The Conservative Party 1990-2008

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

The Conservative Party 1990-2008…with a few more recent links


Click here for various items on the aftermath of the 2010 General Election from the BBC

Click here and here for Observer article and editorial on Mr Osborne’s approach to economic policy which, of course, the Observer does not support.

Click here for the BBC on Cameron’s Conservatism. Once on this page see also the links on the right hand side to a Radio 4 series on Conservatism. Very significant.

Click here for Andrew Rawnsley on the Coalition and Civil Liberties and click here and here for BBC coverage of the same issue

Click here for BBC coverage of David Cameron in 2010


Page sections

John Major: Conservative Leader and Prime Minister 1990-92; 1992-97

William Hague: Conservative Leader of the Opposition 1997-2001

Ian Duncan Smith: Conservative Leader of the Opposition: 2001-2003

Michael Howard:  Conservative Leader of the Opposition: 2005-2007

David Cameron: Conservative Leader of the Opposition: 2005…

  • Remember that with regard to ideological developments in the Conservative Party you must also be familiar with One Nation Conservatism and Thatcherism which is covered in other documents.
  • Once you have read the detailed materials on Major, Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard refer to the summary of these leaders activities on page 7.Depending upon the wording of the question this summary may be sufficient under examination conditions.
  • Remember that the relative failure of The Conservatives from 1992 onwards can be explained partly in terms of the factors working in Labour’s favour and partly in terms of the Conservatives’ own misguided strategy.
  • I have discussed David Cameron in more detail. Depending upon the wording of the question you may need more information on him but the question may also be more general in which case do not spend too much time on David Cameron.


John Major: Conservative Prime Minister: 1990-1992 and 1992-1997

Mrs. Thatcher was obliged to resign in November 1990 and replaced as Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party by John Major. There was no constitutional requirement for Major to call a General Election immediately and he waited until 1992 when he successfully won the General Election.

Following the 1992 Labour defeat, Neil Kinnock resigned to be replaced (briefly) by John Smith and then by Tony Blair in 1994. Even by the end of 1992 the Labour Party had opened up a large opinion poll lead over the Conservatives  because although the Conservatives are traditionally seen by the electorate as better managers of the economy and the state of the economy is a major factor influencing General Election results, the Conservative reputation for economic competence was seriously eroded by the fiasco of UK withdrawal from the ERM in Sept 1992 and even though the economy performed better in subsequent years  , there was little or no improvement in the Conservative reputation for economic competence .

It was clear that the Labour Party as it developed under Blair’s leadership would be a formidable electoral opponent for the Conservatives and the extent of change in the Labour Party was emphasized by its re-designation as “New Labour.”. Blair himself appeared to exude confidence, competence, slightly left of center moderation and modernization and opinion poll data showed Blair to be more highly rated than Major as a potential Prime Minister.

On the economy Labour worked hard to improve its reputation for economic competence mainly by distancing itself from its socialist "tax and spend image" of the past promising that there would be no increases in the standard and higher rates of income taxation for the lifetime of the next parliament and that spending plans for the first two years of a new Labour government would be the same as those already announced by the Conservatives.

Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution was re –written removing Labour’s traditional commitment to nationalization. Trade unions were told that they could expect "fairness not favours" from a Labour Government while at the same time Labour appeared much more likely to adopt "business-friendly policies .However Labour signaled that it would also help the poor via the introduction of the minimum wage and a windfall tax on privatized utilities to finance the Welfare to Work programme thereby also signaling that Labour wished to ensure that all of those capable of work would be obliged to do so.

Furthermore the Labour Party increased its traditional lead over the Conservatives as the party seen as most likely to manage the health and education services effectively and  also tried with some success to challenge the Conservatives on law and order, basing its appeal mainly on the fact that as shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair had often used the sound bite "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" to signal that Labour would now be tougher on law and order than in the past. There would also be constitutional reforms such as devolution and reform of the House of Lords which could be seen as evidence of Blair’s wish to modernize the UK constitution.

