemed to have greatness within him but was flawed. He was a great orator on occasion and as with Ed Miliband tabloid attempts to smear him as “devious” never really seemed convincing. But he rambled too much and basically didn’t inspire confidence.

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And the polls were wrong. The Tories won again.

Ultimately, even the news that the architect of Tory victory Chris Patten had lost his own seat in Bath (and unlike Portillo five years later had the decency to look thoroughly miserable in public about it afterwards) was no real comfort. “It’s a Tory Major-ity!” punned the pro-Tory Peterborough Evening Telegraph above a picture of grinning Brian Mawhinney who had also unexpectedly won again in Peterborough. Julie Owens would never become an MP while the father of a friend standing for the Liberal Party (which, like most people, I endlessly confused with the new Liberal Democrats) came fourth.
I was already developing an interest in US politics and switched my attention to Governor Bill Clinton’s increasingly promising campaign over there.

For Britain seemed lost. If Labour couldn’t win during a recession when could they win? I was going through changes but the nation wasn’t. The Tories seemed destined to rule forever.

But, in fact, almost the opposite would turn out to be true. I was 15 then. Now I am nearly 38. And it is the Tories not Labour who have failed to win a single General Election in the twenty or so years since.

As John Major would have said: “Who’d have thought it?”

John-Major-1992

General Election memories 3: 1987

(FILES) - A picture dated Ocotber 13, 19

Peterborough, June 11th 1987

The Tories seemed to be doing rather well in 1987. Mrs Thatcher had beaten the unions, the Wets and the Argentines. She now seemed set to do the same for her third Labour electoral opponent, Neil Kinnock just as she had thwarted both Jim Callaghan and Michael Foot before. The economy was enjoying a brief economic boom. Thatcher, apparently invincible but not yet obviously unstable, looked unstoppable. The NHS, crime and homelessness figures were all far worse than they had been, but no one was worrying about this then.

Labour, though much more polished than in 1983, thanks to the red rose symbol and other behind the scenes innovations by the then largely unknown Peter Mandelson, were well on the road to becoming New Labour, this would propel it to a massive victory a decade later. But in 1987, the party still looked vulnerable as did the Alliance led by the “two Davids” Owen and Steel. In Peterborough, Brian Mawhinney seemed safe against his Labour foe Andrew MacKinlay (who would later be MP for Thurrock between 1992 and 2010).

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But as Lt. Col. Oliver North frequently said in the Iran-Contra hearings at about this time: “I was not aware” of all these things.

I was ten. I was in my third year (that is, Year 5) of my Junior School. I liked Whizzer and Chips, Buster and Oink! comic (none of these are still going) and books like The Demon Headmaster and The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler. I used to draw and write my own stories, sometimes in cartoon form, on Peterborough Development Corporation paper which my dad would bring home from work. He is retired now and the PDC no longer exists, so I hope my revealing this, doesn’t get him into trouble..

I liked riding my BMX round the park and swimming in the Regional Pool (not the Lido so much, as that was freezing). I could very nearly swim and cycle by 1987, though not simultaneously. I was never fat but disliked sport. I loved history. I was not the film buff I have become but I was already a big Blackadder fan, even though it was often unsuitable for a ten year old. I used to play very slow Atari 800XL computer games and fight with my younger brother (six). My older brother was just finishing his time at Reading University while my sister, just two months off being old enough to vote was then finishing her A levels.
1987 thatcher
This was the first election I was aware of. I was not hugely impressed by any of the parties and had not yet developed any feelings of loyalty towards them. I found Mrs. Thatcher’s affected way of speaking rather grating, as indeed my mother did and still does. But Neil Kinnock seemed boring when he appeared on Wogan. The Alliance roused no strong feelings within me either. I understood bar charts well enough from my Scottish Maths books to see that the Tories were going to win.

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My third year teacher Mrs. Field (not her actual name) organised a mock election.The Tory candidate, a bright promising girl, was something of a favourite. As in all subsequent elections, I became emotionally involved but didn’t make a speech or do anything that involved work. Speeches were made by anyone, not just the three main candidates. I think the Tories would have won the mock election anyway but Mrs. Field was hardly an impartial arbitrator. Generally everyone made meaningless speeches e.g. “The Conservatives will build lots of houses” or “Look up “liberal” in the dictionary and it means…” or “Labour will make the schools better”. If someone spoke up for Labour though Mrs. Field would sometimes interject with something like: “but how will Labour pay for all this? With higher taxes!” Taxes sounded evil to our childish ears then. Even though, in retrospect, they might have got us a proper classroom rather than the mobile one we were then sat in.

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These interjections prompted a few people to defect from Labour to Tory, ultimately pushing them into third place. The Labour candidate was a decent boy and a friend. I regret to say for the first and only time I VOTED CONSERVATIVE MYSELF.

Yes, I know it wasn’t a real election and I admitted it at the time before I did it. My family weren’t impressed, but knew I was only a child. In time, I would be the only one of us to become a Labour Party member. But in 1987 I probably just wanted to back a winner.
But I’m not proud of myself.

The Tories won a 100 seat majority nationwide and the first plans for the Community Charge were announced soon afterwards. John Major won Mawhinney’s neighbouring seat of Huntington for a third time too. He won his first position in Cabinet straight after the election, became Foreign Secretary and Chancellor in 1989 and finally Prime Minister just three years later in 1990.
The Tories won in the class Mock Election comfortably too, the Tory candidate later becoming an actress. Mrs. Field died about twenty years ago and most people involved, now like me, fast approaching forty, have probably forgotten about the school election completely.
But by the next election in 1992, I would be fifteen. Still not old enough to vote but by then firmly in the Labour camp.

2017 update: I no longer regret not voting for the Labour candidate. I’d not seen him in years and he recently put a horrendously racist joke on Facebook. I de-friended him.

