Magazine article The Spectator

So the Tory Parliamentary Party Finally Got Its Way

Magazine article The Spectator

So the Tory Parliamentary Party Finally Got Its Way

Article excerpt

I was wrong. Two weeks ago, I informed the readers of The Spectator that 5 per cent of those who voted Tory in 1992 had defected while 20 per cent were still undecided and 75 per cent were loyal. That remained my view. Until I heard the exit polls, I still thought that there was a chance of a hung Parliament. In reality, only one element of the prediction was correct. In percentage terms, the Tories did indeed retain 75 per cent of their 1992 vote; all the rest either deserted or abstained.

But I am still convinced that a lot of the undecideds did not make up their mind until the final hours. I spent the final two days of the campaign in the Midlands. When Tory canvassers were told, `We will decide for ourselves, thank you,' one knew that these were unlikely to be Tory voters. But there were so many people who said, `Yes, we've had your literature. No, there's nothing we want to ask about. Tonight, we're going to sit down and read everything and think about it,' or even, `We'll probably vote, but we will not make up our minds until tomorrow.' Politely but firmly, those whom the preliminary canvassers had identified as doubtful were exercising their right to hoard their indecision.

And the Tories got none of them. Sleaze, memories of the recession, time for a change; all those memories and slogans came flooding back, reinforced by anxieties about education and health. After 18 years in power, a government is blamed for anything and everything. Most of the doubtfuls liked John Major, but their enthusiasm was underwhelming; an insufficient antidote to their distaste for his party. The Tory party failed to persuade the voters to approve of them or to fear their opponents.

This was not the campaign's fault; the damage was done several years ago, and its origins were economic. The recession lasted longer than had been expected and much of the pain fell on Tory supporters, as did the tax rises. The UK's forced withdrawal from the ERM completed the rout, and the collapse of the Tory party's reputation for economic management. From then on until the end, Mr Major's government was widely regarded as incompetent and intellectually dishonest.

The charge of incompetence was justified; that of dishonesty much less so. A lot of neutral observers had believed that the recession would end in time to avoid excessive strain on the borrowing requirement, but the government itself ought to have had more reliable information. In 1991/2, the PM and the Chancellor should have known that fiscal tightening - spending cuts or tax rises - was inescapable, but they gave the opposite impression. They can be acquitted of deliberate deception, but they were guilty of wishful thinking.

Apropos of the ERM, a measure of intellectual dishonesty was inescapable. From quite early on, the government had doubts as to the durability of British membership. But there was a problem. If even a scintilla of a hint of those doubts had been made public, the policy would instantly have collapsed. But as Stafford Cripps and James Callaghan could have reminded Messrs Major and Lamont, if the pound is forced to devalue within a fixed exchange rate system, the Chancellor responsible will not enjoy having his previous statements quoted back at him. Yet - though it is impossible to explain this to the general public ministers in charge of a fixed parity do not merely have the right to lie about their intentions; they have a duty to lie.

There is one respect in which government policies on the ERM and on the recession converge: in both cases, the successes greatly outweigh the failures. …

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