Monday 30 January 2023

Can the Tories Manage a 1992-Style Comeback?

At the weekend, Rishi Sunak gathered the Cabinet together for an away day at Chequers. According to those in the know, they heard a presentation about the Conservative Party's path to victory at the next general election. The assembled were told there is a very narrow route, and one the Tories could take if they are hungry and united enough for it. To add a bit of optimism into the mix, the appropriate conjunctural analogy was not the eve of their drubbing by Tony Blair but five years earlier, prior to John Major's unexpected win in 1992. It's true that desperate people will believe anything that hints at salvation, but even the most hard-of-thinking front bencher surely had trouble swallowing this drivel.

Let's think about the context. When Major took over in November 1990, the government was beset by crisis. The economy was in recession, and millions of mortgage holders were experiencing negative equity on their properties. I.e. They held mortgages worth more than the value of their houses. War in the Gulf looked imminent, and the Tories were trailing Labour in the polls by double digit deficits. Largely thanks to Margaret Thatcher's insistence on sticking with the Poll Tax, following the Trafalgar Square riot and the spread of protests and disorder they were utterly toxic. Sounds not entirely unlike now, with the NHS crisis, energy price inflation inducing economic slowdown, mortgage woes, and added, widespread industrial action by hundreds of thousands of workers.

Yet the Tories under Major were able to come back from this. First, when he took over Major was something of a fresh face. It has been remarked many times since that he rose without a trace in the Tory ranks. He entered Thatcher's cabinet in June 1987 and did a two year stint at the Treasury before his appointment to the foreign office. Within four months he was in Number 11 after the blessed Margaret disposed of Nigel Lawson's services and a year later the top job was his. It would be fair to say Major didn't become a household name in any of these roles. His (loyal) anonymity earned him preferment and, when Thatcher fell, he was in the right place at the right time. Major's easy mannered countenance, which some still find beguiling, contrasted favourably with Thatcher's hectoring, bruising style. As a character, Sunak is certainly more Major where Liz Truss and Boris Johnson were Margaret, but that's as far as it goes. Sunak is a known quantity and was for a time the most popular politician in the country, until the non dom tax dodging/green card affair sapped his standing. Similarly, since taking over Sunak has become associated with the politics of offering nothing, which is politically inept, among other things, at a moment of crisis. A fresh face he is not.

Which brings us to the second point. Major was blessed in that Thatcher was the dung pile toward which flies commuted. Despite having done many awful things in the 80s, the party was significantly less toxic than their most iconic post-war leader. The same cannot be said today now the party has delivered shambles upon disaster upon calamity, with each leader proving more chaotic and damaging than their predecessor. Thirdly, Major was a much more adept politician than Sunak. His first priority was taking the sting out of the Poll Tax, which he was able to do by promising a review under Michael Heseltine, with the nod, nod, wink, wink understanding that abolition was the only sensible outcome. In the mean time, Norman Lamont raised VAT to pay for a universal £140 discount on the tax, before its formal scrapping in March 1991. This did the trick and quickly helped restore Tory fortunes, along with the brief and successfully concluded Operation Desert Storm. Major was also able to paper over emerging divisions in the party on Europe by negotiating British opt outs from the Maastricht Treaty, above all its so-called social chapter that carried Bolshevist policies like guaranteed time off and minimum wages. Despite the recession and inflation running at 15%, his perceived competence - helped by an institutionally stronger Tory press - shielded Major from responsibility for the economic situation he inherited from former chancellor John Major. Sunak has shown none of this political sure-footedness. Major came up through the party and, like Thatcher, did the hard yards as an ordinary member and councillor. When Sunak's parachute landed on Richmond in 2015, his political experience was next to zero. And it shows with recent decisions, and a political strategy that regards doing very little as a virtue.

Lastly, despite surface appearances Sunak's Tories are in a far worse position than Major's were. Johnson was able to erode the party's reputation through persistent lying and chicanery, and Truss delivered the coup de grace by blowing the economy up and turbo charging inflation. All Sunak has managed is continuing with the stabilisation plan put in place by Jeremy Hunt, with some efforts at slick presentation on top. In fact, there is a 1992 John Major comparison that works with today's Tories. The period after Black Wednesday. Over the space of a day, the Tories destroyed their reputation for economic competence by spending billions to keep Britain in the Exchange Rate Mechanism, and all for nothing. It was followed in short order by their plans to close 31 pits with the loss of 31,000 jobs. It came across as vindictive, which Major recognised and regretfully reflected on in his memoirs. Though it was the timing that bothered him, not so the fate of mining communities left to rot. It cratered their electoral standing and there followed a slow, five year-long slide into division and oblivion.

This is where Sunak's Tories are at. A tarnished leader, a broken politics, a damaged party, crisis everywhere exacerbated by paralysed government, sleaze oozing out of every pore, and undergirding it all the Tories' long-term decline is threatening to put them out of office for a generation, if not longer. And no amount of finessing the numbers or inviting comparisons with more favourable moments from times gone by can disguise the hopeless situation they're in. And plenty of Tories know it, which can only mean more bad behaviour, ill-discipline, open corruption, and damaging, desperate attacks on our people in vain efforts to rally whatever's left of the faithful.

Image Credit


Mike Phipps said...

It's not so much that Sunak can emulate Major's 1992 achievement. It's more that Keir Starmer could emulate Neil Kinnock's. Kinnock too carried out a purge of the Party and moved the platform to the right, demoralising the grassroots in the process. In 1992, Labour's manifesto was still substantially to the left of the Tories' - hence the fierce hostility of the print media - contrast 1997 when Blair was a safer bet. To give him credit, I think Starmer is still well to the left of the Tories and he too will get monstered in the media on the same basis as Kinnock, primarily that he can't say where he will get the money from to implement his wish list; and secondarily, that if he treats his own Party with such ruthlessness, how will he treat the country? - Mike Phipps

Mark Perryman said...

I agree with Mike.

Anonymous said...

Except that, in reality, Starmer is polling *much* better than Kinnock was in the run up to 1992 (no, not as well as Blair pre-1997)

The harsh reality is that angry ultra-online Corbynistas are a tiny minority in the actual real world - and it really is time that they faced up to the fact that however fervently they hope for Labour to lose next time so that they can be "proved right", the likelihood of this actually happening is almost literally decreasing by the day.

Anonymous said...

Starmer is by no means to the left of Sunak! There's absolutely no evidence of that. He's been treated with kid gloves by the media. Labour are the preferred winners this election for the establishment : Starmer has signalled that nothing will change and meanwhile the Tories have a chance to recuperate before taking over again.

gastrogeorge said...

So much Labour right comment is pure projection. There are few on the Left "fervently hoping" for a Labour defeat, unlike the previous active sabotage of the Labour right. The Left is mainly interested in policies and outcomes.