The Conservative Party has had many victories to cherish. Over the last century it has held power for 67 years compared to just 33 for Labour. But few victories are more cherished than that in 1992. An election that many believed Labour was destined to win, having led in the polls for most of the preceding year, ended in a fourth consecutive majority for the Tories. The 14.1 million votes cast for John Major’s party remains the highest total ever recorded by any party.
In 2015, it was the 1992 election campaign that David Cameron and George Osborne used as their template as they castigated Labour for its tax and borrowing “bombshell”. This traditional strategy led to a traditional result: a Conservative majority.
Almost a decade later, Rishi Sunak’s team are again drawing inspiration from 1992. After trying – and failing – to pitch the Prime Minister as a “change candidate” last autumn, they have pivoted towards a more conventional approach. Like Major in 1992 and Cameron in 2015, Sunak is urging voters to “stick with our plan” and warning of higher taxes and higher borrowing under Labour.
Tory grandees, meanwhile, are seeking to pacify party rebels by invoking Major’s triumph. “If the current batch of Tory MPs unite around their leader, then there is no reason why we cannot repeat the feat of 1992,” wrote former Conservative leader Michael Howard in the Daily Mail.
Yet for more than merely chronological reasons, this is not 1992. If, as expected, Sunak holds an election this November we are around 10 months from polling day. At the same point in the 1992 election cycle (as the chart below from Ben Walker shows), the Tories trailed Labour by an average of just five points. Today, however, they trail by 18. To defeat Labour, the Conservatives need the strongest recovery of any government in polling history.
This is far from the only discouraging statistic for the Tories. In 1991, they enjoyed a 13-point lead over Labour as the party most trusted with the economy. Today, Labour leads by 11 points – testament to the work it has done to rebuild its reputation and the work the Tories have done to immolate theirs.
When Sunak took office, the hope was that his personal approval ratings would boost Conservative support. But the reverse has happened: Sunak’s ratings have plummeted to match the Tories’. Back in 1991, Major, “the boy from Brixton”, led Neil Kinnock for likeability by 16 points; today Sunak trails Starmer by 12 points.
Chart by Ben Walker
When I interviewed Kinnock last week, he drew this comparison himself. The 2024 election, he said, would not be a repeat of 1992 because “Sunak is never going to be John Major” whose “great strength was to relate and be seen to relate”. In contrast to Major, who “exuded normality”, Sunak exudes “distance, not only because he is monumentally wealthy but because when he tries to do something normal he gets it wrong.”
Though Kinnock is sometimes accused of believing that a Labour victory was inevitable (in reference to the Sheffield Rally), he always knew that Major would be a formidable opponent.
“The night that Thatcher went,” Kinnock recalled when we spoke, “I got my people in the office together and stood on the desk and said ‘drink and be merry tonight, comrades, because tomorrow we’ve got a different fight on our hands.’”
He added: “Within weeks of Major replacing Thatcher, our poll lead had gone down from the upper teens to five and then two. Then the Tories got a lead, we got a lead, it was within sampling error.”
Far from being a shock result, Major’s victory was arguably foretold by his personal lead over Kinnock and the Tories’ economic lead over Labour.
On the day of the election, Kinnock’s head appeared in a lightbulb on the front of the Sun accompanied by the headline “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the light”.
After Major’s victory, the tabloid proclaimed: “It’s the Sun wot won it”. But the paper is no longer the force it was then. Having stood at more than four million in 1992, its circulation (last published in 2020) is now around 1.2 million.
The wider right-wing press, meanwhile, as Andrew Marr writes in this week’s New Statesman cover story, is no longer unwaveringly loyal to the Conservative Party. The animosity displayed against the leadership during the 2016 Brexit referendum – which gave David Cameron sympathy with his Labour rivals – has acquired a new intensity in the Sunak era.
In 1992, the Conservatives had a popular leader, a robust economic reputation and an arsenal of media support. Today, they have an unpopular leader, a shattered economic reputation and an increasingly antagonistic media. Nostalgia for 1992 might be understandable – but it isn’t a strategy.
[See also: Who would dominate the Tory party in opposition?]