Politics - Thatcher Conservative Party Conference - 1988

 

 

Book review: Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion

Wounded LeadersBook review of Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion: A Psychohistory by Nick Duffell (Lone Arrow Press)

Wounded Leaders

What if the public school boarding system is poisoning the quality of Britain’s political leadership? This is the intriguing question posed by Nick Duffell’s sequel to his earlier The Making Of Them. With Tony Blair a product of this system, along with David Cameron and possible future leaders like Boris Johnson, this is a concern. Cameron in particularly is flawed in his attitude to women, Europe
“By any analysis the last 50 years in Britain have produced a remarkable lack of noteworthy political leadership.”
But while I went to a (admittedly somewhat elitist) state school and am no great fan of David Cameron, I have little time for Duffell’s argument.
He argues we have had poor leadership in the last fifty years? Since 1964 then? Maybe so. But Blair and Cameron were the only ex-public schoolboys to enter Downing Street during this time. Only fourteen out of these fifty years have been spent under boarding school poshos. The remaining thirty six years were spent under Wilson, Callaghan, Heath, Thatcher, Major and Brown. Surely if there has been poor leadership during the time, these oiks should take the blame too?
Most of the arguments collapse if we compare Cameron, to Blair, who did attend boarding school and Margaret Thatcher who didn’t. I actually don’t think Cameron does struggle to form relationships with women or anyone else. There were few women in his government and still are, but this is more due to the Tory Party’s historic paucity of women in general. And even if this were so, why was Tony Blair’s government so successful in promoting women? Public school shows little sign of messing Blair up. Contrast this with Gordon Brown, flying into rages and striking me as tremendously difficult to work with despite (or perhaps because of) his intellectual superiority. Or compare them all to Thatcher, who despite being a woman herself, does not seem to have liked other women much at all to the extent of never promoting them, generally avoiding them and forgetting to include her mother in Who’s Who? But Thatcher and Brown didn’t go to boarding school.
The same applies to Thatcher’s jingoistic flag waving and attacking Europe at every opportunity. Different leaders have different strengths and weaknesses. David Cameron is a weak leader who wants to be Tony Blair but is turning out more like John Major.
But the fact he went to a boarding school is largely irrelevant.

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John Smith: Twenty-five years on

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The Labour leader John Smith died suddenly of a heart attack, twenty-five years ago this month, on May 12th 1994. Had he lived, he would now be eighty. He would also, no doubt, be remembered a former Prime Minister, rather than an Opposition leader whose tragic premature death prevented him from getting to the top.

Smith only led the Labour Party for two years. I don’t recall much popular excitement about his election as leader in July 1992. The contest against the perfectly decent left-winger Bryan Gould (who subsequently returned to his native New Zealand) was a foregone conclusion and a dull affair.

There was also some feeling that after losing for the fourth time in a row in April 1992, Labour might never win again. After all, if Labour couldn’t win during a Tory recession when could it win? Surely the economy would have recovered by 1996 or 1997 ensuring yet another win for the Tories? Satirical show Have I Got News For You… meanwhile pointed out, Labour was electing the very man whose tax plans had arguably led to their recent defeat in the first place.

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Such fears proved misplaced. Simply by electing Smith, Labour had made an important step towards recovery. In the month of Smith’s election as leader, Labour gained a poll lead over the Tories which it would maintain for the next decade. The April 1992 election result in fact turned out to be the last Tory General Election win achieved until 2015.

John Smith is sometimes accused of laziness and complacency: of being happy to let the Tories lose the election for themselves. In fact, during the Major years, this was the perfect tactic to adopt. Within months of their victory, the Major Government virtually disintegrated amidst a sea of divisions over Europe, sleaze allegations, and perhaps worst, the total economic incompetence exhibited by Prime Minister John Major and his Chancellor Norman Lamont on Black Wednesday in September 1992. Labour had double digit poll leads from the autumn onward. Hopelessly divided and weak, torn apart by self-inflicted wounds, the Major Government never recovered.

This is not to deny John Smith any credit for Labour’s recovery. Although he did not launch any “New Labour” style revolution, he was certainly not lazy either. For one thing, he proved the finest performer as Opposition leader in the Commons of the post-war era. Only Harold Wilson in 1963-64, William Hague in 1997-2001 or perhaps Tony Blair in 1994-97 have come close to matching him. “No wonder we live in a country where the Grand National doesn’t start and hotels fall into the sea!” he derided Major in 1993 (referring to two recent news events which, of course, the hapless John Major, for once, could not really be blamed for). More seriously, he attacked “the devalued Prime Minister of a devalued government” after Black Wednesday.

Then there was the One Member One Vote reform to end the union block vote in autumn 1993. Smith privately planned to resign if the party voted “no”.  They did not, partly thanks to  a spirited Conference defence of the OMOV proposals from John Prescott. As it turned out, this would ensure Prescott would defeat Smith’s Number Two Margaret Beckett in the then entirely unforeseen Deputy Leadership contest the following year.

Ultimately, Smith’s strength was a self-assurance which both his predecessors the terminally un-telegenic Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock as well as his successors Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband all lacked. True, the party experienced a huge surge in support following Tony Blair’s election as leader and a decisive move to the right for the party. But, in retrospect, Labour was already clearly heading for victory under John Smith. Maybe not the 179 seat majority achieved by New Labour but a substantial win nevertheless. There was no need for the creation of New Labour or the campaign to win over the Murdoch press. Labour had a 20% lead over the Tories in May 1994.

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Counter-factual history is a risky business. Would the Blair-Brown rivalry have taken new form in a Smith Cabinet? Would the Tories have fared well enough in 1997 for Michael Portillo to escape the humiliating loss of his seat and thus succeed Major instead of Hague?  Would Blair, Brown, Cameron and May still have become Prime Minister anyway? Would the Good Friday Agreement have still happened? The 2001 and 2005 Labour victories? Devolution? Kosovo? Afghanistan? Iraq? Brexit?

We will, of course, never know these things. While I would not wish to romanticise Smith’s leadership (every Labour leader before or since has, after all, been accused of “betraying socialism”. Smith, unfairly or not, would doubtless been accused of this just the same, had he lived) there seems little doubt that John Smith would have led Britain into the 21st century had he survived.

His death remains a great tragedy. The question of what a Smith-led Britain would have turned out like remains a fascinating mystery, twenty-five years on.

