So, was it really Tony Blair’s “Black Wednesday”? Were the tragi-comic events of last week, which left half the cabinet making grovelling apologies for various forms of misconduct, really as serious as the events of Black Wednesday 1992 which destroyed the credibility of the Conservatives under John Major?
Well, not surprisingly, Labour ministers are keen to reject any such comparisons. Bedroom antics, ministerial barracking and even the failure to deport serious criminals are not, they say, as politically damaging as the ejection of the pound from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992, when interest rates rose to 15%.. Britain in 1992 was in the depths of recession, with real unemployment at nearly three million and millions of people facing repossession after the collapse in house prices. Anyway, back then, Labour were far ahead of the governing Tories in the opinion polls. David Cameron isn’t.
All this is true. However, I think the comparison with the Major years is actually quite instructive, if you change the dates. What people forget is that John Major was re-elected in 1992, against all the odds and to the dismay of Labour, who thought their day had finally come. It was the years after that, 1993-5 that really destroyed the Conservatives as the most effective political party in British electoral history.
My own recollection of the early nineties in Westminster, where I watched the disintegration of the Tories at close hand, is that there were remarkable similarities to what is happening to Labour today. That sense of drift, of draining authority, of nothing working. Once the spell of government is broken – that mysterious quality of legitimacy – ministers lose the plot and things just go wrong. It was the toxic combination of ridicule and incompetence that did for Major, and it is doing much the same for Blair.
Tony Blair and John Major are very different political operators but in both cases the rot started at the top, with a collapse of confidence in the PM of the day. The difference is that the roots of Tony Blair’s crisis of legitimacy are not economic, but military. Blair’s Black Wednesday was March 2003, when he allowed Britain to be dragged into the Iraq morass in pursuit of illusory weapons of mass destruction. That was Blair’s equivalent of the ERM. His credibility never recovered. Many believe he actively lied about WMD to bounce Britain into an illegal war led by his Republican friend, George W. Bush.
The problems Labour is experiencing now are the backdraft from that initial monumental failure of leadership. The “huge issue of trust” which the PM’s former press spokesman, Alastair Campbell, identified in his diary as the legacy of Iraq has rotted the fibres of this administration, and undermined its moral legitimacy to govern.
Look at the parallels. Back in the mid nineties, John Major’s government became a joke – ministers stopped trying, civil servants sat on their hands and the voters lost respect for a government mired in sleaze. Not just sexual peccadilloes – the torrent of ministerial resignations that followed Major’s ill-judged ‘back to basics’ speech in 1993- but the general collapsed moral standing of the party. Tories like Neil Hamilton and Michael Mates were caught in compromising relationships with businessmen like Mohammed al Fayed and Azil Nadir. John Major condemned what he himself called the “hiring fair” of Tory MPs who were selling their services to outside private interests.
Tony Blair’s sleaze problem is, if anything, worse than John Major’s – at least Major tried to do something about it, setting up the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life which held remarkable public hearings throughout 94 and 95. Tony Blair promised to be “cleaner than clean”, yet he seems unable to recognise the mud on his own boots.
Cash-for-peerages, cash-for-access, cash-for-honours. The police are investigating the funding of city academies, and nearly fourteen million pounds of secret loans to Labour made by wealthy businessmen some of whom were nominated for seats in the House of Lords. The PM insists he’s done nothing wrong, even though he has promised to change the law so that he cannot do it again.
As Major lost control of his party in parliament, the Tory backbenches were riven with divisions over Europe and the Maastricht Treaty. It led to late night rebellions and lost divisions, rather like Tony Blair’s defeats over 90 day detention and education. At one point Major described his own eurosceptic backbenchers as “bastards”. Blair regards them, according to the former spin-doctor Lance Price as “f—ing bastards”.
Now, Labour MPs are talking openly about it being time for Tony Blair to go, that he has lost the moral right to lead. Many are highly critical of the assault on civil liberties – compulsory identity cards, detention without trial, “glorification of terrorism; ever more draconian anti-terrorism legislation – which can even be used against 82 year old hecklers at a Labour conference. Walter Wolfgang’s ejection from the Labour conference is surely one of the enduring images of the fall of Tony Blair.
As was the case ten years ago, nothing seems to work in the Labour government: dangerous prisoners go undeported, the health reforms go awry, the Deputy Prime Minister is caught using official residences to conduct illicit sexual affairs. Administrative failures crowd the agenda: the tax credit fiasco, the pensions crisis, the child support agency meltdown, the city academy mess.
The government becomes faintly ridiculous, a soap opera. Tessa Jowell’s husband apparently taking cash from Berlusconi; David Blunkett’s “love child” and Kimberly Fortier; Cherie Blair’s #7,000 hairdressing bill, Prescott’s shirt buttons, the cannabis found in Dr John Reid’s home.
Ministers come and go with alarming regularity. Tony Blair’s New Labour allies have been the main casualties: Mandelson, Milburn, Byers, Blunkett etc all had to resign over scandal and failure. Patricia Hewitt clings on at health, despite having lost the confidence of much of the NHS; Charles Clarke is likely to go sooner or later over the prisoner release affair; Ruth Kelly, another prime ministerial favourite, nearly lost her job over the paedophile register and is still faced with problems getting the Labour backbench to accept the English education reforms.
So, what is to be done? Could the Tories have avoided political oblivion a decade ago? Well, it’s fantasy politics of course, but if the charismatic Michael Heseltine – who brought down Thatcher – had been installed as Tory leader, it is possible that the Conservatives could have recovered in time to win the 1997 general election. Heseltine possessed the authority and the ‘magic’ to turn things around, to give a new sense of purpose, make civil servants toe the line and put ministers on their mettle. He could have ridden the upswing in the economy, drawn a line under Thatcherism, and begun the modernisation of the Tories that is only being conducted today.
For all the chaos, John Major actually achieved a degree of unacknowledged success in those years. The economy turned round rather rapidly under the second Major government; his national lottery was controversial but certainly raised a lot of cash for environmental improvements; and the Downing St Declaration of 1994 was the beginning of the end of the civil war in Northern Ireland. By 1996 the overall impression was of a government which had simply lost the plot and a leader who could no longer command respect. Some Tories hoped that the charismatic Michael Heseltine might take over and save them. But his attempt to topple Thatcher in 1990 had divided the party and undermined “Tarzan’s” appeal.
Labour today faces the same dilemma. Do they stick with a busted leader, or change horses and perhaps stay the course? Gordon Brown, aka ‘the last man standing’, could rebuild the government’s credibility. As things stand, disaster looms, not just in the English local elections but the next general election, where Labour is likely to lose its majority, or worse. Time is running out. History could be about to repeat itself.