With all the publicity about Labour recent and genuine problems, it’s easy to forget that until comparatively recently, the Tories were in similar dire straits. Tim Bale’s provides an excellent reminder of this.
Perhaps some of you disagree? Well, let’s us consider the electoral hole Labour currently finds itself in. Certainly, the loss of Scotland has been a disaster for the party and opinion polls currently offer few encouraging signs of any nationwide recovery. On the other hand, the Tories have one of their smallest parliamentary majorities since the war. In 2010, at the height of the slump, they didn’t even win a majority at all. Labour have not suffered a heavy General Election defeat since 1987, close to thirty years’ ago.
Compare this to the Tories. In 1990, John Major became Prime Minister inheriting virtually all of Thatcher’s majority from that same 1987 landslide, by then around a 100 with nearly 400 Tory MPs. By the time Major stood down from the leadership in 1997, the party was in opposition, many of the traditional Tory papers had turned on it and barely 160 MPs were left. The Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, the former Chancellor Norman Lamont and Defence Secretary and until that point, presumptive Tory leadership successor Michael Portillo had all lost their seats in the May 1997 Tory bloodbath. Of all the party leaders in the 20th century, only David Lloyd George presided over a similar decline.Things could only get bitter.
This was not all Major’s fault. In fact, he was generally more popular than his party. Thatcher had been leading the party to certain defeat. Major probably saved them in 1992.
The Tories comforted themselves with three things. One,the 1997 New Labour victory was a defeat for the Conservatives, but a victory for conservatism. This turned out not to be true.
Secondly, they tried to pretend they hadn’t really lost by much. The result was a statistical fluke. This wasn’t true either. Labour had won by the second biggest margin in the percentage share of the popular vote achieved since 1945. Their majority of 179 was bigger than any achieved by Attlee or Thatcher. The Tories now had no MPs in Scotland or Wales. The result had been a calamity for them.
However, after their big 1906 and 1945 defeats, the Tories had bounced back quickly. This third point was certainly true.
But it didn’t happen this time. William Hague was a disaster as leader. In the 2001 election, the party made only one net gain. They then compounded their error in 1997, by rejecting more plausible candidates like Ken Clarke or the returned Portillo in favour first of the disastrous Iain Duncan Smith in 2001 and then Michael Howard in 2003! They came tantalisingly close to rejecting David Cameron in favour of the un-electable David Davis following the third substantive Tory defeat in 2005.
Today Labour undeniably have leadership problems. But Tories take heed: within a decade the tables may have turned just as dramatically again.
The Conservative Party From Thatcher To Cameron: Tim Bale (Polity, 2016)