Why 2015 isn’t 1992 for the Conservatives

As Britain’s May 7 general election seems to slip away from his grasp, Prime Minister David Cameron is banking on a repeat of the 1992 election in which the Conservative Party under John Major claimed a last-minute upset against a seemingly unstoppable Labour Party. The 1992 election was a formative experience for the 25-year old Cameron. As a young political adviser to Major, he was confident that “common sense” would prevail in the end and seems to be making the same calculation today.

History may well repeat itself. This year’s ballot has been described as “650 by-elections instead of a general election”, making polls less reliable than usual. Furthermore, British voters are cautious and have stepped away from the brink in the past, in 1992 but also as late as last September when the “No” camp won the seemingly knife-edge Scottish independence referendum by a comfortable 55–45 margin.

The case for a late-minute swing to the Tories rests on their economic record. Unemployment is low and falling. Incomes are rising. Voters, the reasoning goes, will not want to take a gamble with the hard-won recovery from the financial crisis and will favour Tory competence over the uncertainty of a Labour-SNP alliance. Fear of the unknown played a similar role in 1992 when Major pummeled Labour’s supposed “tax bombshell”.

That said, parallels with 1992 are misleading for at least six reasons.

  • The 1992 recovery was much more fragile. Although some “green shoots” were apparent (but widely disputed at the time), the country was still thought to be in the longest recession since World War II when it went to the polls in April. (With the lag usual in such matters, it was later established that the recession had ended in late 1991.) People didn’t want to take risks and voted with their pocketbooks. By contrast, today’s recovery is so well-established and taken for granted that it is breeding complacency.
  • The world was more dangerous. Grim as today’s international news may be, the stakes were much higher 23 years ago. The first Gulf war had taken place just a year earlier. Five months before the April 1992 election, the Soviet Union broke up and the European Community (as it then was) completed its negotiations on monetary union in Maastricht. The former Yugoslav republics were starting to declare their independence. The volatile international environment played against the Labour party, which had been out of power for 13 years and was internally divided on Europe and nuclear deterrence. Unlike Cameron, Major could claim two clear foreign policy successes: securing the British monetary and social policy opt-outs in Maastricht and participation in the victorious coalition against Iraq in 1991. In 2015, foreign policy has barely featured in the campaign.
  • Majority governments were the rule. Under the old two-party system, there were two possible outcomes: a Tory or a Labour majority government. The Liberals and nationalist parties were asterisks. This made it possible for the the Tories to dramatise the stakes and stir up fears of a Labour administration. At a time of economic and geopolitical uncertainty, this was a potent argument against change. Today, the certainty of a hung Parliament removes this option (however much the Conservatives try to keep it alive by painting Labour and the SNP as partners in chaos). Voters can see that the next government will be constrained by alliances and many probably like it that way.
  • Major had a positive message. Low blows were exchanged during the 1992 campaign, but Margaret Thatcher’s successor stood for “a country at ease with itself”. His agenda, backed by his own life story, played up economic opportunity and social mobility. The specifics of his Citizen’s Charter were much derided, but it was a call for decency and efficient public services. And, as Major himself reminded his party this week, he knew that people matter and statistics don’t. Despite campaigning in a more favourable economic context, David Cameron hasn’t echoed the optimism of his former boss. He only managed to put a positive spin on his bid for reelection on the day he unveiled his party’s manifesto and has since reverted to fear mongering, to the despair of some its own supporters who say the economic recovery has become just background noise.
  • Major, the underdog, touched a popular nerve. Although he was the incumbent Prime Minister, Major was facing the electorate for the first time as party leader in 1992. Grey, awkward, unfashionable, sometimes comically inarticulate, beset by events beyond his control, criticised behind his back by his domineering predecessor, he kept ploughing on — the very type of decent, adversity-defying anti-hero British people are fond of. Behind in the polls, he toured the country on his soapbox, megaphone in hand. The contrast with Cameron couldn’t be greater. Cameron always expected to become Prime Minister and looked the part even before getting the job. He is smooth, soothing and good at projecting an image of easy competence. He is also bland, bloodless, shallow and entitled, an unmistakable child of privilege. He doesn’t inspire affection, fear or pity. He is there to do a job and the electorate feels it. When Major was cornered, he fought back. Cameron just loses his shine and looks tired as he has during the campaign. Strangely for a PR man, he hasn’t offered anything half as compelling as the biographical manifesto Major delivered in his offbeat 1992 political broadcast, The Story (clip below).
  • Business wasn’t a dirty word yet. Ultimately, David Cameron’s problem isn’t that he lacks charisma or doesn’t project optimism. After all, he has a reasonable record and faces uninspiring opponents. The thing holding him back is what that impeccably conservative commentator, Sir Max Hastings, writing in the ardently right-wing Daily Mail, has called “the porcine habits of British bosses”. The never-ending corporate excesses, scandals and “deranged” pay packages “have made it all too easy for Ed Miliband, the Green Party and Nicola Sturgeon to attract millions of votes by promising to bash the rich”, according to Hastings. If even the former editor of the Daily Telegraph can express such thoughts as a matter of course, being the traditional party of business is a massive electoral liability for the Tories. Again, things were very different in 1992. Government was held responsible for the recession, not business. Private enterprise was still enjoying the warm glow of its 80s revival. Privatisations were a sure way to quick share profits. Making money was good. Globalisation promised more opportunity than pain. Right around the time of the 1992 election, the Labour Party itself was embarking on a long (and ultimately lethal) love affair with big business, beginning with a “prawn cocktail offensive” aimed at London’s financial sector. Today, Ed Miliband, the party’s most left-wing leader for thirty years, can brand big business as radioactive, and it plays in his favour.

On May 7, the Conservatives may still win enough votes to scrape through. But the electorate’s anger against business excesses has raised the bar higher than it ever was in 1992.

I was Agence France-Presse’s City Editor in London in 1992. I didn’t cover the campaign directly but followed it avidly on television and in the papers.