With only six weeks to go until the General Election, a look back at the Conservatives’ record during the Major government, and the rapid succession of leaders who followed Major.
The penultimate chapter of my new book about Tory history.
11 The Nasty Party 1991-2004
Within a few weeks of John Major becoming Prime Minister, he took Britain into the Gulf War, committing the armed forces to support the USA in attacking Iraq at the start of 1991, following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait the previous year. An international coalition, led by the USA, defeated Iraq in the war, and liberated the Kuwaiti oil fields, for the benefit of the western world. At home Europe remained a major issue, with the formation in 1991 of the Anti-Federalist League, a pressure group which opposed European integration. Meanwhile the Conservatives carried legislation to replace the Poll Tax with the Council Tax, leading to the latter taking effect in 1993, and gaining acceptance as a fairer means to finance local government. A General Election was held in April 1992. For much of the campaign it appeared likely that Labour would win, but John Major and the Conservatives retained power. The Conservatives won 336 seats, Labour 271, the Liberal Democrats 20, the Ulster Unionist Party 9, and others 15. The Conservatives’ majority was reduced to 21 seats, although the party’s vote of 14,093,007 surpassed that of Labour in 1951 as the highest yet for a single party.
In September 1992 currency speculation forced the withdrawal of Sterling from the ERM. Major’s government struggled through the next few years, being weakened by divisions among the Conservatives over Britain’s role in the European Community, which evolved into the European Union. There was also Conservative mismanagement of the economy, and unemployment increased to above 3,000,000 in February 1993. A few months later, Major narrowly avoided defeat in the House of Commons over the European Union Maastricht treaty, due to the “Maastricht Rebels” group of Conservative MPs. In his frustration, Major was overheard telling a television interviewer, when he thought the microphones were off, about the problems caused by “bastards” in his Cabinet. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) was now formed, as a replacement for the Anti-Federalist League, and several of the “Maastricht Rebels” subsequently join UKIP.
Sleaze and scandal led to several ministerial resignations. David Mellor, Secretary of State for National Heritage, resigned in 1992, following revelations of his affair with Antonia de Sancha, an aspiring actress. Mellor was also damaged by circulation of knowledge that he took a holiday with Mona Bauwens, the daughter of Jaweed al-Ghussein, financier for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, a couple of years earlier – Mona Bauwens paid for the holiday. This was followed by the departure in 1993 of Michael Mates, a minister in the Northern Ireland office, whose career dropped to a low-point due to support for Asil Nadir, a fugitive businessman. At the Conservative Party Conference in October 1993, Major called for a “back to basics” campaign, the idea being that the Conservatives could lead Britain back to traditional values, based around decency, courtesy, and the family. It was an audacious move by Major, who previously had an affair with Edwina Currie, a fellow Conservative MP, which lasted from 1984 to 1988, but somehow remained secret until Currie revealed all – publishing her diaries in 2002.
The Conservatives were heavily defeated in a European Union election, held in June 1994, winning only 18 of the 81 seats across the United Kingdom. Labour won 62 seats, during the interim Leadership of Margaret Beckett, following the death during May of John Smith, who had replaced Neil Kinnock as Labour Leader in 1992. Tony Blair was elected Leader of the Labour Party in July 1994, and set about a re-branding of the party, which reduced its Socialist drive, but made it more electable. During October, Tim Smith and Neil Hamilton resigned from the government, having been caught receiving cash to ask questions in the House of Commons. Hamilton was embroiled in legal action stretching across several years, lost his seat in Parliament at the next General Election, and subsequently joined UKIP. In 1995 John Major called a Conservative Leadership election, in view of party intrigues against him, and defeated the challenger, John Redwood, by 218 votes to 89. The government’s majority was gradually eroded, due to By-Election defeats, along with the withdrawal of the whip from rebellious MPs, leading to the Conservatives being placed in a minority from 1996. Major delayed calling a General Election until the end of a five year term.
In May 1997 Labour won a General Election, with 419 seats, and a majority of 179, ending 18 years of Conservative rule, and starting a new era in British politics. The Conservatives were reduced to 165 seats, their smallest total since 1906. The Liberal Democrats won 46 seats, the Ulster Unionists 10, and the others 19. Major resigned as Conservative Leader, and a Leadership election was held in June. William Hague became the youngest ever Leader of the Conservatives, at the age of 36, beating Kenneth Clarke by 90 votes to 72 in the third ballot, following the elimination of Michael Howard and John Redwood, plus the withdrawal of Peter Lilley. The Labour government, led by Tony Blair, took office pledged to carry out a wide-ranging programme of reform. Labour achieved a great deal, defeating Conservative attempts to halt progress, while William Hague failed to give a strong lead to the latter party. Hague’s attempt to modernise the Conservative Party’s image included a comical visit to a theme park, with his Chief of Staff, Sebastian Coe, who was a former Olympic athlete and Conservative MP. Hague carried out some reorganisation of the Conservative Party, which led to it agreeing a formal party constitution, for the first time, in 1998, at which point a National Conservative Convention replaced the National Union. Until this point, the Conservative Party was the only major British political party without a written constitution. This lack of a consti¬tution allowed the leadership to maintain its dominance of the party, by denying rights to the membership. In a sequel to the sleaze of the Major government, Jonathan Aitken, a minister in that administration, was imprisoned in 1999, having been convicted of perjury. This stemmed from a dishonest libel action by Aitken, who challenged reports of his links with shady capitalists from Saudi Arabia when he was a minister.