By comparison John Major was seen a weak incompetent leader, the Conservative party was seen as disunited especially over Europe, hypocritical because of its emphasis on traditional family values while the mass media publicized the extra-marital affairs of a series of Conservative Ministers and MPs and sleazy because again the mass media revealed that some Conservative MPs had actually accepted money to ask particular questions in the House of Commons.[For example Neil Hamilton, the Conservative MP for Tatton, was accused of asking parliamentary questions in exchange for money and hospitality at the Paris Ritz hotel owned by Mohammed Al Fayed ]

Disunity in the Conservative Party [most especially over Europe] and criticism of his leadership led John Major to organize another Conservative leadership election in 1995 in an attempt to reassert his leadership but this served only to highlight party disunity and just as Labour had been harmed by party disunity in the 1980s so now were the Conservatives in 1997.

Labour  were also aided by the UK first past the post electoral system  in that  there was an overall national swing to Labour of 10.8% but in fact Labour won more seats than would have been predicted by this national swing because of larger swings to Labour in marginal constituencies. Finally it was generally agreed that Labour fought a professional campaign with Peter Mandelson playing an important role in management of the mass media and Labour may also have benefited from the decision of the Sun newspaper to support Labour rather than the Conservatives.

In summary Labour won in 1997 because the electorate believed that Labour had the better leader, that Labour was the more united party, that Labour had the best policies on health, education and the reduction of poverty as is usual but also on the economy and on crime which are traditional Conservative issues. They fought a more effective electoral campaign; they were supported by Newspapers such as the Sun and the News of the World which usually supported the Conservatives and the electoral system worked to Labour’s advantage.  Even though the economy had performed well since late 1992 under the Conservatives the voters still believed that Labour could run the economy more effectively

John Major, having been defeated in the General Election quickly resigned as leader of the Conservative party and was replaced as leader by William Hague. The scale of Labour’s victory in 1997 made it seem unlikely that the Conservatives would be able to win the next General Election and so it proved to be.


The Leadership of William Hague: 1997-2001

In the course of 2001 Labour and Tony Blair did lose some of their popularity as it came to argued that the Labour government was obsessed with spinning the political news to its own advantage and that Labour policies on Health and Education were not as effective as the voters had hoped but nevertheless throughout 1997 -2001 [apart from a brief hiccup during a short lorry driver’s protest 2001over fuel prices,] Tony Blair and the Labour government were in general consistently more popular than William Hague and the Conservatives and also more popular on all of the major issues which would help to determine the outcome of the General Election.

The Conservatives therefore found it difficult to devise an electoral strategy. It was recognized that if the Conservatives were to increase their share of the vote they would have to try to counter the popularity of Labour on issues such as the national health service and education and in the early stages of his leadership William Hague did seek to reach out beyond his core Conservative voters  but he also received advice to the effect that further discussion of these issues would only reinforce Labour’s popularity so that a preferable strategy would be to concentrate on traditional Conservative issues such as crime, immigration control and opposition to the allegedly excessive powers of the European Union.

This strategy was described as putting “clear blue water” between the Conservative Party and Labour perhaps in the recognition that the Conservatives could not possibly win but that if they targeted their message on their core supporters they would at least be able to reduce the scale of the defeat. In this they were unsuccessful: the result was much as in 1997 apart from the fact that the overall turnout was much lower suggesting an overall dissatisfaction with politics in general and with the Labour government but no increased tendency to vote Conservative.

Also during the course of William Hogue’s leadership there was some evidence that the Thatcherite combination of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism within the Conservative New Right was begin to disintegrate  in that Michael Portillo and some of his supporters , although they remained committed to neo-liberal economics argued also that the Conservatives distance themselves from neo-conservatism and  adopt a more socially liberal approach to family diversity, same sex relationships and drug use, a view which the neo-conservative right, represented among others by Ann Widdicombe , obviously rejected.

William Hague had also devised new rules for the election of party leader and when he resigned after the 2001 General Election defeat the election of the next Conservative leader took place under the new Hague election rules. Under this system MPs eliminated candidates in successive ballots until two candidates remained and then the Conservative party members made the final choice between the two remaining candidates in a national ballot of all party members. Ian Duncan Smith duly became the new leader of the Conservative Party.


The Leadership of Ian Duncan Smith 2001-2003

Ian Duncan Smith was neo-liberal, neo-conservative and eurosceptic. He was supported in his leadership campaign by former prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and William Hague but not by John Major who supported Kenneth Clarke and it was suggested that Ian Duncan Smith had won mainly because many MPs rejected Michael Portillo’s new found social liberalism and because many party members rejected Kenneth Clarke as excessively pro-European.

