The 2001 General Election and the ‘Strange Death of Tory England’.
It’s the Conservative strategist Lynton Crosby, who claims ‘There are no truisms in politics, yet the media always try to perpetuate truisms’.
There were plenty being bandied about last month when Theresa May called the General Election. Headlines ranging from ‘Are we witnessing the strange, lingering death of Labour England?’ to ‘How the slow death of Labour might happen’ and ‘Brexit will be the death of Labour’ were quick to condemn the party to eternal defeat.
From 1997 to 2005, the same was being written about the Conservative Party. The political journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft penned a whole book about ‘The Strange Death of Tory England’ – a high recommended read. He depicted a moribund party, irrelevant to the modern age, who had yet to come to terms with the legacy of Thatcherism and anything substantial to combat the rise of New Labour.
The 2001 election, in particular, would be a remarkable achievement in the history of the Labour Party. Not only did Blair manage to achieve the elusive full second term, something that had evaded all previous Labour leaders, he saw the party maintain its three figure majority. Every other Labour peak (1929, 1945, and 1966) has been followed by steep decline at the next election.
For the Conservatives, this defeat felt worse than 1997. Anthony Seldon wrote that the party had ‘experienced their most futile period in opposition in the last 100 years. It was an utterly black period which was also was largely avoidable.’
Blair’s ‘quiet landslide’ seems all the more remarkable when we assess the mood of the electorate in 2001. Many voters, who had backed New Labour in 1997, felt let down by a government that had promised to transform public life but failed to deliver the radical change in the first term.
The ‘British social attitudes survey’ showed dissatisfaction with the NHS and we were still a year away from Brown’s cash injection in 2002. In the run up to the 2001 Election, there were many opportunities for the Tories to attack Labour as the fuel crisis, foot and mouth disease and general disenchantment with public services tested the public’s faith in New Labour.
However, the Conservatives were engaged in a bitter battle for the internal mechanics and soul of the party, a party that on balance, the British electorate did not think was worth saving.
Into the Wilderness
The 1997 election was a total disaster for the Tories. The swing to Labour of 9% was the largest for any party since 1945 and the Labour majority of 179 seats was the largest for any party since 1935.
As Blair enjoyed an extended honeymoon, the Conservative leadership contest was seen as an irrelevance, with the media lamenting the absence of the charismatic Heseltine and Portillo from the contest. Heseltine had initially the bookmaker’s favourite, with William Hill offering odds of 7/4 on him winning. However, after he was admitted to hospital suffering angina pains, he pulled out of the race.
This denied the Tories the opportunity of a straight fight between the two factions within the party and the talent lost was palpable. In addition to Portillo, six other cabinet members had lost their seats at the election; Malcolm Rifkind, Ian Lang, Michael Forsyth, Tony Newton, William Waldegrave and Roger Freeman. The press speculated about Chris Patten returning to Westminster (he had lost his seat in the 1992 election) and standing. The contest took place before Patten’s term of office as Governor of Hong Kong ended.
The leadership election attracted five candidates; Michael Howard, Peter Lilley, John Redwood, Ken Clarke and William Hague. Had the Party been looking to the electorate at large, Ken Clarke would have been a popular candidate within the grassroots and the wider electorate.
Clarke was also the preferred choice for the Labour Party. An internal memo entitled ‘After the landslide, the Tory civil war’ claimed Clarke would alienate the party’s Eurosceptic donors. The memo derided Redwood as a ‘Vulcan’ and gave Hague the nickname ‘Keeping it Vague’.
Hague quickly emerged from the field as the favourite. He appealed to the Euro-sceptics within by claiming: ‘I would fight the next general election on the platform that we would not abolish the pound, that we would oppose further political integration in Europe’.
In a last ditch attempt to save his campaign, Clarke and Redwood formed a pact, that would see Redwood become Clarke’s hadow chancellor. This infuriated Thatcher who immediately came out in favour of William Hague. Having only been in Parliament for eight years, Hague became the party’s youngest leader since Pitt, beating Ken Clarke on the second ballot by 92 votes to 70.
Initially Hague looked to modernise the party and he used his first speech to talk about a ‘democratic revolution’ within. Not only did he want members to elect the party leader, he wanted to increase party membership from 400k to 1 million. He claimed one of the benefits of being in opposition, is having the time to listen and reconnect with party members. He outlined his idea of ‘Fresh Conservatism’ with a commitment to Thatcherite free market economics – more privatisation and strong opposition to joining the Euro.
