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What if . . . Thatcher had stayed on

Neil Kinnock and Paddy Ashdown led their parties into a pioneering Lab-Lib coalition.

“It's a funny old world," Margaret Thatcher said to her cabinet as they met on the morning of 22 November 1990. Two days earlier she had achieved, by a whisker, the necessary 15 per cent lead over Michael Heseltine in the Conservative leadership election, ensuring that she would not have to face a second ballot. Despite all the forecasts, many of her backbench critics had blinked at the crucial moment, preferring to stick with the devil they knew rather than go with the flamboyant entrepreneur. If only a handful had backed him, Heseltine might have taken the contest to a second round. But they lost their nerve, and the Iron Lady survived.

We know now that the result was a disaster for the Tories. Thatcher's backbench critics never disappeared: instead they regrouped, licked their wounds and carried on sniping. A second summer of poll tax riots in 1991 took a terrible toll on the party's already damaged reputation, and by the time Thatcher called her fourth general election, in April 1992, even the Tory tabloids recognised that it was time for a change. "It's the Sun wot won it", read the headline the day after Neil Kinnock and Paddy Ashdown had led their parties into a pioneering Lab-Lib coalition.

In the short term, things looked rocky for the new government. Tensions between the partners often surfaced in the press, while the Tories' new leader, the emollient Douglas Hurd, proved an immediate hit with Middle England. Within less than six months, the Chancellor, John Smith, had been forced to pull Britain out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, confirming Tory gibes that Labour always made a mess of the economy.

And yet Smith's replacement, the charismatic young Gordon Brown, proved luckier than anyone had expected. By 1997, the economy was not only in recovery but positively booming. Hurd's bubble burst and, thanks to the introduction of proportional representation, the Lab-Lib hegemony seemed entrenched.

We know now that predictions of a progressive golden age were so much moonshine. When the tribal Brown replaced Kinnock as leader in 2001, many Liberal Democrats began to lose confidence in the coalition, and when Brown refused to support George Bush's war in Iraq two years later, he lost his right-hand man, the pro-American foreign secretary, Tony Blair. Eighteen years is arguably too long for any party to hold office.

By the time Brown lost power to David Davis's Tories, Labour's brand was tarnished by expenses scandals, accusations of isolationism and claims
that the party had lost its edge. So, it is no wonder that activists have turned to the one man with clean hands, the moral campaigner who could not stomach the compromises of office. Tony Blair: greatness beckons you.

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.