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Wednesday, 28 November 2012

John Major's rollercoaster derailed by defections

On this day in 1990 John Major assumed the premiership. In taking over from Margaret Thatcher, he faced the usual difficulties of the successor to a towering political figure (Rosebery succeeding Gladstone, Eden succeeding Churchill, Brown succeeding Blair). 


A key reason for Thatcher’s removal by her parliamentary colleagues had been the belief that she would lead the Conservatives to election defeat. Against expectations, Major managed to win a 21 seat majority in the 1992 election, gained the most votes any leader has for any party before or since and won a personal majority of over 36,000 votes in his Huntingdon constituency. What could possibly go wrong?

While serving briefly as Chancellor of the Exchequer before becoming premier, Major had persuaded Thatcher to allow the Pound to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) – the forerunner of the euro. In September 1992, just five months after the election victory, the Pound was forced out of the ERM. In reaction, the Conservative Party became more euro-sceptic and less-disciplined, its economic policy had to be re-written and Major's reputation sank. His party began to crumble at the edges.

Despite vigorous and visible attempts to control his party (including Major’s resorting to resigning and re-contesting the leadership) the Conservative majority in Parliament leaked away, leaving Major running a minority government as he limped towards defeat in 1997.

Four Conservative MPs died and their seats were won by Liberal Democrats in by-elections (Newbury, Christchurch, Eastleigh and Littleborough & Saddleworth).  Four others died and their seats were won by other parties (Dudley West, Staffordshire South East and Wirral South by Labour, Perth & Kinross by the SNP). 

Two Conservative MPs defected to the Liberal Democrats (Emma Nicholson and Peter Thurnham). Alan Howarth defected from the Conservatives to Labour and George Gardiner defected to the Referendum Party.

If the four defectors had remained in the party, the Conservatives would still have held a fragile majority in parliament. Individual political defections usually only attract fleeting attention, but their cumulative effect can be game-changing. Defections are not just storms of protest, but can be indicators of political climate change.

The Liberals had been the party most prone to losing defectors in the first half of the 20th century, then it was Labour’s turn with the SDP split in the 1980s, but since the 1990s the Conservatives have been the party most vulnerable to defections.

1 comment:

  1. Major's Premiership was very much a game of two (uneven) halves, to employ a sporting cliche. His first 16 months up until the 1992 election was masterly as he united a badly divided party and set about removing the main electoral albatross around the party's neck, the community charge or poll tax, employing his chief rival for the leadership, Michael Heseltine.

    His skill in achieving unity as well as being able to present a winnable programme to the electorate compares with the similar role played by Harold Macmillan at the start of his Premiership when he had to clear up the aftermath of the Suez debacle and went on to double the Conservatives' majority in the 1959 election. Unlike Macmillan Major did not have the benefit of a booming economy in his favour which made his victory in 1992 that much more surprising.

    After the election the political skills that had served him so well deserted him. The departure from the ERM in September 1992 not only undermined the government's reputation for economic competence but reopened the question of Britain's troubled relationship with the EU which had affected the premierships of Macmillan, Wilson, Heath, Callaghan & Thatcher in different ways.

    Major did not share Mrs Thatcher's euroscepticism to the same degree and although he did negotiate an opt-out from the single currency which proved fortuitous in the long-run but it was Major's misfortune that the start of the ratification procedure of the Maastricht Treaty coincided with its rejection in the Danish referendum. This led to a long-drawn out battle in the Commons which destroyed the semblance of party unity he had built up in the first 16 months of his Premiership.

    His two privatisations, of rail and water, proved to be unpopular and carried none of the financial advantages that his predecessor's utility privatisations had. He also became increasingly absorbed into the Northern Ireland issue, for wholly laudable reasons, but as Gladstone found out attempting to resolve the Irish question brings no electoral advantage and can often be an absolute liability.

    The only example I can think of of two strong leaders succeeding one another from the same party is probably Asquith and Lloyd George but they both succeeded at the expense of their own party.

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