Hague’s attempt at reform did not please the right wing press. On the eve of their 1998 party conference, The Sun pronounced it dead and buried as a credible political force. In a brutal front-page editorial, it said the Tories had committed suicide with their stance on Europe: ‘Like Monty Python’s parrot, it has fallen off its perch’. But they offered reassurance to their readers
“The Conservative Party is survived by three adopted sons: Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson.’
Their strongest criticism was saved for Michael Heseltine who was ‘displaying disloyalty, disunity and a death wish’ for supporting the Euro.
There were increasing signs of mature reflection and analysis of their 1997 defeat, which only increased in 1999 when Portillo returned to Parliament. He had reacted to his public humiliation by stepping back from politics and embarking on an open and prolonged period of self-analysis and reflection. This included admitting to a gay experience at university, and calling for the party to welcome homosexuals and ethnic minorities.
By 2000, it was reported that Portillo was the only MP that Labour strategists were electorally afraid of, having moved his position on a number of issues. During his time as shadow chancellor he ditched opposition to the minimum wage, Bank of England independence and modified Hague’s tax pledges. If you look at today’s Labour Party, not a single MP has been on a similar process of reflection.
This was not confined to Portillo either. Ken Clarke with Europe and Lilley with the size of the state attempted to move the party forward, to reconnect the party with the modern electorate. This attempt to reach out to disaffected voters was laid out in ‘Kitchen Table Conservatives’, intending to offer a vision of ‘a fresh, inclusive, open and accountable modern conservatism.’
However, Hague’s position as leader was always in question in the media. In his first year, he embarked on several embarrassing attempts to portray himself as a modern man. These included the infamous trip to Flambards theme park wearing a baseball cap with ‘Team Hague’ emblazoned on the front.
Then, In a GQ magazine interview in August 1999, he attempted to portray himself as a ‘New Lad’ recalling tales of a youth spent drinking fourteen pints a day. Much of the media rebuffed his boasting and the pub landlord, where he supposedly drank the pints, branded him, ‘a lying little toad.’
Fearing for his leadership, he embarked on a course ‘crude right wing populism’ consisting of attacks on the liberal elite, anti-immigration rhetoric and vehement opposition to the euro.
Blair and Brown looked to give the party enough rope to hang themselves. The repeal of Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act would put the party in an ideologically difficult position. Hague immediately declared his support for upholding Section 28 and maintaining the ban on promoting homosexuality in schools. He claimed Blair was guilty of contempt for parents and taxpayers.
This enabled Shaun Woodward to defect to Labour claiming the Tories ‘‘have become increasingly less tolerant and our attitudes seem to be based more on prejudice than reason’.
Looking at the ‘British Social Attitudes’ from 2001 only illuminates how the Tories had not moved with the mood of the electorate. In 1985 70% of the population had believed that homosexuality was wrong. By 2001, this was down to just 47%.
No smoke without Fire
Hague looked to solidify his base support by appointing the darling of the grassroots Anne Widdecombe as shadow home secretary. Hague had said of her that ‘If the Common Sense Revolution was a person it would be Ann Widdecombe’.
In 2000, at party conference she promised £100 fines and criminal records for possession of the smallest amount of cannabis. The police denounced the policy immediately, claiming that it would be impossible to enforce. Andrew Neil declared it ‘bonkers’ and even the Daily Telegraph claimed said she has ‘announced zero tolerance of drugs again yesterday – but… unfortunately displayed almost zero common sense’.
By the end of the day, 7 members of Hague’s shadow cabinet confessed to smoking cannabis in their youth. It looked like a concerted effort to undermine her and make her look out of touch, and young Conservatives like George Osborne seemed to revel in her failure. There were more media gaffes such as Hague’s trip to Notting Hill carnival, and ‘policy on the hoof’ such as support for the Tony Martin case.
