1997 – 2007 Politics

Leaders and reason for divisions

The scale of the election defeat in 1997 produced a gradual visible crisis in the Conservative party which became increasingly focused on the future direction of the party. Some could wait for the electorate to come to their senses and realise that the Conservatives were the ‘natural party of government’ whilst others recognised that the 1997 election was a turning point and that the party would have to change if it was to be electable again.

William Hague 1997 – 2001

The party was more Eurosceptic and Thatcherite than before (145 out of 165) and the party had lost some of its big hitters on pro-European wing such as Chris Patten. Major’s immediate resignation announcement meant that a new leader would be elected quickly. The candidates from the Right of the party were Michael Howard, John Redwood, Peter Lilley and Willam Hague. The new leader was Willam Hague but won largely as he had fewer enemies than his rivals and because he was Mrs Thatcher’s preferred choice. William Hague largely unified the party on Europe by ruling out entry into single currency, but the party remained unpopular. In 1999 Peter Lilley delivered a speech that seemed to criticise some elements of Thatcherism causing uproar, forcing Hague to reiterate his support for Thatcher. The party was starting to divide between those who believed that the party needed to change, Mods and those who resisted this, Rockers. The party failed to make progress in the polls and Hague felt his leadership threatened after 1999 when Portillo was elected to Parliament in a by-election. After the defeat in 2001, Hague resigned the leadership immediately.

Iain Duncan Smith 2001 – 2003

After Hague’s resignation in 2001, the strongest candidates for the Conservative leadership were Kenneth Clarke and Michael Portillo. Under the new rules for the leadership introduced by William Hague, the party members chose Iain Duncan Smith over Kenneth Clarke in the final round. He won in 2001 due to the negative voting against Clarke and Portillo. It appeared as if the Rockers had defeated the Mods. However, Duncan Smith had little charisma and was no match for Tony Blair. The Conservatives still remained behind in the opinion polls and some members were plotting to get rid of him. Duncan Smith made some efforts to introduce compassionate conservatism (awareness of social implications of economic policy e.g. poverty) but he was aggressively Eurosceptic and reopened divisions over Europe. Under his leadership, the party remained socially conservative – voting against both the repeal of section 28 and against allowing unmarried couples to adopt which demonstrated divisions in the party as modernisers such as David Cameron refused to follow the party line. Duncan Smith also supported the British entry into the Iraq War which was heavily criticised by some and he faced a vote of no confidence and was ousted from power and Michael Howard was installed as leader, unopposed.

Michael Howard 2003 – 2005

Howard had the support from both Mods and Rockers due to the party’s realisation about the state it was in. Like Hague and Duncan Smith, Howard struggled to compete with Tony Blair in the opinion polls. Much of the work that Duncan Smith had done on social justice was abandoned and the Conservatives remained distrusted on key policy areas such as health and education. However, Howard did bring stability to the party and despite him being on the right of the party and socially conservative, he promoted modernisers in his cabinet. After the election defeat in 2005 David Cameron became shadow education secretary and Geroge Osborne shadow chancellor. Howard made it clear that he wanted his successor to be a moderniser.

David Cameron 2005

Cameron defeated David Davis in the leadership contest held in 2005 partly due to an impressive note-free speech at the Conservative party conference. As leader, he set about detoxifying, or modernising, the Conservative party. Cameron and his fellow modernisers understood that it was essential to reach out to make the party more tolerant and inclusive, no longer hostile to all kinds of social groups including ethnic minorities, gay people, single mothers and young people. To do this he highlighted policy areas and positions which weren’t traditional Conservative ones. He promised that a Conservative government would take the issue of climate change seriously. He was in favour of gay rights and wanted to increase overseas aid. He also praised the way NHS had cared for his disabled son and promised a future Conservative government would protect it. Cameron’s shadow chancellor, Geroge Osborne promised to maintain Labour levels of spending on public services effectively ruling out tax cuts. Labour party found it difficult to attack Cameron, partly because Labour’s popularity was in decline and also because the Conservative party had started to look electable again. The Conservative party seemed more united.

Reason for electoral failures in 2001 and 2005

There are a number of reasons for the Conservative elecotral defeats which are common to both 2001 and 2005;

·The failures of leadership

·The divisions in the party over Thatcher, over Europe, over social liberalism

·The failures to learn lessons from electoral defeats

·The resistance to reform

The labour governments remained fairly popular up until 2003.

Particular issues with each of these elections was that:

·Hague found it difficult to be taken seriously espcially his attempts to appear ordinary and live down his teenage political speech-making.

·Divisions in the Conservative party and his own personal weaknesses in the opinion polls.

·Thatcher appeared at an election rally which didn’t widen the Conservative party’s appeal any further, instead it further undermined Hague’s leadership and reminded some voters of why they had rejected the Conservative party previously. The Conservative party lost by another landslide.

·In some ways the defeat in 2001 was even worse than the defeat in 1997 as the party made no progress after its worst result since 1832 and it could no longer be argued that the electorate just wanted a change in government.

·In 2005 the Conservatives suffered a third successive defeat despite the Labour party’s unpopularity over the war in Iraq and more obvious divisions appearing between Blairites and Brownites.

·Howard himself was on the right of the party so voters found it difficult to believe that the Conservative party had changed as its manifesto at the 2005 election seemed to reinforce this: tough line on immigration, travellers, law and order, combined with tax cuts and a reduction to the public sector.

Although the Conservatives made some progress in 2005, it was still limited. The shift to the right had prevented a rise in support for UKIP but little had been done to make the party more attractive to the centre. The party’s popularity was failing amongst women, young people and in the north.