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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.
David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide