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Can Boris Johnson Get His ‘Mojo’ Back? Lessons from History - Professor Tim Bale

The failures of Thatcher, Cameron and Major may provide lessons for the Prime Minister. 


Image of former Conservative Prime Ministers, David Cameron, John Major and Margaret Thatcher. 

There was little fanfare as the anniversary of the Tory Party’s 2019 landslide slipped by. There was some interesting commentary, but not much back-slapping among the faithful — what, after all, was there to celebrate? Who could possibly have predicted how much trouble a Prime Minister who’d won an 80 seat majority and a double-digit lead over the opposition could be in just over 12 months later?

Well, let’s not be so swift to condemn. Sure, Boris Johnson has had a difficult year, but we somehow seem to have forgotten that three of his Conservative predecessors did too, even after they also trounced Labour at a general election.

The whole point of history is to learn from it. So what lessons are there for Boris from their successes and their failings? Let’s start with the one whose time in No 10 came to a very abrupt and unexpected end.

David Cameron, May 2016

Pride, they say, comes before a fall. And in David Cameron’s case, that fall was pretty damn spectacular. It would be unfair to say that as he went about his business at the beginning of May 2016, he was serenely confident, let alone chillaxed, that Remain would triumph in June’s EU referendum. By that stage of the game, after all, no one in No 10 imagined they would be coasting to victory. But Cameron still had every hope of victory, mainly because the economic case he was majoring on so overwhelmingly favoured the Remain cause – just as it had in Scotland a couple of years earlier and at the general election a year before.

That it didn’t go his way could be blamed partly on the fact that he was fighting the referendum campaign with one hand tied behind his back, given his determination not to indulge in ‘blue-on-blue’ attacks. He wanted room to put the party back together afterwards, even when sorely provoked by (guess who?) Boris Johnson.

Perhaps if Cameron had displayed the same killer instinct that had helped him see off Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown when dealing with the enemy within, then Prime Minister George Osborne would now be dealing with the Coronavirus crisis – and without having to worry about ‘getting Brexit done’ at the very same time.

Lessons for Johnson:

(1) A track-record of winning referendums doesn’t mean you’ll win the next one, especially if your argument is economic and the other side’s is emotional. Denying the Scots another vote is going to be very difficult, so start thinking now about how to win hearts not just heads;

(2) when dealing with your internal opponents, attack is often the best form of defence, particularly if the alternative is appeasement. The lockdown sceptics and the Eurosceptics will never be satisfied – so stop trying, and take them on instead; and

(3) in politics, there really, really is no such thing as a friend. Beware Rishi Sunak – and, as ever, Michael Gove.

John Major, April 1993

The fact that John Major, who had taken over a divided and demoralised Tory party after a hard-fought leadership contest 18 months earlier, won the general election of April 1992 came as a genuine shock. The polls had pointed consistently to a Labour victory or, at the very least, a hung parliament.

In the event, the Conservatives thrashed Labour in terms of vote share by 42 to 34 percentage points, winning what is still the highest number of votes for any party at a UK general election: 14.1 million. In politics, however, every silver lining has a cloud. Britain’s first past the post electoral system, which so often helps the Tories, this time rescued Labour, leaving Major with an overall majority of 21 seats, down from 102.

If Major had ever hoped that such tight arithmetic might concentrate the minds of his mightily relieved colleagues, then a year into his second term, that illusion was well and truly shattered. The reason? Not sleaze – although David Mellor’s resignation in September 1992 proved a harbinger of what was to come on that front – but the UK’s costly forced exit from the EU’s Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) on Black Wednesday that same month.

That external shock not only cratered the Conservatives in the opinion polls and provided proof (if proof were needed) to a small but increasingly determined band of Tory MPs, that UK participation in European integration must not be allowed to go any further and, if possible, should even be wound back. As a result, ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, which had originally been greeted as a triumph for Major’s diplomacy, had turned into a parliamentary and personal nightmare. It really only ended four years later when a new, convincingly centrist Labour leader finally put the Conservatives out of their misery, the rest, as they say, is history.

Lessons for Johnson:

(1) Gratitude is the most perishable quantity in politics. The credit you get, both for pulling off a last-gasp diplomatic triumph and for pulling your party’s electoral chestnuts out of the fire doesn’t last very long. Winning big in 2019 and Brexit will mean nothing if you’ve not been able to prove the latter has indeed given you squillions to squirt on schools and hospitals, and shinier town centres, in those Red Wall seats;

(2) a parliamentary majority counts for little in the face of the formation of a party (or parties) within a party. ERG, CRG, NRG. These things are growing like topsy. Buying them off policy-wise is a bad idea. But frontbench roles for their most ambitious movers and shakers? They can work wonders; and

(3) a combination of events, dear boy, events and the election of a credible, moderate and clever opposition leader can rapidly erode your lead in the polls without the pendulum swinging back to you as the next election looms. Keir Starmer might not be a full-blown heir to Blair, but he really doesn’t need to be to win the next election. The threat he presents needs taking far more seriously than it has been so far.

Margaret Thatcher, May 1980

It is easy to forget, in the light of her second and third successive election victories in 1983 and 1987 that, a year after her first, in 1979, Margaret Thatcher was by no means mistress of all she surveyed.

True, although her parliamentary majority was nothing compared to what it managed in those later contests, it was still – at 44 – far more comfortable than John Major’s. However, the economic outlook was, if anything, considerably worse than the one he faced after 1992. Unemployment was running at over 7% (nudging 2 million), British manufacturers were going bust all over the country, and inflation stood at (from today’s perspective a scarcely credible) 22%.

And while the Labour Party was too preoccupied with its own civil war to present much of a threat, a number of so-called ‘wets’ in the Cabinet were deeply (and none too privately) concerned about what they saw as Thatcher’s nonsensical determination to stick to the fiscal and monetary squeeze that she was messianically convinced would provide a long-term cure for Britain’s ills.

That said, the news wasn’t all bad. Progress was being made on a Housing Bill which would introduce one of Thatcherism’s flagship, and electorally popular, policies – Right to Buy. And in the meantime, the SAS’s daring raid on the Iranian Embassy proved an unalloyed triumph and one which announced to the world that Britain was back as a global player.

Lessons for Johnson:

(1) Even if some of your worried cabinet colleagues are urging you to U-turn on the big shift in economic policy you’ve been talking about for a year or more, keep calm and carry on. Levelling up is vital, both politically and economically; don’t let your fiscal hawks, especially your Chancellor, talk you out of it;

(2) focus, too, on pushing through policies that will help you retain all those working-class voters you won over from Labour. You won in 2019, remember, not just because of Brexit but because you promised it would lower immigration, recruit more nurses and police, and build more houses; and, of course,

(3) keep banging that patriotic drum. Voters want the country talked up, not down, to feel it has a bright future not just a glorious past. This is your greatest strength. Never, ever stop playing to it.

In the end, of course, different things work for different people – and different prime ministers — at different times. While it may have been a near-visionary sense of mission that helped Thatcher survive her very difficult first year and go on to win two more general elections, it could well be the protean pragmatism that enabled Johnson to climb to the top of Disraeli’s greasy pole in the first place that helps him stay there after his own annus horribilis. This is especially true if it means (as I suspect it does, given his penchant both for history and for breath-taking opportunism) that he is more inclined than most to learn the lessons that the past has to teach.

Professor Tim Bale is a Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London. 

This version of this piece was originally published by UnHerd.



Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Mile End Institute or Queen Mary University of London.



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