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Thirty years of Spitting Image

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John Major was entirely painted in grey. Home Secretary Kenneth Baker was a slug. Future Prime Minister Tony Blair was portrayed as a wayward child while Edwina Currie was characterised as a malevolent Cruella Deville figure. The puppet-based comedy Spitting Image first appeared on our screens thirty years ago in 1984 and ran until 1996. There had never been anything like it before and there has been nothing like it on British TV since. It made its mark on the times in a way that no other comedian, TV show or satirical cartoon of the time could ever have managed.

Perhaps it could only have started in 1984, a time when the forces of conservatism seemed perilously close to absolute victory. Margaret Thatcher, simultaneously the most loved and loathed Prime Minister of all time, had won a second landslide election victory the year before and was now taking on the miners, a battle she would ultimately win. The unions were in revolt, unemployment was sky high. People were angry and yet the Opposition, which was split between Neil Kinnock’s Labour and the Liberal-SDP Alliance, had never looked weaker.

There was something of a political comedy void too. Mike Yarwood, a huge star in the Seventies, was far too gentle (and troubled) an impressionist to continue throughout the Eighties. By 1984, his career was in freefall, partially because he was unable to convincingly “do” Margaret Thatcher. Yes Minister, meanwhile, was a brilliant political comedy, but it was set in a fictional and non-partisan political landscape (its main character, Jim Hacker MP was never identified as belonging to any existing party). Meanwhile, Not The Nine O Clock News which had lampooned many public figures during the early Eighties (while rarely actually impersonating them) had ended in 1982. Smith and Jones had begun their own largely non-political sketch show while Rowan Atkinson was now in Blackadder. NTNOCN producer John Lloyd would be instrumental in launching Spitting Image for the ITV franchise, Central in 1984.

The project was hugely ambitious: it was the most expensive light entertainment show of the time. In retrospect, we should be less surprised that the results were patchy (and they were) than by the fact the show worked at all. Peter Fluck and Roger Law’s puppets were nearly always easily recognisable. To ensure topicality, Spitting Image was produced close to transmission time (some scenes were even broadcast live). The show was often on the mark and frequently very funny.

Some public figures will be forever linked with their puppet counterparts. To some, Norman Tebbit will always be a leather jacketed yob, Michael Heseltine a swivel-eyed loon vocally denying any intention of standing against Thatcher for the Tory leadership while simultaneously wearing a sign saying “Vote for Heseltine” on his back while, for many, Kenneth Baker, as mentioned, will always be a slug on a leaf.

Some caricatures required less imagination,  however, with US president Ronald Reagan (voiced by Chris Barrie, later of Red Dwarf and The Brittas Empire fame) always portrayed as a moron, as in this fireside chat with Soviet premier Gorbachev (whose distinctive birthmark always took the form of a Soviet hammer and sickle):

Gorbachev: Ron, do you know what I see when I see when I look into those flames? I see our two nations living in peace and harmony… what do you see?

Reagan: I see a little doggy, a bunny wunny and a big hippo on a broomstick. Hell, this is fun!

Margaret Thatcher herself, meanwhile, was usually portrayed (in a rather sexist fashion) in a man’s suit, something which may actually have helped her image.. John Major, her successor, initially appeared as a robot who was being secretly controlled by Thatcher, before becoming the totally grey figure he is now remembered as, complementing wife Norma on her peas (“Very tasty”) while secretly nursing a childish crush on colleague Virginia Bottomley (prompting Major’s cabinet colleagues to taunt him by chanting “John loves Ginny!”).  Major’s earlier affair with Edwina Currie was, of course, at this stage not known to the general public or to Spitting Image’s writers.

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Currie, in fact, undeniably benefited from the publicity her puppet generated. She was, after all, a junior minister and never served in the cabinet. How many junior ministers can you name today? This was not solely Spitting Image’s doing, but it surely helped. The same is true with Labour frontbencher Gerald Kaufman. He was never exactly a household name but got attention simply because Spitting Image claimed he went around saying creepy things such as (inexplicably) “sweaty palms”.

Others liked the attention less, though many like to pretend otherwise. Liberal leader David Steel  openly claimed that his image was harmed by the impression he was in SDP leader David Owen’s pocket. It is doubtful Roy Hattersley (who has a genuine speech impediment) enjoyed his depiction spluttering spit everywhere, notably spitting out the words “Spitting Image” during the title sequence, either.

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It wasn’t just the politicians, of course. The portrayal of the Royals was always controversial. An early episode saw the Queen “christening” Prince Harry (who had an unflattering puppet from birth) by smashing a bottle against the side of his pram. Elsewhere,  Jeremy Paxman (one of the few figures still in the public eye both now and then) memorably began every broadcast with a sneering “yeeeeeeeeeeeeesss” while the late newsreader Alistair Burnett was seen as being in love with the Queen Mother. Rupert Murdoch, meanwhile, was seen as a crude figure constantly breaking wind while all journalists were routinely portrayed as pigs.

It had to end one day, of course, and in 1996, it did. Tony Blair was initially portrayed as a schoolboy because of his relative youth. He was soon being depicted as a super hyperactive figure on becoming Labour leader in 1994. But while both he and successor Gordon Brown had puppets, the show didn’t get to see New Labour in power.

The programme never received much critical acclaim but effectively launched a thousand careers with Ian Hislop, Clive Anderson, John O’Farrell, Ben Elton and Red Dwarf’s Rob Grant and Doug Naylor (authors of The Chicken Song) amongst the numerous writers and Chris Barrie, Steve Coogan, Harry Enfield, John Sessions, Rory Bremner, John Culshaw, Alistair MacGowan, John Thompson, Steve Nallon and Hugh Dennis all amongst the vocal talent.

Could it happen today? Animated copycats like 2DTV and Headcases both proved failures although Round The Bend, almost a kids’ version of the show with puppets by Fluck and Law enjoyed some success in the Nineties.

But in the age of Boris Johnson and Nigel Forage, perhaps we need a Spitting Image now more than ever?

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A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s book review

A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s.

Alwyn W. Turner.

Published: Aurum.

RRP: £25

Some might think it a bit soon to be writing histories of the 1990s. Perhaps they should think again. This volume, the third and final part of Alwyn W. Turner’s trilogy takes Britain up to the General Election of June 2001. It was a sleepy campaign, enlivened only by the celebrated “Prescott Punch” when the Deputy PM John Prescott was filmed punching a voter.

