past week has been one of great loss for Britain. It has also contained an
anniversary which has, not surprisingly, gone unremarked: it is now 21 years
since the Conservative Party last won a general election with an overall
Some will recall 9 April 1992 more clearly than most – not
least the man who then headed the Conservative Research Department’s Political
Section. Can that 25 year-old aide to John Major have imagined, that despite its
fourth consecutive victory and 14 million votes (a total which remains a
record), his party’s standing with the public would be reversed within a year –
and that the next Conservative Prime Minister to enter Number 10 would be him?
It falls to David Cameron to emulate Major in leading the
Tories to an unexpected victory. Two decades of shifting demographics and
social attitudes challenge British Conservatives just as they do the
Republicans in the United States. But it is worth reflecting on what the past can tell us
– and I think Cameron can draw inspiration from the 1992 campaign he helped to
John Major had a number of advantages. One was that after
only 16 months in office, people were willing to give him the chance to show
what he could do (the same chance they would have given Gordon Brown in 2007).
Another advantage was Neil Kinnock. Cameron can take no comfort from the first,
but nor should he from the second: while many potential Labour voters find Ed
Miliband unconvincing, they do not see him as a liability.
A further advantage, more applicable to today, was public
concern about the economy. Ipsos MORI’s polling archive reveals that, in
election years since 1979, when an economic issue has dominated the agenda the
Conservatives have won – or Labour have lost. Inflation was the public’s biggest
concern in 1979, unemployment in 1983, 1987 and 1992, and the economy in
general in 2010. In 1997, 2001 and 2005, the most important issue for voters
was the NHS. The economy remains top of the list today, and looks likely to stay
there until the next election and beyond.
History also shows that prospects for a governing party are
unconnected to economic optimism. Voters were slightly more likely to be
optimistic than pessimistic on the eve of the 1992 election; but in 1997, they
were optimistic by a much bigger margin, for all the good it did Mr Major.
Similarly, net pessimism about the economy did Tony Blair no harm in 2005.
Elections are a choice not a referendum; whatever the situation, voters will
decide who can handle it best (or least badly).
But there was more to Major’s victory than the benefit of the
doubt and a dream opponent. In the two years before the election, the Tory
campaign built consistently on the theme of “opportunity for all”, both in tone
and content. The rhetoric was matched by a coherent plan, which included the
expansion of higher education, and the commitment to choice and accountability
in public services. Tory motives were trusted to the extent that Labour failed
to make a number of campaign lies stick (while five years later, their baseless
claim that the Conservatives would privatise the state pension system quickly
gained currency). Though mocked in some quarters, the talk of a classless society
signalled a commitment to social mobility, the idea that we wanted to include
rather than exclude, that we were for everyone.
These things were more important than the negative campaign
against Labour which, admittedly, was relentless. Many feared that a Labour
government would raise taxes, and that certainly helped. But they didn’t think
this because we told them to, even if “Labour’s double whammy” entered the
language for a time (and how many could name the second whammy?) Labour had
promised to spend more, and voters did not believe its assurance that the
inevitable tax rises would be confined to the better off.
Recalling the 1992 election is a melancholy exercise for
Conservatives because we know how the story ends. Within months the government
was engulfed by a series of fiascos which dragged on for four and a half years until
the electorate put us out of our misery.
When Cameron entered parliament in 2001, the party had hardly
come to terms with its trouncing. It still hadn’t done so by 2005 when, drawing
on Smell The Coffee,
my analysis of the Conservative predicament, he became the first leader to
grasp the scale of the transformation needed. But by the 2010 election the Tories
had not done enough to show that the change people wanted from Gordon Brown’s
Labour government was the same as the change they were offering. In 2013, though
it leads on managing the economy and taking tough decisions for the long term, the
Conservative Party has a way to go to win back the reputation as a party for
those who want to do well – or just continue to get by – as well as those who
have already succeeded.
Ultimately, the lesson of 1992 is that a party of competence
and decency, that can show it wants to improve opportunity for everyone, is a
powerful force. So powerful, in fact, that it wins every time. Will 23 years be
enough time to become that party again, or will we have to wait 28 years with
yet another leader to have the chance again? The bookmakers have their view.
Let us hope they are wrong.