Twenty years ago today, the opinion pollsters were in for a long and embarrassing night. Well before the polls opened, everyone knew the result. Throughout the previous weeks, Labour had held a comfortable and steady lead in the opinion polls. The bookmakers had offered 7/1 against a Tory victory – and, absurdly, 9/4 against the Tories being the largest party. Then came the only poll that mattered.
Eight per cent ahead of Labour, John Major secured over 14 million votes, which was and remains a record. Given that the country was in recession, it was a remarkable achievement. How did he do it? There are two simple explanations: his strength and his opponent's weakness. Major served his political apprenticeship in the tough streets of Lambeth, often standing on a soap-box, which might have been designed to provoke Leftie hecklers.
In 1992, he went back to his roots. The detectives in charge of his security were alarmed. The advertising men were horrified. But day after day, Major climbed on his soap-box and addressed his audience, almost always competing with chanting protesters. Neil Kinnock fought a more conventional campaign. At glitzy, stage-managed events, he would prance on to the stage, punching the air like a boxing promoter. It made orthodox television, especially in contrast to Major, leaning into the microphone to make himself heard, looking so old-fashioned, so unglamorous.
One should never anthropomorphise an electorate. It is mere intellectual idleness to claim that in 1992, the British people decided. They did no such thing. Fourteen million voters made their own individual decisions. Even so, the temptation to invent a collective consciousness is irresistible. It was as if the British people did decide that here was a decent man, a sincere man, a good man who deserved to be re-elected.
It was not all due to Major's qualities. The contrast with Kinnock was so helpful to the Tories. He could not help it; the voters looked behind the stage-management, and saw the real man: grinning, cocky, shallow. The infamous Sheffield rally was Kinnock at his worst, and most authentic. Although we should not rush to make excuses for the pollsters, there must have been a late swing. It was as if, realising that it was now make-up-mind time, the British people, who had been intending to vote Labour, thought: Kinnock as Prime Minister; no, no, no. This is supposed to be a serious country.
So Major returned in triumph to Ten Downing Street, to find that it had been renamed in his absence: Calvary. Five months later, British was blown out of the ERM. The Laocoon toils of Maastricht followed. It was, and remains, easy to argue that in purely economic terms, the ERM worked well for Britain: joining it when we did, leaving it when we did. Normally, the collapse of a fixed-exchange-rate policy is accompanied by a collapse of economic and monetary confidence. But as soon as the UK left the ERM, interest rates were cut. Our counter-inflationary credentials were unimpaired.
That is economics. Politics was another matter. As in 1949 and 1967, devaluation inflicted huge damage on the Government's political reputation. Fixed exchange-rates involve an insuperable moral hazard. In effect, in order to defend them, politicians have to lie. The parity comes under pressure; the interviewers claim that it is unsustainable. If the Prime Minister or Chancellor show any hesitancy under fire, the markets will trample the Pound to death in their rush for the exit. But if the policy disintegrates anyway, it is no use telling the voters that it was a mere white lie in a good cause. The government's credibility will be full of shell-holes.
So even without Maastricht, there would have been trouble. With Maastricht, it was lasciate ogni speranza: the Tory party was swept into the Inferno. This was all so unnecessary. Major had won the two vital opt-outs, on the Single Currency and the Social Chapter. If Margaret Thatcher had still been Prime Minister, that would have been enough for her. Charles Powell, who knew her mind better than anyone else in politics and who was the principal author of the Bruges speech, has always insisted that she would have signed Maastricht, had she been able to negotiate it.
The Tory party, meanwhile, was evolving in a healthily Eurosceptic direction. All was set fair, until the mutineers tried to sink the ship. It would have been hard – probably impossible – to win the 1997 Election. That was no excuse for turning a defeat into a massacre. The Maastricht rebels have two successes to their credit, and one near-success. They cost their party at least 60 seats. They were responsible for losing the opt-out from the Social Chapter. If Tony Blair had possessed one-tenth of Margaret Thatcher's political courage, they might also have been responsible for losing the pound.
Matthew Parris has put forward an explanation for the Tory party's descent into insanity. In 1990, it had committed matricide. Henceforth, it was pursued by the Furies. Margaret Thatcher's blood cried out for vengeance. With no means of expiating its crime, the Tory party could not find peace. That might seem fanciful, until one recalls the events of 1992/97. It might seem necessary to delve into myth and anthropology – and certainly into the literature of psychosis – to explain why the Tory tribe lost its head.
In so doing, it destroyed poor John Major's Premiership. If all PMs had soubriquets, his would be "the unhappy Prime Minister". He had to watch, helplessly, while the lunatics overran the asylum. Yet there is a solid record of achievement to chronicle. There is also an irony. Back in November 1990, under the old Party Leadership rules, everything had to happen at a gallop. Mrs Thatcher resigned the leadership. Within hours, the Major campaign was under way, with rapid improvisation. In the Major camp, we had an unspoken anxiety; there was no time to talk about it, and anyway, it was too late. Was John ready for the top job?
One one point, there were no doubts. The man was obviously a political genius. He was about to become the youngest PM since Rosebery. Rosebery had been at Eton and Oxford. Himself bred to the purple, he had also bred Derby winners. A mere graduate from the university of life, John had – briefly – been an illegal bookie's look-out boy. Even so, he was marching on Number Ten after a shorter Commons innings of any Prime Minister who had served in the Lower House since the Great Reform Bill. So the conclusion was inescapable. This must be an awesome politician.
That would not be enough. A Gulf War was imminent, as were crucial European dealings. Inflation was in double figures and the economy was in recession. Oh, and something had to be done to sort out the Poll Tax. Was young Mr Major really up to such a daunting agenda. Events provided the answer: yes, and triumphantly so. He not only dealt with the agenda he inherited. He also made a crucial contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process. Above all, he left the economy in such admirable shape that Labour had to work really hard over many years to wreck it. Major has nothing to fear from the judgment of history. Every time there is a serious reassessment, his standing will rise.
But he was not only an unhappy Prime Minister – he was an unlucky one. In 1992, he beat Labour by eight points, which gave him a majority of 21. Richard Ryder, the then Chief Whip, guessed what was coming. "Twenty-one – and on any issue you care to mention, I could field two XLs of loonies". In 1997, Tony Blair beat John Major by eight points. Because of the way the electoral cards fell, he had a majority of 167. The Tory party is the national party or it is nothing. Yet from 1992 until 1997, many MPs deserted that high and glorious vocation. So Britain prospered, and the Tory party suffered. It was the most unworthy, the most shameful, period in Tory history. All Tories should learn the lesson.