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Tory Veterans Doubt That 1992's Election Luck Will Strike Twice

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak with former PM John Major (Alamy)

8 min read

The idea that the Conservative party could repeat John Major's unexpected 1992 election victory is one of the few remaining hopes floating around among Tory MPs. But if opinion polls, the economic backdrop or the mood of the party are anything to go by, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has a bigger challenge on his hands than his predecessor three decades ago.

One Tory veteran who was re-elected in '92's surprise Conservative victory told PoliticsHome the contest unfolding right now feels more like the Labour Party landslide of 1997.

Some current Conservative MPs have returned from the Christmas break apparently feeling more upbeat about their prospects at the next general election and claim Sunak still has time to emulate Major. 

In 1992, the then-Tory prime minister won a 21-seat House of Commons majority after a long series of opinion polls published in the run-up to that election indicated that Labour, led at the time by Neil Kinnock, would win a majority – or at least be returned as the largest party. 

The temptation for hopeful Tories to draw a parallel with that election is obvious. Thirty two years later, despite Labour's leads in today's opinion polls showing no signs of falling away (YouGov put the Conservatives 23 per cent behind Keir Starmer's party on Friday), more optimistic Tories believe that early signs of economic recovery give Sunak a fighting chance of defying the odds as Major did and prolonging his stay in Downing Street.

So far the Prime Minister's electoral 'better the devil you know' strategy aims to focus on the Conservative Party's tried-and-tested claim that only they can be trusted to look after the public finances, arguing that a Labour government would mean reckless spending and higher taxes.

Sunak has already debuted what sound like campaign slogans to that effect, insisting that his plan to repair the economy is starting to work and warning that putting Starmer in No 10 would undo this progress and take the country "back to square one".

Conservative MPs can expect to hear more about this plan of attack when the party's chief elections strategist Isaac Levido addresses a 1922 Committee of backbenchers meeting on Monday night.

Peter Kellner, political analyst and former president of YouGov, said it is not difficult to see why some Conservative MPs are linking the upcoming general election with the 1992 contest given the vaguely similar "political arc".

Sunak, like Major, was installed by Conservative MPs to bring stability to his party and improve its chances of winning the next general election. In 1990, Major was chosen to replace former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who had become an increasingly unpopular figure with both the public and her party. The Tories had been in power for thirteen years when the1992 general election came around, while on this occasion there will have been around fourteen years of Conservative rule by the time voters get the chance to deliver their verdict. 

Former prime minister John Major (Alamy)

But according to former Cabinet minister David Lidington, an ex-Conservative MP who successfully competed in the 1992 general election, one key difference between then and now is that although there was unrest among some Conservative backbenchers over the defenestration of Thatcher, the Tory party then was much more united than it is now. 

“In 1992, the Conservative Party wanted to win and its MPs, even those who were unhappy with some of the stuff John [Major] had done, bit their lips got on with it. It was in the 1992-1997 parliament when the underlying tension exploded," he told PoliticsHome.

The infighting is expected to pick up again next week when the Prime Minister's Rwanda bill returns to the House of Commons for its committee stage. The legislation has become the latest focal point for rows between different wings of the party, with over 50 MPs on the Tory right, dubbed the "five families", putting their names to amendments which seek to re-write Sunak's plans.

“One of the big risks for my party is that there seems to be a significant number of Conservative MPs who just don’t want to be led by anybody at the moment," said Lidington.

"For Conservatives, that ought to be a concerning difference [between now and 1992]. The self-styled five families do not seem to have winning an election at the top of their agenda.”

According to Kellner, another key difference is that it will be much harder for Sunak to attack Labour on the economy in 2024 than it was for Major in the run-up to 1992 due to the damage done to the Tory party's reputation over the fiscal incompetence of Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng's "mini-budget" less than two years ago. As it stands, both intend to run for office at the next election. 

In the run-up to 1992, Conservative strategists deployed effective attacks on Kinnock and his shadow chancellor John Smith when it came to the economy. The campaign was typified in a now famous "Labour's Double Whammy" poster, devised by the then-Tory chairman Chris Patten, which showed two huge boxing gloves with "More Taxes" and "Higher Prices" written on them.

With the economy now in a weaker position than it was in 1992 and the Truss experiment still very fresh in voters' minds, not least those with increased mortgage payments, it will be harder for the Conservatives to effectively attack Labour on the issue of economic competence. "When they went after the Labour Party on taxation [in 1992], the Tories could argue that from a strong position of fiscal responsibility, whereas now the party has a much weaker recent record," Kellner said. 

This is a belief shared by Labour strategists who feel the Conservatives will enter this election in a much weaker position on the economy than they have been historically. "We are fighting a different party with a different reputation," a Labour source recently told PoliticsHome.

Labour MP Angela Eagle, who won her House of Commons seat in 1992, likened the impact of the Truss mini-budget on public opinion to the Black Wednesday financial crisis when the government was forced to remove sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. The humiliation came a few months after Major's victory in April 1992, and is now seen as being an important factor in the run-up Labour's landslide victory under Tony Blair five years later.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during a recent visit to Stockport (Alamy)

“There was a moment in that 1992 to 1997 parliament when I sensed an inflection point, and that was Black Wednesday. The Truss budget was this parliament’s inflection point. You can sense it talking to people onto the doorsteps. They are analogous," said the Labour MP for Wallasey.

Perhaps the most glaring difference between 1992 and 2024 is the state of the polls.

While Labour did lead the Tories for months leading up to Major's victory, the size of the leads were significantly smaller than what we continue seeing in current opinion polls. Labour's leads averaged in the mid-single digits around 10 months out from the 1992 election, whereas Sky's most recent poll tracker put the average Labour lead over the Conservatives 18 per cent.

“If you look more closely at the numbers, by this stage in the electoral cycle leading up to 1992 things were a lot closer than they are at the moment," said Tim Bale, author and professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, told PoliticsHome.

Bale believes one of the many problems facing Sunak is that unlike Major, who was relatively successful in persuading the public that he was a "change" from Thatcher, who held office between 1979 and 1990, the current Prime Minister has so far struggled to distance himself from his recent predecessors in the minds of voters. In particular, Major enjoyed a boost when he abolished Thatcher's loathed poll tax upon entering Downing Street.

“The Conservatives in 1992 had pulled off the trick of changing the leader and creating the impression of a fresh start in a way which they simply haven’t managed to do with the transfer of power from Boris Johnson, to Liz Truss to Rishi Sunak," Bale explained.

"The Tories didn't have anywhere near as big a mountain to climb as they do now," added Kellner.

Alistair Burt, another former Conservative minister who won in the 1992 election, and remained in office until 2019, said right now he is not "particularly persuaded" that his party can pull off a similar result, telling PoliticsHome it is "more likely" to be closer to an outcome like Labour's 1997 victory.

"Clearly, Sunak is in a much better position than Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, and deserves credit for his style and more disciplined approach, but his predecessors' record of damage will be endlessly replayed, so it's more difficult for him," he said. 

"The PM will have some good cards to play on the economic outlook, which he is working hard for together with a good chancellor, but his burden is history and predecessors. Barring a massive national amnesia, the public won’t forget them.”

Burt added that there seems to be an “indefinable sense that it’s a time for change” up and down the country that is extremely difficult for any party of government to overcome.

"Once it’s in place, it is unstoppable," he told PoliticsHome.

According to Bale, the prospect of Sunak achieving a 1992 copy-and-paste job this year would be an "electoral miracle".

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