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 7: 2005

Blair 2005 mainPortsmouth, Hampshire, May 2005

“Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”

This was the Tories’ brilliant slogan for the 2005 election. As it turned out, we weren’t thinking what they were thinking, unless they too were thinking, why have we picked Michael Howard as our leader?

Indeed, half the time we didn’t know what the Tories were thinking. Why had they replaced the unelectable William Hague with the even more unelectable Iain Duncan Smith in 2001? Surely the worst opposition leader of all time, they chose him over the comparatively brilliant Ken Clarke and Michael Portillo. In another eccentric decision, Michael Howard was chosen – unopposed – as Tory leader in 2003. Howard had been an unmitigated disaster as Home Secretary under Major and had actually come last in the Tory leadership contest in 1997 even behind the likes of Peter Lilley and John Redwood.

Prescott 2005

The Tories managed to be wrong on the key issue of the day too: the Iraq War. They were even keener to go in than Blair was. Like many people I was opposed because a) Iraq had nothing to do with September 11th b) the Bush administration seemed to have sinister reasons of their own for going in and c) they seemed to have little plan for what to do afterwards.

I even took part in the London February 15th 2003 anti-war march or at least the first half of it, abandoning it along with one of my friends to go to Pizza Hut (this isn’t mentioned in Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday). I felt guilty over this at the time but I’m reasonably now satisfied now that the war would still have gone ahead had we completed the march.

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I did a few Labour-y things during my 2001-04 stint in Peterborough. I met the former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, went to see Tony Benn doing a talk (then just retired as an MP) and was interviewed for a position to run the campaign of Peterborough MP Helen Clark (she would lose to Tory Stewart Jackson in 2005, the exact opposite of the 2001 result).

Despite all this, I seriously considered voting Liberal Democrat. Only the facts that Helen Clark had voted against the war and the fact that my voting Lib Dem could help the pro-war Jackson win swayed me.

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At any rate, I was not in Peterborough but in Portsmouth in 2005, at the very end of a six month Magazine Journalism course at Highbury College. I’d been reviewing films and DVDs for Peterborough-based free magazine ESP and had had more work since doing the course contributing to SFX magazine, the Charles and Camilla Royal Wedding edition of Radio Times, several local mags and (bizarrely for me) a sports journal. I was 28 years old and finally seemed to have worked out what I wanted to do.

The day after the election was actually the day of my Public Affairs exam on politics and government. It was a bizarre dilemma. Were my interests best served by more revision and an early night or by watching the election results? In the end, I did both. The only campaign activity I witnessed was a local debate between the local candidates. The UKIP man had been by far the most entertaining. Portsmouth’s outgoing Labour MP Syd Rapston was a slow-witted man best known for being duped by Chris Morris’s satire Brass Eye into publicly condemning the “made-up drug” Cake.

Some seemed surprised Labour’s national majority dropped by about 100, but, in truth, this was still a good result. I passed my course and returned briefly to Peterborough. I had interviews at Local Government and Inside Soap magazine and did some holiday cover at Radio Times. In June 2005, I was offered a job at DVD Monthly in Exeter, Devon. I had had girlfriends but was single then and thus unencumbered I went down south. I did not know for sure even where I was going to live on the day of my departure.

Ten years on, I have lived in Exeter ever since (2017 update: this is still true).

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