23 years ago today the UK went to the polls for a general election which most commentators at the time, as well as the opinion polls, were forecasting would see the Labour Party, led by Neil Kinnock, back in No 10 for the first time in 13 years. In the end John Major led the Conservative Party to a stunning victory – probably one of the most dramatic general election results in the UK since the Second World War.
Many commentators today are drawing comparisons between this election and the impending election on 7 May. And just as, with the benefit of hindsight, the 1992 election was one the Conservative Party probably now wishes it had lost, so might the election on 7 May also turn out to be an election that both Labour and the Conservatives privately might hope they actually lose? 1992 was the last time the Conservative Party won an outright majority, and although it only had a majority of 21, it actually received the most votes ever cast (14,093,007) for any party in a UK general election.
But just five months later, on 16 September 1992, a day that became known as Black Wednesday, the Conservative government was ignominiously forced to withdraw the pound Sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism after it was unable to keep the currency above its agreed lower limit in the ERM. The Treasury estimated the Chancellor at the time, Norman Lamont, blew a cool £3.3 billion trying to prop up Stirling. His hapless Special Adviser at the time was none other than David Cameron.
At a stroke the Conservative Party’s reputation for economic competence was blown to pieces, the Party descended into chaos, suffered a series of scandals and huge divisions over the UK’s membership of the EU. Five years later, courtesy of Tony Blair’s reforms and his creation of the centralist New Labour Party, the Conservative Party went on to suffer its worst election defeat since 1906 and its longest spell in opposition in the history of the present day Conservative Party – indeed the longest such spell for any incarnation of the Tories / Conservatives since the 1760s – lasting 13 years.
If, as expected, the Conservatives had lost the 1992 general election and Neil Kinnock had become Prime Minister it is not at all unrealistic to imagine that the economic problems that so swiftly engulfed the Conservative government would have hit a Labour government instead. Labour’s reputation for economic mismanagement would have been reinforced and Neil Kinnock would almost certainly have lost the 1997 general election – potentially ushering in another period of extensive Conservative rule. New Labour may still have risen from the ashes of a thumping Labour defeat in 1997, but the history of the Labour Party, and indeed British politics over the last 18 years, might have been so very, very different.
But back to 1992 and the similarities between the election then and the election due on 7 May. The circumstances then and now aren’t exactly similar, of course. As 1992 dawned, the economy was going into deep recession. Today, the economy is growing. But the opinion polls show a striking resemblance. At the start of 1992 Labour was still favourite to win the election but the lead in the polls had flipped between Labour and the Conservatives on several occasions after John Major replaced Margaret Thatcher as party leader, and as the election campaign started the polls showed Labour with a slight lead that, if maintained, pointed to a hung parliament.
Neil Kinnock was, of course, seen very much as on the left wing of the Labour Party, even if he had already started a process of modest reform by, for example, expelling the Militant Tendency wing of the party. But there was a growing sense that he was not up to the job of being a Prime Minister, and that the economy would suffer further damage brought about by polices which enabled the Conservatives to run a memorable poster campaign over the issue of taxation, with a strapline of “Kinnock’s Double-Whammy” showing a boxer wearing gloves marked “taxation” and “inflation”.
Although a week before polling day the opinion polls showed a clear Labour lead, this all but vanished as a result of hostile reactions to a Labour Party rally in Sheffield which was widely seen as triumphalist, and as taking victory for granted. And anxiety over Labour’s economic competence was most graphically represented by the now famous front page of the Sun on polling day itself, with a picture of Neil Kinnock’s face in a light bulb and the headline “Will the last person to leave Britain turn out the lights”.
So in 1992 we had narrow leads in the polls for both parties and in the run up to polling day a hung parliament was a distinct possibility. The Labour leader then had a poor public image and was not widely seen as a credible Prime Minister. When the electorate finally went to the polls they decided to play safe and keep with the man they knew. These are striking similarities today, and the polls continue to show a hung parliament being a distinct possibility. But the Conservatives look as if they are now pulling ahead and getting clear blue water between themselves and Labour at least in some polls. Might David Cameron pull off the same surprise, stunning victory that John Major achieved in 1992?
But, as in 1992, is this an election the Conservatives might actually, secretly, prefer to lose? The economy may be growing, but we still have a huge budget deficit and significant spending cuts beckon once the election is out of the way. These cuts could be far more extreme than anything we have seen so far, at least in the early years of the next parliament. And some economists point to an economic recovery that is weak and in danger of going backwards, although given the upbeat nature of the Chancellor’s Budget on 18 March he clearly does not share that view. Might a Conservative government after 7 May become as unpopular as the Conservative government became after 9 April 1992? Might it become so unpopular that it loses the subsequent election and once again finds itself in the political wilderness for a decade or more?
At the time of the Autumn Statement last December, the Chancellor was proposing significant, almost draconian, public expenditure cuts – retuning the country to the same level of public spending, as a percentage of GDP, last seen in the Thirties. He has had second thoughts, either for naked political reasons because he realised this could seriously damage the Party’s electoral chances, or because the economy really is growing much more strongly than he had anticipated. Today, while public expenditure will actually increase by £5.5 billion in real terms in 2015/16 there will be a much sharper squeeze on public expenditure in 2016/17 and 2017/18 than anything seen in the past five years, although this will then be followed by the biggest increase in public expenditure for a decade in 2018/19 – helpfully a year before the scheduled general election in 2020.
But, with the result of the election still too close to call, I have heard it said that some senior Conservatives do actually, very privately, think it would be better for them not to win the election. If the result is close and another hung parliament beckons, might it actually be better to see Labour in No 10, see it struggle to govern in a coalition or as a minority government, watch it once again crash the car economically speaking and thereby see Labour’s reputation for economic competence destroyed yet again – propelling the Conservatives into No 10 for a decade or more.
Is there the possibility of David Cameron pulling off a stunning victory, delivering a clear majority for his party on 7 May, just as John Major did on 9 April 1992? Or are the Conservatives privately hoping that Labour enters No 10 on 8 May or shortly thereafter, and then promptly imploads as a credible political party – just as could have happened in 1992? The similarities are uncanny.