Ian Duncan Smith had no previous ministerial experience; he was no match for Blair and he failed to develop a coherent strategy for improving Conservative electoral prospects. It came as no surprise when he was obliged to resign in October 2003 as a result of having lost a vote of no confidence in his leadership by Conservative MPs.

Click here for a Guardian video clip on the rise, fall and rise of Ian Duncan Smith. The key question now is to assess the ideological influences on Ian Duncan Smith’s approach to the alleviation of poverty. I have certainly heard him speak sympathetically of the views of the American New Right theorist Charles Murray but this may not be the whole story. Here is an issue for you to discuss with your teachers.

Michael Howard, the experienced Conservative former Minister signaled that he would stand for the leadership and when no other candidates stood against him he was duly returned unopposed as the next leader of the Conservative Party.



The Leadership of Michael Howard 2003-2005

Michael Howard came to the leadership of the Conservative Party with advantages enjoyed by neither of his predecessors William Hague and Ian Duncan Smith. Howard had been a Cabinet Minister in the Thatcher and Major governments and both he and the Conservative Party could be expected to gain as a result of the growing dissatisfaction with Tony Blair and the Labour government and by Jan 2004 the Conservative poll rating of 40% was the highest that they had achieved since before Black Wednesday in 1992.

Howard did initially try to set out a more centrist political strategy giving more attention than Hague had done to plans for the reform of the health and education services but he was also associated in peoples’ minds with the poll tax, the high unemployment of the Thatcher years and with a tough uncompromising approach to law and order which he had adopted during his time as Home Secretary.

Many voters were therefore unlikely to trust Howard’s Conservative Party to strengthen the public services and as the 2005 general election campaign approached Howard reverted more to the “core vote” strategy of adopting a rather strident approach to asylum seekers, crime and immigration which had already failed for William Hague in 2001.

Although the popularity of Tony Blair and the Labour government was on the decline Tony Blair was still perceived as a more credible prime minister than Michael Howard and Labour were ahead of the Conservatives in the polls on all the major policy issues apart from immigration and asylum seekers although in each case the Labour leads were not so great as in 1997 and 2001.

Nevertheless it came as no surprise when Labour again won the General Election but with a significantly reduced overall majority. The Conservatives did gain 32 parliamentary seats but their share of the poll only increased by 0.6% and their additional seats were gained mainly as a result of disaffected Labour voters defecting to the Liberal Democrats in seats where the Conservatives were the principle challengers to Labour.



The Conservatives 1997- 2005: A Summary

In summary the Conservatives suffered a landslide general election defeat in 1997 under the leadership of PM John Major who was replaced as leader by William Hague. Hogue’s electoral strategy of concentrating excessively on issues such as Europe, immigration, taxation and crime may have been popular with Conservative core voters but it virtually ensured that the Conservatives would fail to attract sufficient numbers of more centrist voters and that they would almost certainly be defeated heavily in the next General Election of 2001 and when this duly occurred, Hague was replaced as leader by Ian Duncan Smith who proved to be a weak in effective leader and was replaced by Michael Howard in 2003.

Michael Howard’s electoral strategy was not dissimilar to William Hogue’s and the Conservatives were once again unsurprisingly defeated in 2005.The Conservatives did gain approximately 32 parliamentary seats but their share of the poll only increased by 0.6% and their additional seats were gained mainly as a result of disaffected Labour voters defecting to the Liberal Democrats in seats where the Conservatives were the principle challengers to Labour.

Michael Howard resigned as leader soon after the General Election and the Conservative Party elected David Cameron as its leader in October 2005

David Cameron and the Conservative Party

In his study entitled “After Blair: David Cameron and the Conservative Tradition” [2007] Kieron O’Hara has pointed out that by 2005 the Conservative Party had a serious public image problem: opinion poll data showed that it was widely perceived as “overwhelmingly standing for business and the rich, being old fashioned, extreme, not representing people like me and having no new ideas. Even Teresa May, the sometime chairperson of the Conservative Party claimed that many people believed that the Conservative Party was simply “the nasty party.”

In order to analyse Cameron’s strategy to modernise the Conservative party and improve its electoral prospects I shall concentrate primarily on Cameron’s approach to the ideology of conservatism and then briefly on his attempts to reorganise the party and on the broad political context of the years 2005-2008

It has been argued that the ideology of the New Right has involved a combination of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism and in relation to this distinction it may be suggested that David Cameron has distanced himself slightly but not fundamentally from neo-liberalism in economic affairs and distanced himself rather more significantly from neo-conservatism on social issues. He has agreed with several of New Labour’s objectives but questioned the means by which they are to be achieved; he stresses the importance of economic issues and argues that greater corporate social responsibility is necessary if the environment is to be protected; and he has a rather Euro-skeptical attitude toward the European Union.