Labour carried the National Minimum Wage Act in 1998, a measure that the Conservatives opposed. The Blair government also founded Sure Start, and improved the National Health Service. Following approval in referendums held in the respective nations during 1997, the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly were set up in 1999. These bodies successfully implemented a measure of self-government for Scotland and, to a lesser extent, Wales, which continues to develop. There were also major changes in the political situation in Northern Ireland, and the virtual ending of terrorist violence in the province – a positive contrast to the Unionist sectarian policies of the Tories. The changes followed from the Belfast Agreement (generally known as the Good Friday agreement) reached between the governments of Britain and the Republic of Ireland in April 1998. The agreement was approved the following month in separate referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Northern Ireland Assembly was created in 1999, and began to take responsibility for devolved government, bringing together Catholics and Protestants. The House of Lords Act 1999, passed after some resistance by Conservatives, removed the hereditary peers, apart from a group of 92 members, whose position in the Lords was maintained by their winning a ballot amongst the hereditary peers.
The Human Rights Act 1998, incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, was a fine achievement of the Labour government, but the Conservative focus lay elsewhere. During that year Augusto Pinochet, the former Fascist dictator of Chile, was arrested on a visit to Britain, and held under house arrest, pending possible extradition to Spain, to face trial for crimes committed by his regime. In 1999 Margaret Thatcher made a speech – to a fringe meeting – at the Conservative Party conference, for the first time since her downfall as Prime Minister, calling for the release of Pinochet. Thatcher celebrated the actions of Pinochet’s Fascist dictatorship, claiming that it had built a “prosperous democratic order”. Thatcher failed to mention that Pinochet had ordered the murder of countless thousands of people. Thatcher also visited Pinochet, who she described as a friend. After a protracted legal battle, Pinochet was released in 2000 and allowed to return to Chile, on the questionable grounds that he was too frail to face a trial.
The Conservatives won the European Union election held in June 1999, with 36 seats ahead of Labour’s 29, while the Liberal Democrats took 10 seats, and the others 12. Nevertheless Hague was held in low esteem by much of the general public. Michael Portillo, a member of the Major government who lost his seat at the 1997 General Election, was returned to the Commons in a By-Election at the end of 1999. Portillo was given a prominent role in the Shadow Cabinet by Hague in early 2000, and appeared to be a possible rival. Another shadow from the past arrived later in the year, as Jeffrey Archer was charged with committing perjury in his 1987 libel case, and promptly suspended from the Conservative Party by Hague. Archer was subsequently tried, convicted, and imprisoned. Part of the trial coincided with a General Election campaign, with polling on June 7 2001. Labour retained power, winning 413 seats, and a majority of 167. The Conservatives won 166 seats, a gain of just one seat compared with the previous Election, while the Liberal Democrats took 52 seats, and the others 28.
William Hague immediately resigned as Conservative Leader, and the process to replace him started with ballots among the party’s MPs a few days later. After three ballots, Kenneth Clarke and Iain Duncan Smith eliminated Michael Portillo, David Davis, and Michael Ancram. The top two in the MPs’ poll then went forward to a contest in which party members had a vote, with Iain Duncan Smith winning by 61 per cent to Clarke’s 39 per cent when the result was announced, in September. Duncan Smith was helped by an announcement of support from Margaret Thatcher, who favoured his Eurosceptic line, whereas Clarke had long been an enthusiast for the development of the European Union.
IDS, as he became widely known, had been elected to Parliament 1992, and joined the Conservative front bench after the 1997 Election defeat. He was the first Roman Catholic to lead the Conservative Party. Duncan Smith proved to be a weak leader, whose authority rapidly declined. He sacked David Davis from the role of Party Chairman, and appointed Theresa May in July 2002, as she became the first woman chair of the party. A few months later, May told the Conservative Party Conference “There’s a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us? The Nasty Party”. The phrase “Nasty Party” was increasingly used by opponents of the Conservatives over the next few years. During 2003, Duncan Smith was troubled by the “Betsygate” scandal, being accused of improper use of public money in paying his wife, Betsy, in her role as his diary secretary. A Parliamentary investigation concluded that Duncan Smith had not broken the rules, but he and Betsy appeared to have benefitted from confusion over the rules.
On October 29 2003 Duncan Smith lost a vote of confidence among Conservative MPs, by a margin of 90 to 75. Michael Howard became the next Leader, being elected unopposed on November 6. Howard, who had served in government under Thatcher and Major from 1990 to 1997, was an improvement compared to Duncan Smith. Tony Blair’s reputation was now damaged by the perception that his government had exchanged clarity for the tales of its “spin doctors”. The government’s handling of the Iraq war, in the Spring of 2003, and its aftermath, particularly undermined Blair’s standing. The case for participation in the war against Iraq hinged on the claim that Saddam Hussein was readily able to deploy weapons of mass destruction. It soon became clear that Blair had exaggerated the extent of the threat from the Iraqis, and during 2004 Michael Howard made an impact, leading Conservative pressure on the government. In June of that year the Conservatives managed an unconvincing victory in the European Union election, with only 27 per cent of the vote. The Conservatives won 27 seats, Labour 19, UKIP 12, the Liberal Democrats 12, and the others 8.