Turner argues the 2001 election saw Britain winding down after the industrial unrest of the 1970s (chronicled in his earlier Crisis? What Crisis?) and the battles and mass unemployment of the 1980s (detailed in his second volume Rejoice! Rejoice!). 2001 was at any rate still a considerable time ago. E-readers, iPods, the Iraq War and Credit Crunch were still in the future. But the book starts with Thatcher’s fall in November 1990. Twenty-four years ago, this is definitely the stuff of history.

In 1990, Britain was preparing to go to war over Kuwait (a much less controversial war than the Iraq conflict which began twelve years later) as the nation licked its wounds from the ordeal of Thatcherism. It is arguable that Britain has not fully recovered from her leadership even today and certainly the Tory Party don’t seem to have done so.

Mrs Thatcher’s successor was John Major who Turner reminds us, was at the time the youngest Prime Minister of the 20th century. We have got used to younger leaders since. Major was 46, Blair who would succeed him would be 44. Cameron in 2010 was younger still and all three major party leaders today are under 50. Major, at any rate did what no Tory leader has achieved in the 22 years since, winning his party an overall majority in the General Election of April 1992. Thereafter, it proved to be a very bad decade to be a Tory.

Major’s economic record was much better than Thatcher’s. But he was a poor leader and after the election win the party went into freefall, alienating any group who might have potentially supported them. The number of Tory MPs fell by more than half during John Major’s leadership of the party between 1990 and 1997.

Had he not died, another John, John Smith would surely have won power in 1997. Sadly, we will never know how a Smith premiership might have turned out (Turner is certainly harsh on the Blair Government) and it will remain forever one of the great pondering points of post-war party politics.

This isn’t just about politics though, far from it. As before, Turner covers seemingly every aspect of British life in the decade including Lad Culture, the comedy scene, the recovery of the British film industry, the rise of Britpop to the death of Diana, in massively comprehensive detail.

I wouldn’t share all his emphasises. Much as I love the sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey, Turner quotes from it a bit too much. It is odd also that he devotes time to mediocre TV offerings like Waiting For God and Root Into Europe too while never mentioning memorable dramas House of Cards or GBH. I wouldn’t have described Alan Rickman as “fresh from his triumph in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves” in 1999 either. The film came out in 1991, eight years before the point  Rickman was touted as a possible London Mayoral candidate.

(For the record, Michael Foot became Labour leader in 1980 not 1981. And William Hague was never the youngest Cabinet Minister of the 20th century. Harold Wilson was only 31 when he was appointed by Attlee in 1947).

But these are minor quibbles in a book spanning well over 600 pages. Alwyn W. Turner has triumphed yet again. His three volumes on the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties should be required reading for all students of popular culture, politics and history during the period between the grinning smiles of the grumpy bachelor Mr. Heath and that nice Mr. Blair.

The nearly men: Ken Clarke

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Some reacted with alarm to the news that Ken Clarke had been appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1993. Some were simply he worried that he wasn’t up to it. He had been a bad gaffe-prone Health Secretary and little better in Education. Others were simply worried about Clarke’s seemingly unstoppable rise to power. Had John Major, like Sir Anthony Eden promoting Macmillan in 1955, unwittingly appointed his successor?

In fact, neither group need have worried. Ken Clarke (he had previously been Kenneth but like Anthony Wedgewood Benn and Anthony Blair, this was seen as too posh) was a successful Chancellor as he had been a successful Home Secretary in the year before 1993. It is true, the Tories never regained their reputation for economic competence under him, but this was hardly his fault. The shambles of Black Wednesday in 1992 during which interest rates rose fifteen times in one day put paid to that. Major was very lucky to survive.

Why then didn’t Clarke become Tory leader after the 1997? His two main rivals had disappeared after all, young Michael Portillo losing his seat in the electoral deluge, old Michael Heseltine declared unfit after an angina attack soon after. Ken Clarke was surely the obvious choice, the most popular, experienced and credible candidate?

The simple answer is that the Tories had been driven to eccentric extremes by their 1997 defeat and were prepared to follow whatever their elderly former leader Lady Thatcher said. And she endorsed the former Welsh Secretary, William Hague.

William Hague might well make a good Prime Minister today. But he was an appalling choice in 1997, only 36, little known to the public, gaffe-prone and looking and sounding weird. He never shook off the fallout from the blunder of wearing his baseball hat at the Notting Hill Carnival (a desperate attempt to look cool) or the memory of his teenage appearance at the Tory Party Conference in the 1970s. His error in letting through Blair’s Lords reform measures and his over-enthusiastic endorsement of Lord Archer as London’s 2000 mayoral candidate, all testified to his poor judgement. He was redeemed slightly by strong performances at Prime Minister’s Questions. But even this merely strengthened the impression that he was a political geek. Little wonder the Tories made only one net gain in 2001, a disastrous follow up to their worst election defeat of the 20th century.

Hague, had however, been anti-European and endorsed by Lady Thatcher. Even more crazily, this was enough to push Tories towards Iain Duncan Smith instead of Clarke in 2001. This proved an even more eccentric choice than Hague had been. IDS totally lacked the charm of his predecessor and was turned out in favour of a temporary caretaker leader, Michael Howard in 2003.

In their desperation for unity, the Tories had appointed Howard without an election, something they would vilify Labour for with Gordon Brown just two years later. Howard had also been a disaster as Home Secretary in government and had come last in the 1997 leadership contest in which Hague had beaten Clarke. He did perform more effectively in 2005, reducing Blair’s majority to a still substantial 66.

Determined not to see his irritable colleague David Davis succeed, Howard postponed his resignation as leader until later in 2005. Clarke on his third run as leader seemed to stand a good chance at first but was ultimately harmed by revelations of his business links with British tobacco. He was at any rate, now too old. Tories probably made the right choice in selecting David Cameron, still not yet forty in 2005 and only an MP for four years.

Today, old Ken Clarke remains in government. In earlier, less youth-fixated times (all three party leaders are now in their forties), he might still stand a chance.