Cameron has of course accepted the Thatcherite neo-liberal policy legacy of privatization, low rates of income taxation and trade union reform but also seems to oppose significant further extension of neo-liberal policies supported by those on the right wing of the party such as John Redwood and Norman Tebbit. Whereas John Redwood in particular supports further contraction of the central state and further tax reductions in order to promote incentives, enterprise and economic freedom, Cameron wishes to extend and improve public services and recognizes that this will be expensive and reduce his capacity to reduce taxation in the short term although he does hope to reduce taxation significantly in the longer term if it is “affordable.” Cameron’s emphasis on corporate social responsibility suggests the possibility of more state regulation of industry which also distances him from neo-liberalism.

In describing himself as a “social liberal” Cameron has distanced himself from authoritarian neo-conservative positions on a range of social issues. In Cameron’s view the Conservative Party must convince the electorate that it is more in tune with modern social developments and prepared to rethink its attitudes to social issues accordingly. He has therefore shown sympathy with the difficulties of some single parents and ethnic minority members; he has supported same sex civil partnerships and he has sometimes adopted a more liberal approach to teenage crime.

Neo-conservatives are critical of Cameron’s liberal approach to social issues but as defenders of national sovereignty they have supported Cameron’s initial attempts to distance Conservative MEPs from the European Peoples Party in the European Parliament on the grounds that this party grouping cannot be relied upon to defend national sovereignty.

[ This is a tricky detail…you could leave out the explanation in the exam…the examiner will know what you mean further explanation; The European Peoples Party is a European Parliament grouping containing Conservative MEPs from several countries but as mentioned the EPP is believed by Cameron to fail to defend national sovereignty. Cameron hoped to take the Conservative MEPs out of the EPP but in the event this has as yet not proved possible.]

David Cameron has argued that because Labour has accepted much of the neo-liberal Thatcherite policy legacy it is no longer necessary to criticise all of Labour’s policy aims [several of which are now similar to the Conservatives’ own aims] but it is still necessary to criticise Labour’s methods and their record in government.

Thus Cameron has claimed that increased government spending on health and education has not produced the expected improvements in services and that despite all its claims to be supporting the disadvantaged income inequality has not been reduced in the 11 years of Labour government and statistical trends show that social mobility is actually declining meaning that equality of opportunity has not increased. [Against this Labour supporters claim that Labour has successfully reduced relative poverty and note that if social mobility rates of young people in their late twenties and thirties are low, these people were actually educated during the Conservative government years 1979-1997.]

Although Cameron supports the extension of public services he is critical of the expansion of the increased central state control of the public services which he claims has occurred under successive Labour governments Instead he argues that although the Central Government must continue to fund public services organization such as schools and hospitals should be given much more freedom to manage their own affairs and also that charities and pressure groups should play a much bigger role in local initiatives designed to strengthen local communities.

In summary Cameron wishes to see the expansion of public services based upon increased state funding but he also wishes to encourage local community initiatives via the involvement of local pressure groups and charities in the actual delivery of public services. The following box contains an extract from one of Cameron’s speeches. Note the last paragraph.

We are not facing a spiral of economic decline. We are no longer a country divided by battles between 'us and them.'

The change we are making recognises that we have won the battle of ideas. That, as are result, our aspirations are shared by others on the common ground of British politics, aspirations for a vibrant open economy, a decent society in which no-one is left behind, and where everyone who needs it gets a second chance.

But we should also be clear that the change we are making takes us beyond those aspirations, to see happiness, quality of life, and environmental sustainability as central goals of progressive government.

Our process of change is also a recognition that, to realize these aspirations, we need to win the last battle, the battle to replace short term bureaucratic fixes with long term sustainable solutions, brought about by individuals and civil society, building on firm foundations laid by government.

And, as a Conservative party changed by those recognitions begins to build a better Britain, we will be fulfilling, not betraying our inheritance. We will be showing that we have understood our past, and that we can see the way to our future

So how can we describe Cameron’s Conservatism in ideological terms?

