It may be difficult to believe, but when John Major’s tired and sleazy administration suffered a shattering defeat at the hands of Tony Blair’s New Labour in 1997, many Tories weren’t all that worried. Beneath the hype, they believed Blair was really a bit of a lightweight — a slick salesman who would, sooner rather than later, fall flat on his face. Hobbled by the socialist dinosaurs that still held sway behind the scenes, Blair and his colleagues would fail to rise to the task of running the country, at which point voters would return, as per, to Britain’s “natural party of government”.
As one rather less complacent insider once put it to me, the Conservatives effectively “behaved like a disappointed middle-aged wife whose husband’s just run off with his PA and thinks: ‘Well, give it three or four months and when he needs his socks darned and a home-cooked meal, he’ll come crawling back, begging for forgiveness.’”
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It didn’t happen, of course. Blair went on to win two more general elections and it took the Tories the best part of a decade-and-a-half to make it back into Downing Street — and even then, without a majority to call their own. So hapless was the Tory party’s initial response that it arguably offers one of the best guides to what-not-to-do for any political party booted out of office.
With the Tories facing the prospect of another sojourn in political wilderness after next year’s election, the current crop of Conservatives should be trying to learn their lessons from 1997. If what happens next is anything like the period from 1997-2005, after which the Tories eventually took a punt on a shiny young moderniser called David Cameron, then they’re in for seven years of seriously bad luck.
Anyone who thinks that a huge defeat would be a wake-up call for the Tory party should think again. The atmosphere post-1997 was one of complacency, especially among smug Tory MPs who had managed to hold onto their seats and put their defeat down to a temporary swing of the political pendulum.
Of course, the rational thing for a defeated party to do would be to conduct a comprehensive post-mortem; perhaps one overseen by former MPs who lost their seats or have no intention of running again. But since when has politics been a rational business, or one untainted by overweening ambition?
A defeated party is far more likely to jump straight into a leadership contest (especially these days, when defeated prime ministers tend not to stick around). That almost inevitably involves the candidates telling the selectorate exactly what they want to hear. In 1997, for example, Tory leadership candidate William Hague told the party faithful that Labour only won the election because it had accepted the Thatcherite settlement. The only thing the Tories needed to reassess, he reassured them, was their creaky organisation not their outworn market-liberal ideology.
Defeated parties can also be far too reluctant to face up to the fact they’ve made a duff choice after rushing into a leadership contest — even when opinion polls make it clear that the public thinks their new leader is a hopeless loser. It was obvious within weeks, days even, that the Tories had lumbered themselves with a dud not just in 1997 but in 2001 too, when they replaced William Hague with Iain Duncan Smith. But it took years to get rid of them.
In political exile, opposition parties tend also to worry (not unreasonably) that donations are going to dry up, making them excessively wary about spending money on expensive, in-depth research into public opinion. This leaves them trying to put right what they think they got wrong rather than realising what their real mistakes were — not a great basis for making a comeback.
All that research and innovation takes time as well as money, however. Easily one of the worst things about being in opposition, as veterans won’t hesitate to tell you, is that voters and the media don’t care much about you anymore. But trying to make them take notice by adopting headline-grabbing, populist positions is a dangerous game. For one thing, it makes you look desperate. For another, it leads to parties adopting potentially stupid stances that they will struggle to row back on and prioritising attention-seeking stunts: whether it’s an ill-advised photo shoot — Hague’s team wearing cagoules and baseball caps as they splash down a theme-park log ride springs horrifically to mind — or, in the case of Duncan Smith, insisting the party oppose adoption by same-sex couples.
Just as bad, opposition parties have a tendency to double down on issues that are assumed to play well for them, rather than engaging with the issues of the day. This is especially true when the economy is strong, as was the case between 1997 and 2005, when the Tories fell back on the so-called “Tebbit trinity” of tax cuts, Europe and immigration. It’s not that these issues don’t matter, but they are unlikely to appeal to voters more than the promise of rising living standards and visibly improving public services (particularly “schools n’ hospitals”).
Another temptation that a recently defeated party can fall prey to is to look back with excessive pride on all the supposedly great things they did in government, believing they have nothing to apologise for. Adopting New Labour strategist Philip Gould’s “concede and move on” mantra would be a much better course of action — a lesson not lost on Keir Starmer, who lately has seemed prepared to throw pretty much any commitment overboard if polling and focus groups suggest that it’s a problem. But that requires an ability to let go, that, especially in the early days, defeated politicians find it incredibly hard to demonstrate.
Even harder for politicians is to face the fact that it’s almost impossible to shape voter preferences when you’re in opposition. Rightly or wrongly, that means accommodating them — moving to where they actually are, rather than where you’d like or imagine them to be. Anyone who doesn’t get this is best sidelined in shadow cabinet. That said, it’s never a good look if wounded big beasts aren’t brought on board; Ken Clarke in 1997 and Michael Portillo in 2001 are stand-out examples.
Perhaps the final lesson for opposition is not to allow success in so-called “second order elections” (by-elections, local elections, and referendums) to fool you into thinking you’re on the right track. At the locals in May 2000, Hague’s Tories gained nearly 600 seats, and yet polls later that summer showed Labour streets ahead. Which was the better guide to the 2001 election result?
The Tories aren’t guaranteed to learn from their 1997 mistakes — especially given the tactics Rishi Sunak has adopted ahead of next year’s election. With the economy failing to come to his rescue, Sunak looks set to play as many populist, anti-woke and “green-crap” cards as he can in order to stop the party being deserted by voters who are feeling the cost-of-living crisis and seeing public services come under serious strain. Even if his strategy ends in defeat, it’s not clear that the rest of the party will get the message. We’re far more likely to see a central-casting culture-warrior like Kemi Badenoch take power instead, perhaps after beating Penny Mordaunt in a race that could see all the serious contestants up the populist ante by pledging to take the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights. If so, it’ll be déjà vu with the Conservatives, as they did for nearly a decade after 1997, looking obsessive, irrelevant and, sometimes just plain nasty.
There is, though, some hope for all those Tories praying that their party hasn’t entirely abandoned the mainstream centre-right. And it lies in Badenoch’s response to criticism from backbench Tory MPs over what they saw as her failure, last month, to purge each and every bit of retained EU legislation from the UK’s statute book. “I am not an arsonist, I’m a Conservative,” she shot back, suggesting that there may, in fact, be rather more to Badenoch than meets the eye.
Anyone wanting to see the Tories spend as little time out of office as possible after 2024 should pray that’s the case. If voters do decide to cast the Conservative Party into the wilderness next year, then the last thing it will need is a leader wedded to the same quasi-austerity and performative populism that it’s currently foisting on the country. As Winston Churchill, one of the party’s more successful leaders of the opposition, is routinely reported to have said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”