His misfortune was to be in the ascent during a decade when the Tories had rarely been more eccentric.

Other nearly men…

RA  (“RAB”) Butler:  The founder of the famous Butler Education Act. Why not PM?: Betrayed by colleague Harold Macmillan in both 1957 and again in 1963.

Tony Benn: Long standing Labour MP and diarist. Why not PM? Went ultra-left wing after 1973 and was probably too unpalatable even for 1970s/1980s Labour after that. Might have led Labour had he not lost his seat in 1983. Kinnock won instead.

Neil Kinnock: The longest serving Opposition leader since World War II (1983-1992). Why never PM? Came close in 1992, but the public and especially the press never warmed to him. Arguably saved Labour from destruction though.

David Davis: Briefly the front runner in the 2005 Tory leadership contest but notoriously moody. Cameron triumphed when Davis’s electoral address fell flat.

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Michael Heseltine: the best Tory Prime Minister we never had?

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Before: it began with an envelope. As a schoolboy, the young Michael Heseltine mapped out his future. In his 20s, he would become a millionaire. In his 30s, he would become an MP. In his 40s, he would be on the Tory frontbench. By his 50s – between 1983 and 1993 – he would enter Downing Street.

Today, eighty-year old Lord Heseltine claims not to remember this incident which comes from his friend, the late Julian Critchley, who also later served as a Tory MP. But his ambition was unquestionable. By the 1970s, Heseltine had achieved almost all of these ambitions. He was a multimillionaire and already a popular favourite at Tory Party Conferences.

“The government should go and if it had a shred of pride it would go today,” he raged in one 1976 speech about the Callaghan Government. “The reality…a one-legged army limping away from the storm they have created. Left, left – left, left, left!”

The audience roared as Heseltine limped across the stage.

It was all going so well. And then the career of Margaret Thatcher got in the way.

Heseltine Speaks At Conference

“Tarzan” as he became known, maintained a high profile in the Eighties, first as Environment Secretary then as Secretary of State for Defence. He espoused an early form of “compassionate conservatism” (a term that did not exist at the time) on touring Liverpool and on another occasion combated CND protesters in a bomber jacket. Both were good for publicity. However, both these and a 1970s incident in which he picked up the mace in the House of Commons, contributed to the Spitting Image stereotype of him as a swivel-eyed loon.

The 1986 Westland affair precipitated a fatal personality clash with Thatcher. He stormed out so suddenly, that many present did not even know he had resigned. Some thought he had gone to the loo. But he had quit. The next four years would be spent in the wilderness, waiting for Maggie to grow vulnerable enough for him to strike against her.

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Thatcher recovered from Westland, saved in part by a misjudged, long-winded attack in the Commons by Labour’s Neil Kinnock. She won a third victory in 1987 but by 1990, Thatcher was acutely unpopular over the Poll Tax and mounting European divisions. Nigel Lawson, her Chancellor had resigned in 1989. When Geoffrey Howe followed in 1990 and unleashed an incredibly damaging resignation speech, Heseltine knew it was his time.

Opportunity 1: “He, who wields the dagger, rarely wears the crown”.

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Heseltine challenged Thatcher. His own campaign was undermined by a somewhat arrogant attitude towards his fellow backbenchers. But the Thatcher camp made errors too. Thatcher won the first ballot but was two votes short of the number needed to win outright.

A second ballot was inevitable. Foolishly, Thatcher pledged to fight on. Soon she was forced to resign.

Surely now was Hezza’s time? He had overthrown Thatcher just as she had overthrown Ted Heath in 1975. But Tories were shocked and angry at what had happened. The wounds have not entirely healed even today. An unofficial “Stop Heseltine” movement was formed. Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and Chancellor John Major were drafted to fight Heseltine. The little known John Major emerged triumphant. He was 47: ten years younger than Heseltine.

Opportunity 2: Major catastrophe?

British Prime Minister John Major (L) and his de

Heseltine returned to the Cabinet under Major as Environment Secretary. It was the same position he had held when Thatcher came to power in 1979. Eleven years on, he had toppled Thatcher but was back where he started. It must have been a bitter time.

However, the Major leadership soon proved vulnerable. Although Heseltine remained loyal throughout this period, opportunity never seemed far away. First, there was the 1992 General Election. Heseltine fought hard for the Tories and to his credit, he showed no signs whatsoever of wanting Labour to win.

Yet if they had, Heseltine would undeniably have been the frontrunner to succeed. And the Tories were widely expected to lose.

But the opinion polls were wrong. The Tories had won a fourth successive victory. Heseltine was awarded with the position of President of the Board of Trade, the job he had coveted almost as much as Prime Minister.

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But Major was not out of the woods yet. His premiership would soon prove an almost  total disaster as the Tories lost their record for economic competence after Black Wednesday and fell into open civil war over the Maastricht Treaty. Sleaze would soon rear its ugly head too. Worst of all for the Tories, Labour started to get its act together first under John Smith and then after 1994, under Tony Blair.

Although a likeable character, Major proved a weak and decisive Prime Minister. His leadership remained under almost perpetual threat from the autumn of 1992 until the May 1997 General Election.

But who would succeed? Heseltine still looked strong but several points counted against him.

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Firstly, Heseltine had courted unpopularity by overseeing the pit closures at the end of 1992. Also, many Tories still blamed him for Thatcher’s removal (she was now, at least in the House of Lords). But if it was Major’s pro-Europeanism that was giving him problems, Heseltine offered no solution. He was, if anything, more pro-European than his leader.

Even worse, Heseltine’s health soon became an issue. Heseltine suffered a heart attack in the summer of 1993. His father had died the same way and though Heseltine soon made a full recovery, his age (he was now entering his sixties) was now a concern. The sudden death of John Smith, the Labour leader following a heart attack in May 1994 did not help.

Heseltine also now faced rivalry from Chancellor Ken Clarke and rising star of the Right, Michael Portillo. But all had “issues” in the same way Heseltine did. Portillo (then in his early forties) was seen as too young. Clarke was too pro-European too. And Heseltine was too old. Perhaps this is why Major survived as long as he did even after openly inviting a leadership contest in 1995.

