The Conservative Party is, famously, the most successful political party in history.
The party is a shape-shifting cockroach that’s survived the whole industrial era, the expansion of the franchise, the growth of the cities and the urban middle class, revolution all across Europe, secularisation and the erosion of the power of the gentry. It shouldn’t be here – it should have died in a country house in Hampshire in about 1920. The Tory party is obviously indestructible. But it has its moments – usually right at the end of a long period in power. Like now for instance.
I’m a bit geeky about the fantastic Nuffield Election Studies books; fat retrospective reference books, full of data and scholarly description, published a year or so after each election since 1945. For many editions, the books were very much the domain of celebrity psephologists David Butler and Anthony King. I’ve got a pile of them, going back to 1966.
The data’s mostly redundant, of course, since you can get it all on Wikipedia now but the essays are the main thing anyway. And often a useful reminder that there’s not much that’s new even about the present political polycrisis (clusterfuck? Imbroglio?).
I was looking at the 1997 edition, mainly because I was getting all sorts of weird deja-vu vibes from the conduct of the present government. The same kind of end-of-the-line feeling that haunted the Major government swept away by Labour in 1997 clings to the current lot. Sunak and his crew of millionares, spivs and bullies seem to have got stuck at the tawdry end of the conservative policy spectrum, much as Major and his awful cabinet did.
For years now it’s been all VIP lanes, complicated tax avoidance schemes, highly-remunerative second jobs, huge secret loans and preferment for old pals: the whole shopping list of cheesy political misbehaviour. It won’t have escaped your attention that we’ve even got a full-blown ‘cash-for-access’ scandal brewing.
So let’s catalogue some correspondences between the end of the Sunak period and the end of the Major period:
Sleaze, sleaze and more sleaze
To state the obvious, Major’s five years in office were marked, like no other government of the modern era, by scandal and impropriety (enter Boris Johnson from stage right: “hold my beer”). Major’s government was beset by domestic, sexual, financial and propriety scandals – and they kept coming. It seemed that every time Major sought to reset the government’s standing with electors, there was another one. Cash for questions, Jonathan Aitken at the Paris Ritz, David Mellor’s holiday in Marbella, Asil Nadir’s watch… So many scandals that they’re now on the curriculum in British schools.
Of course, in comparison with the record of the current Tory government – especially over the last five years or so – the offences of Michael Mates and Neil Hamilton begin to look almost quaint, especially when you consider just how difficult it has become to dislodge an offending Minister or MP. Surely time to update the A-level Politics sylabus.
The chicken run
As the Major government ground on, Tory MPs – conscious of the polling and of their already-dwindling majority – began to seek safer seats to stand in. Boundary changes announced earlier in the Parliament that were hitting smaller, Tory-held constituencies, contributed to the spectacle. Today’s polling, even after the Rishi bounce, continues to look grim for the government – the Tories could be reduced to an all-time low of 113 seats in 2024. Boris Johnson’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat certainly can’t be considered safe, and, although his constituency party reselected him last month, it must be likely that he’ll be switched to a safer seat in time for the election (Johnson must be regretting that he didn’t become MP for Hertsmere – 172 places further up the table of safer seats – when he had the chance). The thoroughly Darwinian shuffling and selecting and deselecting has already begun – and they’re calling it a chicken run again. It will certainly be unedifying but probably quite entertaining.
And a public health crisis
It was no pandemic – less than 200 people in Britain have died from the human variant – but the BSE crisis was a classic of the genre and now looks spookily like a preview of the Covid-19 catastrophe. It was very much a Conservative creation – first when the Thatcher government loosened regulations on animal feeds, permitting the feeding of infected brains and spinal chords to beef cattle, and subsequently when the Major government first ignored and then played down the nasty effects of BSE before being finally obliged to admit the grim connection with human CJD in 1996. The impact of the crisis rattled through the UK economy for years – over four million cattle were slaughtered and the final international bans on British beef were not lifted until 2018.
It’s not just the Tories who seem to be re-living the early nineties. Starmer’s Labour party has made a close study of the successes of his party while in opposition and hopes fervently that he can reproduce them.
- The Nuffield books are textbooks and they’re often, obviously, out of print, so they’ll usually be stupidly expensive. Amazon has the 1992 edition for over sixty quid, for instance. But if you dig a bit you’ll usually find a second-hand copy for cheap. Here’s the same book for £16.95 on Abe Books, for instance.