This autumn, Britain’s Conservative Party went through the process of choosing a new leader—again. This campaign, which culminated in the December election of David Cameron as the new Tory leader, was the fourth time in just eight years that the Conservatives looked for a new leader, which is a good illustration of how poorly the party has done in recovering from its landslide ouster from power in 1997 and its two subsequent election defeats. Why has the Conservative Party remained so weak and ineffectual for such a long time?
The most familiar answer to this question is that Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labour Party have taken over a large share of the policy agenda that Margaret Thatcher established—masterfully outflanking the Conservatives and leaving them with little policy room on which to bid for a return to power. But even taking into account Labour’s hijacking of the Conservative agenda, the explanation seems inadequate.
After all, the Conservative Party, with its history dating back to the seventeenth century, has been over time one of the most successful parties in any democracy. For the last hundred years, the party has frequently been described as remarkably adaptable to any adversity, displaying in the face of every election setback a tenacious ability to recover and a famous will to win. And win they have—so much so that the Conservatives have often been described admiringly as Britain’s “natural governing party.”
But not recently. After a remarkable run of four straight election victories starting in 1979, which drove Labour into a political wilderness that some thought it would never emerge from, it is now the Conservatives who hear dark predictions about their future.
Besides Labour’s political skill in hijacking the Conservative agenda, another explanation for the mess in which the Conservatives currently find themselves is that, over time, their success may have actually worked against them. The very idea of a political party being too successful seems ridiculous because political parties exist to win as many elections as possible (and with as big a majority as possible). Yet perhaps overwhelming electoral success, yielding a weak opposition over a long period of time, is not entirely good for the long-term political health of the successful party. Successful parties over the long term are prone to suffer savage internal personal and policy conflicts in the same way in which the human immune system can turn against itself, causing myriad illnesses. Of course even political parties that have short incumbencies and face vibrant oppositions can suffer from damaging intraparty conflict. But the Conservative experience of enjoying a very long and dominating time in office seemed to produce an especially virulent and much longer-lasting form of damage.
The Enemy Within
I first realized that the Conservatives might be heading into this kind of trouble when I interviewed Jim Prior (now Lord Prior), who had been a senior minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government during the 1980s. I met with Lord Prior in 1992, the day after Prime Minister John Major led the Conservatives to their amazing fourth straight election victory, so I expected to find him in a celebratory mood. To the contrary, Lord Prior was almost morose in the wake of an epic election comeback by the Conservatives, defying the widespread predictions that Labour would be moving into Number Ten Downing Street that very morning.
Lord Prior explained that, in his view, the Conservatives had “needed” to lose that election. He insisted that 12 straight years in power were enough and that another term would be disastrous. He said the party was out of ideas and out of talented leaders and that it was attacking itself in both personal and policy terms. The party needed, he argued, at least five years out of power to recover its competitiveness. But now, he said, shaking his head sadly, they would have to serve those five years in power; he felt it would turn out badly and perhaps even become a disaster.
Oh, how right Lord Prior turned out to be. In fact, John Major’s Conservative government fared even worse than Lord Prior had expected. From almost the minute they began their fourth straight term of office, the Conservatives were in trouble. There was a seemingly endless succession of personal scandals of all kinds. There were ugly policy disputes, especially over Britain’s role in the European Union, which split the Cabinet as well as the Conservative Party at large. There were a series of conspiracies to unseat the prime minister as party leader, including a formal challenge that painfully reminded the party of its ouster of Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Only a year into their fourth term, the Conservatives already looked like sure losers at the next election. The Labour leadership, headed by Tony Blair, grabbed the lead in public opinion polls in 1994 and never relinquished it except for a few weeks here and there over the past dozen years.
Eighteen straight years in power is an exceptionally long incumbency in democratic politics. The electorate normally grows tired of the governing party well before that time, and the governing party “earns” its ouster by a variety of miscues and policy failures: most often because the economy goes sour. The Conservatives in Britain certainly suffered those problems during Mrs. Thatcher’s time, but they won a further term of office in 1992 anyway, largely because Labour was so weak and the electorate so afraid of returning it to power. This “forced” the Conservative Party to carry on, even though many of its senior leaders, such as Lord Prior, literally wished for a period of renewal out of office. Thus, in its fourth and last term, the Conservatives lost focus and fought among themselves, so that one can say that the true opposition to the Major government came not from Labour but from within the Conservative Party itself. And that intraparty opposition became in many ways more potent than any typical cross-party opposition. So as Labour began to revive under Tony Blair’s leadership and to regain its appetite for power, the Conservatives began to feel, with a growing sense of resignation, that their time had passed. The Conservative Party failed to show any of its celebrated will to win, perhaps echoing Lord Prior’s view that it needed to lose. The sum of the experience of those years seems to be that the Conservatives lost their competitive edge, notwithstanding the innate purpose of political parties, which is to work endlessly to win and hold power.
I was amazed that Cabinet members during the mid-1990s told me repeatedly how contemptuous they were of Prime Minister Major’s leadership as well as how much they disliked their colleagues. I remember one Cabinet member, who had been in both the Thatcher and the Major Cabinets, telling me that he would rather have had “any dog in the United Kingdom” as prime minister than to continue with Major. He told me that everything had changed since he joined the Cabinet some seven years earlier. The smallest policy disagreements now blew up into terrific conflicts that spilled over into a pattern of backstabbing, including revelations about scandalous official and personal behavior. Gone was the discipline and missionary zeal of the early Thatcher years, when government ministers boasted of their “historic” role as part of a true policy revolution transforming British society and its economy. By the end of the Major government in 1997, ministers just wanted their agony in office to come to an end! Little did they know then how miserable and long their years out of office would be.
What Does Labour Wish for?
Does this reminiscence provide any lessons for the current state of British politics? Labour has now been in power for eight years under Tony Blair. In a pattern that imitates the Conservatives before them, Labour has been totally dominant and Blair has personally dominated (as Thatcher did). Out of power, the Conservatives have been every bit as weak as Labour was, perhaps even weaker. And there are signs that Labour is suffering many of the same tendencies toward intraparty squabbles and personal conflicts that the Conservatives suffered, though, at this point, Labour dissension and decay are not nearly as bad as they became for the Conservatives during John Major’s time.
But the warning flags are up. As the dispute between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair heats up, Labour needs to think about how much and for how long its Conservative opponents have suffered.
Can it be that Labour will learn to wish for what parties don’t usually want: a more effective opposition—now under the new Tory leader David Cameron—in order to keep their own competitive skills sharp? Perish the thought, but as Lord Prior advocated for the Conservatives in 1992, will Labour begin wishing for an election defeat?