Major had expected his disgruntled ex-Chancellor Norman Lamont to stand against him. Instead, the Eurosceptic John Redwood did, having first resigned as Welsh Secretary. Major won easily, removing the possibility that any of the big three leadership contenders would run. Heseltine was rewarded for his loyalty with the position of Deputy Prime Minister.

Perhaps Tory defeat was inevitable whoever the leader was by 1995. At any rate, John Major led the Tories to their biggest defeat of the century in May 1997. He resigned soon after.

Opportunity 3: Last chance?

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The Tory defeat in May 1997 was devastating. Labour won a majority of 179, a bigger victory than any achieved by Thatcher, Attlee or any other post war leader.

Unexpectedly, Michael Portillo also lost his seat. The way seemed clear now for Heseltine. A number of candidates stood: William Hague, Ken Clarke, Stephen Dorrell, Peter Lilley and Michael Howard. But Clarke was the only serious contender.

And yet, it was this point fate played a cruel trick. It was now that Heseltine suffered an attack of angina and announced he would not stand.

It was the end. He would never serve on the front bench again. Boris Johnson would succeed him as the MP for Henley on Thames in 2001.

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Conclusions

Could Michael Heseltine have ever been Prime Minister?

Clearly, yes although several points went against him.

He would probably have won the Tory leadership had he been able to stand in May 1997. But would he have wanted it? The Tories had just been routed. Most estimates suggested it would take at least two elections to overturn the Labour majority (in fact it took three). Heseltine would have been close to seventy even before the next national contest in 2001 or 2002.

Perhaps 1995 would have been a better chance? But no. Heseltine would not have relished bringing down another Prime Minister. And a General Election defeat in 1997 seemed inevitable even then. Even had he won in 1995 (by no means a sure thing), he would only have been Prime Minister for two years. Although even this was longer than he ultimately got.

Perhaps Heseltine’s best chance would have been not to have overthrown Thatcher at all. Thatcher would then have lost to Labour in 1992 leaving the leadership free for him.

But with Michael Heseltine close to sixty by then, it would have been a risky strategy. Perhaps like Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and Tony Benn, he was just unfortunate that his political heyday coincided with that of Margaret Hilda Thatcher.

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Book review: Just A Simple Belfast Boy by Dr Brian Mawhinney

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George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury makes a bold claim on the back of this book. “Brian Mawhinney is one of the truly outstanding politicians of his generation.”

Bearing in mind, Dr Brian Mawhinney was born in 1940 putting him in the same mediocre vintage as Lord Archer, John Selwyn Gummer, Jonathan Aitken and Neil Hamilton, perhaps this is faint praise. But what about John Smith? Ken Clarke? Chris Patten? Robin Cook? No, Carey’s claim is ridiculously over the top. One suspects Mawhinney would be embarrassed by it himself.

It’s probable Mawhinney’s intense religious fervour swayed Carey. Dr Brian Mawhinney was the Tory MP for Peterborough from 1979 until 1997 (I grew up there during that period myself). Before his selection as candidate, Mawhinney, like Joan of Arc, heard voices. Specifically a voice in Peterborough Cathedral saying: “I need you here”. Mawhinney may have imagined it or overheard somebody instructing a choir boy. Either way, Mawhinney remained MP for Peterborough for eighteen years. Presumably another voice then told him: “Labour are going to win your seat! Peterborough’s too full of lefties these days! Ditch them. Switch to North West Cambridgeshire!”.  Mawhinney did so, remaining MP there until 2005. He was appointed Chairman of the Football League in 2003.

On paper, Mawhinney’s record isn’t sparkling. He was Minister of State for Northern Ireland under Margaret Thatcher. Unlike under Major and especially Blair, no progress was made in the Troubles under Thatcher at all. He moved to Health, at a time of intense strife for the NHS (the Thatcher/Major years remain the historical nadir of the Health Service). Now in the Cabinet, he oversaw the disastrous farce of rail privatisation as Transport Secretary. As Tory Party Chairman he presided over the party’s largest ever 20th century defeat in 1997.

To be fair, none of these things were wholly Mawhinney’s fault. The Tories were clearly heading for a big fall in 1997 already. It is doubtful any non-Cabinet minister could have secured peace in Northern Ireland in the Eighties.  Mawhinney is wrong about many things (gay marriage, Tony Blair) but his dedication cannot be faulted.

The book is not very well written and was almost completely overshadowed on its April release date by the reaction to Lady Thatcher’s death. But Mawhinney is clearly a genuine and dutiful public servant and fundamentally decent in a way one suspects many modern Tories are not.

I would have changed the book’s name though.”A Simple Belfast Boy” stinks of false modesty. The book barely focuses on Mawhinney’s childhood anyway. ’Life of Brian’ is probably out due to his religious convictions. How about “Doctor in the House”? Or “God Told Me To Do It”?

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The rise and fall of Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo

ImageAs 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.

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Why Blair was better than Thatcher

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Winston Churchill received a State Funeral in January 1965 while Lady Thatcher received a Ceremonial one last month. With these precedents in mind, surely Tony Blair, on his death, should be considered for a Ceremonial Funeral himself?

It may seem a little premature to speculate about Tony Blair’s funeral arrangements in the month of his sixtieth birthday. But it certainly isn’t unreasonable. No, Blair cannot claim to have been Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. But in most respects, he was a more successful Prime Minister than Lady Thatcher was. Consider:

  1. Popularity when in power: Blair and Thatcher both won three election victories each. Thatcher’s majorities were 43, 144 and 100. Blair’s were: 179, 167 and 66. Both leaders saw their share of the vote decline in each election but it is clear Blair’s majorities were larger on average. Blair was also notably more popular than Thatcher while in power if you look at opinion polls. Labour were rarely ever behind in the polls during the first half of Blair’s time in office (1997-2002) and were never very unpopular. Thatcher’s Tories were usually behind in the polls during her tenure (despite her election wins) and she was one of the most unpopular Prime Ministers on record in 1980-81 and 1990. Popularity isn’t everything, of course. However, the enduring nature of Labour’s poll lead under Blair, surely suggests he was doing something right.
  2. Peace in Northern Ireland: The peace process (such as it was) got nowhere under Thatcher. Under Major, progress was made, the main achievement of his largely disastrous premiership. This stalled, however, largely because of Tory dependence on the Ulster Unionists for parliamentary support. Thanks to Blair and the late Mo Mowlam, the Good Friday Agreement has left a legacy of peace which has endured to this day. It is one of the greatest achievements of any British Prime Minister.
  3. A decade of prosperity: admittedly, Blair inherited a better economy in 1997 than Thatcher did in 1979. Despite this, Thatcher’s policy of monetarism wrecked the UK economy in the early 80s and had it not been for North Sea oil, it might not have recovered. After an unsustainable boom, the economy was again on the slide when Thatcher left office in 1990. Blair deserves credit for overseeing a golden age of prosperity and growth for a full decade.
  4. Crime: Crime more than doubled during the Thatcher years. It fell by over 40% under Blair and Brown. Even David Cameron admitted this, making a nonsense of his own “Broken Britain” claims in the 2010 election.
  5. Homelessness: This also doubled under Thatcher, largely because of the catastrophic Care in the Community scheme. Homelessness fell under Blair.
  6. The NHS undeniably suffered under Thatcher and undeniably benefitted from the extra expenditure of the Blair years. Customer satisfaction surveys confirm this.
  7. Minimum wage, devolution, civil partnerships: The Blair Government oversaw all these changes in the face of Toy opposition. Unlike under Thatcher, the UK became a more tolerant, civilised place. And there was no New Labour equivalent to the Poll Tax.
  8. Thatcher became eccentric in her later years in office referring to herself with the royal “we” (as in “We are a grandmother”) and publicly bullying her colleague, Geoffrey Howe. There are no such accounts of bad behaviour from Blair.

Conclusions.

Of course, not everything about the Thatcher years was bad and everything about the Blair years good. On the issue of Iraq, Blair was at least as divisive as Thatcher. Thatcher achieved great victories in the South Atlantic. Reducing union power was undoubtedly necessary but too brutally done. Thatcher changed the UK more towards how she wanted it in her eleven and a half years than Blair did in his ten. Spin and rivalry with Gordon Brown too often hampered Blair.

However, surely the measure of a great leader is in what they achieved for their nation? Under Thatcher, crime rose, unemployment soared, the NHS declined, homelessness and rioting proliferated and society grew more selfish and violent. Under Blair, the opposite to all these things happened. And peace in Northern Ireland was achieved.

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House of Cards Revisited

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“Nothing lasts forever,” muses Francis Urquhart as he looks at a picture of Margaret Thatcher. ”Even the longest, the most glittering reign must come to an end someday”. 

So begins House of Cards, one of the finest political dramas in British TV history. It has recently been remade for the US by Netflix.

Based on a book by Tory insider Michael Dobbs and brought to the screen by the more left wing British dramatist Andrew Davies in 1990, House of Cards centres on Francis Urquhart, the Tory Party Chef Whip superbly played by the late Ian Richardson. Taking the audience into his full confidence – Urquhart has a disarming and involving tendency to talk directly to the audience, often offering nothing more than a wry smile or a raised eyebrow in response to events – we become fully involved and even complicit in Urquhart’s activities as he skilfully manoeuvres his way to the top of the Tory tree an into Downing Street.

The action opens in the aftermath of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s apparent retirement (at that point, an event still in the future). Indeed, Thatcher is the only real life figure (other than the Queen) referred to at any point. Urquhart assesses the likely candidates for the succession:

“Plenty of contenders. Old warriors, young pretenders. Lord Bilsborough, say — party chairman, too old and too familiar, tainted by a thousand shabby deals. Michael Samuels — too young and too clever. Patrick Woolton — bit of a lout, bit of a bully-boy. Yes, it could well be Woolton. Henry Collingridge — the people’s favourite, a well-meaning fool, no background and no bottom.”

Urquhart with splendid false modesty rules himself out:

“What, me? Oh, no no no. I’m the Chief Whip, merely a functionary. I keep the troops in line. I put a bit of stick around. I make them jump. And I shall, of course, give my absolute loyalty to whoever emerges as my leader.”

In fact, when the new leader Henry “Hal” Collingridge reneges on a promise to appoint Urquhart to the Cabinet, Francis turns against him, constructing a bogus scandal involving the Prime Minister’s wayward brother and demolishing all other rivals to not only bring down Collingridge but to ensure that he, Francis Urquhart, shall succeed him.

In this the role of young journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) proves crucial. It is to her that he leaks information answering her questions not n the affirmative but couched in the coded evasive standard political answer: “You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.”

 

Timing

The series was blessed by remarkable good timing. In real life, Michael Heseltine announced his intention to stand against Margaret Thatcher, just five days before the first episode went on on November 18th 1990. By the time of the fourth and final episode, Thatcher had been toppled and John Major had beaten both Heseltine and Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd to become Prime Minister. House of Cards thus became very topical indeed. The series had the good fortune to go out during the first change of Tory leadership in fifteen years and one of the most dramatic ends to a Prime Ministerial reign ever.

 

Real life parallels?

House of Cards is obviously fiction but some have suggested similarities to real life figures. Make of them what you will. I couldn’t possibly comment.

Francis Urquhart: Urquhart does not obviously resemble any one real life person strongly. He is nothing like Edward Heath, another Chief Whip who went onto Downing Street. Urquhart’s upper class background was also distinctly unfashionable by 1990. Douglas Hurd, would in fact be embarrassed by his posh background in the leadership contest that took place while House of Cards went out and no Tory leaders emerged from upper class background between 1965 and 2005 (between Alec Douglas Home and David Cameron). Urquhart’s ideological position seems to be closest to Thatcher. Yet unlike any of these figures, he is a murderer and probably closer to Shakespeare’s Richard III than anyone in real life.