He has accepted the broad outlines of the Thatcherite legacy in terms of privatisation, trade union reform and taxation policy to provide for incentives.

However he does not wish to extend privatisation and tax reductions as fast and as far as some on the Right of the Conservative party such as John Redwood.

He is a strong believer in the need for environmental protection and argues that increased corporate social responsibility will be necessary to safeguard the environment.

He recognizes the importance of increased funding of the public services but he wishes to reduce the role of the central state in the organisation and management in these public services.

He is a social liberal supporting family diversity, same sex civil partnerships and a more sympathetic approach to law and order although in the context of the  climate of increasing publicity given to knife crime he has adopted a tougher approach to law and order in recent months perhaps as a response to tougher government pronouncements on crime.

He is a Eurosceptical: he does not wish to see UK political powers taken over the by institutions of the European Union.

In summary it may be that if Tony Blair is a modern social democrat who has nevertheless accepted much of Thatcher’s legacy, might we reasonably argue that Cameron is a modern One Nation Conservative who has nevertheless accepted much of Thatcher’s legacy?

 David Cameron: The Political Context 2005-2008

When David Cameron became leader of the Conservative Party the Labour government had won 3 successive General Elections but although the Conservatives had again performed badly in the 2005 General Election they now faced an increasingly unpopular Labour Government with an increasingly unpopular Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair.

It would be understandable if the new Conservative leader took a little time to get used to his new position but assuming that he could prove to be at least competent the Conservatives might have hoped to take an opinion poll lead fairly quickly

In fact the Conservatives overtook Labour in the polls almost immediately after Cameron became leader and retained its lead in monthly polls throughout almost all of the remainder of Tony Blair’s leadership although the poll lead was often small such that if it had been repeated at in General Election the Conservatives would have been denied outright victory as a result of the bias of the UK electoral system.

To be on course for a General Election victory the Conservatives needed a larger opinion poll lead at this point and criticisms of Cameron’s leadership began to mount. It was argued that the voters were still uncertain what Cameron’s Conservatives stood for; that Cameron had not demonstrated the qualities of a Prime Minister in waiting; that he was more concerned with photo-opportunities than with the substance of policy making and on the right of the Conservative Party that he had distanced himself too much form true Thatcherite neo-liberalism and from neo-conservatism.

It now appeared that if Cameron and his supporters did not hold their nerve Conservative strategy might revert back to the Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard strategy which had already been shown to have failed. Cameron’s political difficulties increased as Gordon Brown’s poll ratings improved when he first became Prime Minister.

However a series of events would soon undermine Brown’s credibility as Prime Minister and the poll ratings of the Labour government as a whole. These events included the failure of the labour government to allow a referendum on the acceptability of the EU Treaty; the international credit crunch leading to the failure of the Northern Rock bank and increasing concerns that the UK might fall into economic recession; the rises in food and fuel prices which were undermining living standards; David Cameron’s effective Conservative party conference speech in which he seemed to reassert his leadership of his party; the uncertainty surrounding the possibility of a general election followed by the perception that Brown had shown political cowardice by his failure to call the election; the claims that Labour were effectively stealing Conservative taxation policies; the loss of a compact disc containing the personal details of about 23M citizens from a government department; the resignation of cabinet  minister  Peter Hain as a result of irregularities surrounding the financing of his campaign for the deputy leadership of the labour Party ; and the comical suggestion by Vince Cable of the Liberal Democrats that  Mr Brown was being transformed from Stalin to Mr Bean.

Faced with this situation it was entirely understandable that David Cameron would for a time concentrate his attention on exposing the apparent shortcomings of the Labour government and similar further opportunities arose as a result of the fall out from Labour’s decision in 2007 to abolish the 10p tax rate. Conservative poll ratings improved; However Labour were forced into 3rd place in the local government elections; the Conservative candidate Boris Johnson was elected as London mayor; the Conservatives won the by election in the previously safe Labour seat of Crewe and Nantwich and Labour poll ratings continued to plummet.

Now David Cameron has begun to claim that it is the Conservatives rather than Labour who can best defend the interests of the poor and in relation to the Labour government’s proposals to extend detention without trial for terrorist suspects to 42 days that it is the Conservatives rather than Labour who can be relied upon to defend our individual civil liberties.

It is clearly now time for David Cameron to begin to explain in more detail the policies which he will introduce to improve the condition of Britain.

Click here for an assessment by BBC correspondents of likely future Conservative policies.