As the 2001 Election approached, Hague gave his most controversial speech in which he warned that Britain after a second Labour term would become a ‘foreignland’. He called for tough action on asylum seekers and detention camps for all applicants. The speech was widely condemned in the press; even the Sun argued ‘It flirted with extremism and left a nasty taste in the mouth’
The Tories continued to focus on the issue of Asylum. In March 2001, MP John Townend claimed immigration was undermining ‘our homogenous AngloSaxon society.’ Despite calls to remove the whip from Townend, Hague claimed that as Townend was retiring shortly it would be a mere ‘gesture’.
Then the Conservative peer Lord Taylor threatened to resign from the party unless Hague took action. He delivered a stunning put down:
The leader of the Conservative party prides himself on his judo and 14 pints a day macho image. Now is his chance to demonstrate real macho leadership by withdrawing the whip from Mr Townend and booting him out of the Conservative party.
Finally, a month after Townend’s comments, he was forced into an apology, yet the row had ensured Hague looked like a weak leader who could not control his MPs.
The Quiet Landslide
In what seems like an alternative universe now, the Daily Express called on its readers to return Tony Blair to power,
“We must return Mr Blair with a popular mandate big enough to allow him to bring about the radical reform he has promised in a second term, Only then can Labour complete the work it began in 1997 to make Britain a truly modern democracy ready for the changes of the 21st century.”
They joined The Times and the FT in supporting Labour for the first time. The Government began its campaign with the announcement that the mortgage rate was at its lowest in 40 years and full employment figures. They released a PPB with the song ‘Lifted’ by The Lighthouse Family, and pushed celebrity endorsement form Geri Halliwell, Ross Kemp and the cast of Hollyoaks
The Tories did seize the agenda in the first week of the campaign. Hague did this with the early publication of his manifesto, and policies on tax cuts and crime. Hague attempted to portray Blair as weak, for refusing to debate him on TV. He claimed:
‘It isn’t too late to have a television debate between the party leaders. I’ll meet him anytime, anyplace. I’ll clear my schedule anytime in the remaining 14 days of this campaign to have a debate about education, health, tax, crime, asylum, and all the other issues in this campaign.”
He accused the media of focussing on his leadership, and not the policy issues. But they continued to court negative media attention, including an attack from former PM Ted Heath, that Hague had become a ‘laughing stock’ and that his policies made no sense.
On May 13th, an ICM poll claimed that middle class backing for the Tories had dropped to 17% while 59% backed Labour. Nevertheless, all governing parties have them, and on May 16th, Labour suffered its historic ‘wobble’.
On the day of the manifesto launch, John Prescott threw a punch at a man who had thrown an egg at him. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, was heckled at a Police Federation meeting and Tony Blair was harassed outside a hospital over patient waiting times.
Public opinion however did not budge. It still showed Labour returning with a healthy majority. Hague was hit by further turmoil when a Treasury spokesman, Oliver Letwin, talked of slashing public spending by £20 billion. Although they stated their aim was to make savings of around £8 billion, Letwin ‘disappeared’ and was not seen in the campaign again.
As the campaign drew to a close, Hague made a last-ditch appeal to ‘burst Tony Blair’s bubble’ by pleading with voters to reduce his majority – a battle cry that conceded defeat before the first polling stations opened on 7 June. Labour did fear the ‘Queensland effect’ which i’ve written about before here Should the Tories fear ‘The Queensland Effect’?
With a week to go, betting firm Ladbrokes paid out on a Labour victory with the odds having fallen from 1/40 to 1/50 through the campaign.
In the end, Labour achieved its second landslide, obtaining a majority of 167, higher than anything Margaret Thatcher had achieved.
For the Tories, the image of the ‘Nasty Party’ could not be shaken off. Ironically, it would be Theresa May who tackled the issue head on in 2002. She told the party conference:
In recent years a number of politicians have behaved disgracefully and then compounded their offences by trying to evade responsibility. We all know who they are. Let’s face it some of them have stood on this platform…No more glib moralising. No more hypocritical finger wagging.’
This allowed David Cameron to exorcise the ghosts of Thatcherism. In his victory speech, he outlined his vision for modern ‘compassionate’ conservatism
He claimed ‘We will change the way we look. Nine out of 10 Conservative MPs, like me, are white men. We need to change the scandalous under representation of women in the Conservative party and we’ll do that. We need to change the way we feel. No more grumbling about modern Britain. I love this country as it is not as it was and I believe our best days lie ahead.
Tony Blair immediately knew, for the first time as leader, that his party were in trouble.