Henry Collingridge: Both Dobbs and Davies were right to predict domineering figure like Thatcher would be succeeded by a moderate more conciliatory figure. A harsh critic might say Urquhart’s summary of Collingridge: “a well-meaning fool, no background and no bottom,” applied equally well to Thatcher’s actual successor John Major (or indeed, David Cameron). Major also won the 1992 election with a majority of 21 (Collingridge manages about 30). Unlike in the series, there are few immediate problems resulting from the Tory majority dropping so dramatically. John Major’s Tories had anticipated defeat in 1992 and were happy just to win at all. Major’s premiership would prove similarly troubled although more enduring than Collingridge’s. If anyone fatally undermined Major’s leadership, other than Major himself, it was his predecessor Lady Thatcher.

Bob Landless: A crude American media magnate. Clearly a composite of and Robert Maxwell, then still alive (although unlike Landless, a Labour supporter) and Rupert Murdoch.

Lord Bilsborough: Seems similar to William Whitelaw, who ran against Thatcher in 1975 but ultimately became her most loyal servant. But Whitelaw was much nicer than Bilsborough and much less tainted by “shabby deals”.

Michael Samuels: In some ways similar to Michael Portillo, then a dashing rising star in the party and with a history of left wing support and some homosexuality (then not known about) in his past. Portillo, although half-Spanish, isn’t Jewish as Samuels is though. In this respect, Samuels is more like another rising Tory Michael of the time and future leader, Michael Howard.

Peter Mackenzie: Health Minister. Physically very like John Major (he is played by Christopher Owen) although unlike Major seems to be racist and accidentally runs over a disabled protester.

Afterwards

(SPOILER ALERT) Two TV sequels To Play The King and The Final Cut are worth seeing although neither quite scaled the heights of the original. Dobbs wrote two books which followed the first series. The first book ends differently with Urquhart, consumed by shame choosing to hurl himself to death rather than Mattie.

Michael Dobbs served as Deputy Tory Chairman under John Major and is now Baron Dobbs in the House of Lords. He has written many novels.

Already a prolific author Andrew Davies (A Very Peculiar Practice), Davies has become something of an adaptation-writing machine since the huge success of 1995’s Pride and Prejudice (which featured Mattie Storin from House of Cards as Jane). Incredibly, Davies has written over twenty series since including Mr Selfridge, Bleak House and Middlemarch.

Ian Richardson died in 2007.

A new US series of House of Cards (much altered) starring Kevin Spacey as House Majority Whip Frank Underwood is is available on Netflix.  

Book review: Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s by Graham Stewart

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Make no mistake: 1979 was a very long time ago. Let’s not have any of this “it seems like yesterday” nonsense. If 1979 really does seem like yesterday, there is something seriously wrong with you.

Despite its name, this book actually begins in 1979. It is now 2013. The same amount of time has passed since 1979 as had passed between it and the end of the Second World War in 1945. When the same amount of time has passed again, it will be 2047. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find things have changed a fair bit. In 1979, you wouldn’t have been reading a blog on your phone, a laptop or anywhere else,

Consider:  in 1979, the Labour Prime Minister (a man born before the First World War) was still at ease sitting round the Downing Street table with leading trade union figures. This was a time when some such union leaders spoke openly of Marxist revolution in Britain and believed this was apparently a realistic prospect. Leading Labour figures like Tony Benn spoke of nationalising almost all of British industry to enthusiastic, mostly male, smoke-filled Labour conferences.

Flash forward to 1990 when this book ends and things start to seem a lot more familiar. Not the same but a lot more like now. Seventies fashions had lost their grip.  Nobody had iPods yet but they had Walkmans at least and CDs were already replacing vinyl.  Mobile phones were still rare and huge, but they did at least exist. Channel 4 was now on air and a small minority could now watch BSkyB (although a common joke of the time was that the average person was more likely to get BSE – the human form of mad cow disease- than BSkyB). EastEnders was on.

Meanwhile, strikes were a rarity. The SDP had been and gone. The Labour Party, although still firmly out of power were also a lot more recognisable. Behind the scenes, Peter Mandelson was hard at work. The smoke-filled conference halls were gone. Neil Kinnock, although never a popular figure with the public, was smartly dressed and in command, a far cry from the decent but scruffy Michael Foot. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, then in their late thirties were advancing fast up the Labour ranks. New Labour was on its way.

In my view, the 1980s transformed Britain more than any other peacetime decade in the last 150 years, except perhaps for the 1960s.

Much of this is doubtless due in no small measure to the personality and politics of Margaret Thatcher, who Stewart seems rather a fan of. I am rather less keen. The Lady was undeniably a fine war leader and by the Eighties, union power clearly needed curtailing.

But this was a bad decade for the British economy. Before the ‘Winter of Discontent’ wrecked Labour for more than a decade, the Callaghan Government had been doing a fine job of pulling the UK back from the oil shock, the ‘Barber Boom’ and the errors of Wilson’s final two years. But Callaghan’s gains and those made by the discovery of North Sea oil were squandered by Thatcher’s Monetarist experiment. Soon more than a fifth of the nation’s industrial base had been wiped out forever and high unemployment hung over the rest of the decade like a curse.

This was also the decade where the unrestrained power of the markets took hold and Rupert Murdoch was permitted unprecedented media power by the Thatcher Government. Both of these problems should have been addressed later by Major, Blair or Brown. But the Lady (as the late Alan Clark would lovingly refer to her) is the original source of responsibility here. Crime soared, the health service suffered and homeless levels rose unforgivably under Thatcher. A simple comparison of how the UK fared under her watch and that during Tony Blair’s decade (1997-2007) is damning.

By 1990, she had grown tremendously in confidence to the point of mental instability. Having seen off the ‘Argies’, the miners and Labour (three times: under Callaghan, Foot and Kinnock), she seemed convinced of her own infallibility. She even began speaking about herself using the royal “we” (famously: “we are a grandmother”).

But when she linked her destiny to that of the hated and ultimately unfair Community Charge (or “Poll Tax”) even the Tories recognised she had to go. John Major secured one more win for the Tories in 1992. But twenty-three years on, the Tories have not recovered from her fall. No Tory leader since Major has won a General Election.

This is a slightly badly structured book with hard going chapters about monetarism rubbing shoulders with those about pop music and the singles of Madness. But it’s a story worth retelling especially if you want to terrify your left-leaning children before they go to sleep.

Just remember: don’t have nightmares.