From the 1997 election archive: After the May Day massacre

Just 165 Tory MPs remained after Labour's 1997 election victory. In our special issue magazine, Charles Glass asked what next for a Tory party crushed by defeat? 

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With Don John Major gone, the Conservative families are going to the mattresses. Young Conservatives experiencing it for the first time should turn to a passage in Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather, and read their fortune:

“How bad will it be?” Michael asked.

“Very bad,” Clemenza said. “It means an all-out war with the Tattaglia Family against the Corleone Family. Most of the others will line up with the Tattaglias. The Sanitation Department will be sweeping up a lot of dead bodies this winter.”
He shrugged. “These things have to happen once every ten years or so. It gets rid of the bad blood...”

The Tories have 18 years of bad blood to leech. Having lost as convincingly as King Priam and his Trojans, they may blame the gods and go on squabbling. They may instead resolve the drama of wets versus dries, Thatcherites versus Heathites, Europhiles against Eurocides. They must unify or become unelectable. The things they did to one another in power were mere manoeuvres. This is war.

The next few weeks will give the party time for, in which ever order it chooses, petty recriminations, serious soul searching and considerable horse-trading. The search for scapegoats will, of course, see the end of Brian Mawhinney as party chairman, the termination of the contract with the Saatchis and the pulping of millions of tawdry election posters. It may not have been the fault of the advertising so much as the product it was trying to sell.

“It’s five years, not five weeks,” a Conservative newspaper editor conceded of the electorate’s judgment.

Viscount Cranborne, the Conservative leader in the unreformed Lords, told journalists at Central Office on election night: “The party is in a state of fairly severe catatonic shock.”

Like a boxer who wakes up when the referee has counted ten, the Conservatives are wondering what went wrong. Recovery will be painful, although it may be of less interest to the public, for whom the party is, at the moment, irrelevant. It should, but probably won’t, begin with a rigorous examination of conscience.

How did the Conservatives allow unemployment to rise to 10 per cent – the seventh worst in Europe, not the best, as they claimed? How did they permit Britain to fall 20th in the world in per capita gross domestic product, at £12,015 a year? How did they allow government spending as a percentage of GDP to remain unchanged for 18 years at 42 per cent, when they promised each year to reduce it? Why did they not allow a referendum on Maastricht five years ago, when many in both parties demanded it, and put to rest once and for all their own divisions on Europe? How could they sell the country’s water supply to companies that have paid investors dividends of £3 billion on £10 billion earnings, while cutting investment on infrastructure by £350 million? How is it that despite, or perhaps because of, the largest prison expansion in Europe, violent crime has double since 1985? How did they permit cattle to eat diseased brains for a full 15 months after they knew the consequences? Why would they not offer farmers full compensation, as the French did, for their sick cattle?

How did they, as reported in the 1996 Department of Health study, allow 4.7 million people to become so poor they could not afford enough food to avoid malnutrition? Why did they pass a Social Security Act in 1986 that deprived homeless and unemployed youngsters of benefits? Why are schools so much worse than they were 18 years ago and why are hospital waiting lists so long? Why did they remove half of the country’s psychiatric hospital beds? How did so many ministers accept jobs with the government enterprises they sold off in the biggest grab of public wealth since Thomas Cromwell advised Henry VIII to plunder the monasteries and distribute their lands to court favourites?

Of Henry, it was said: “He stripped the gold and silver from the tombs of the saints.” The Tories sold water, gas, electricity, bus services, railways, telephones and airlines and took jobs for themselves in most of them. They were trying to pawn the Post Office and London Underground when the electors finally put an end to it. When Saatchis said Britain was booming, it was like those company reports that boast profits are rising, directors’ salaries have trebled and downsizing produced a leaner, meaner workforce without those extra 200,000 employees.

The people noticed these things, and they have sent a leaner, meaner Tory Party on to the opposition benches. Their choice of leader will determine how long the “natural party of government” remains out of government.

“Obviously Ken Clarke is the best,” a Conservative former cabinet minister said. “Therefore, he won’t get it.”

Many in the Labour Party agree, one senior Labourite telling the Independent that the former chancellor was “by far their best performer and their most popular politician”. Within Conservative ranks, however, he is not so popular. The right will not forgive him for pushing Major towards the European currency, and they blame him for the May Day Massacre of 1997. They also have ideological favourites of their own – Michael Howard, John redwood, and Peter Lilley. Their darling, Michael Portillo, was lost on the field on May Day, along with most of the rest of their party.

The new Tory archipelago that excludes Scotland and Wales runs from Yorkshire down to Dorset, the blue patches on the new political map comprising more empty acres than electors. The party that has led this country for 70 of the past 100 years now belongs to 165 members of parliament who survived May Day. Each represents about a half per cent of the Tory electorate, but the breakdown of left and right, pro- and anti-Europe, remains about the same as it was when they were 345 strong.

Twenty per cent are for Europe, and 32 per cent against, according to the study by University of Hull Professor Philip Norton. The rest may be persuaded in either direction. Forty members are in parliament for the first time, and 25 of the 40 object to the single currency – the issue by which their loyalties are judged. Only five, three of them women, are openly pro-Europe. The maiden entrants are mostly out of Central Office, Research Department and the Policy Unit – professional politicians with no experience of real work, but people who know all the leadership contenders.

It will be, as Anne Applebaum wrote in the Evening Standard, “a very long, very bitter and probably very indecisive fight for control of the party and of its philosophy.”

Although the right may have the numbers, they are divided among three candidates who, despite ideological purity, are objectionable for one reason or another. Lilley cannot speak in public, Redwood is like dead wood on television and Howard sends chills down too many spines. No one believes any of these Thatcherite Three could win a general election. The right may split, opening the way to the left, to Stephen Dorrell or Kenneth Clarke.

If the right-wing plurality keeps them out, the way is open (following Heseltine’s untimely departure) to William Hague as compromise candidate. He generates no enthusiasm in the party, but he has few enemies and has taken no decisive positions. In five years he will be 41. By then old wounds might just have healed if Labour has got around to holding its promised referendum on the single currency, an issue which could thereby be rendered about as engaging to the party as the Corn Laws. Ladbroke’s favour Hague at 13:8.

On election night at Christopher’s restaurant in Covent Garden, the Conservatives who gathered for the Daily Telegraph’s party were not glum. They were good losers, and those Labour supporters who came over Waterloo Bridge from Blairland to gloat may have been disappointed at their grace in defeat.

The Tories were better behaved than I remember them at the Savoy five years before. Many Conservative toffs and pundits expected, even wanted, to lose, thus to set their party on a clear course – either towards Europe or away from it – and to purge it of obvious crooks.

“I felt a sort of relief,” one influential Tory said. “It’s time for a change. Labour is no bloody good, but 18 years is a long time.”

If they elect the wrong leader in the weeks ahead, the next 18 years out of office will seem much longer to them than the last 18 in.

Post-script: For most of the young Tories in and out of the House, Margaret Thatcher’s benediction would have great influence. So, who does she want?

“There is only one man with the integrity and the ability to lead the Conservative Party,” she told a friend, “and that man is Charles Moore.” As editor of the Daily Telegraph, he’s not even running. 

This article is part of the New Statesman's 1997 election archive, New Dawn. Click here for the full collection.