How the 1992 general election changed the political landscape

Sir John Major on Owen Paterson affair

Former Prime Minister Sir John Major - Credit: PA Media - file photo

30 years ago, Prime Minister John Major called a General Election for April 9th. With both Labour and Mr Major’s Tories seemingly neck-and-neck in the opinion polls, it was expected to be a close contest.

The Conservatives had been in power for 13 years, Margaret Thatcher having led them to handsome victories in 1979, 1983 and 1987. But by 1990, she had become deeply unpopular with the general public. The party had become bitterly divided over the European issue and people hated the new Community Charge she had introduced. Nearly everyone called it ‘the Poll Tax’. In November 1990, John Major had replaced Mrs Thatcher after she had been brutally overthrown by the Tories themselves. Major had quickly abolished the Poll Tax and in early 1992, people still generally liked him. He seemed nicer and more easy-going although more boring than Thatcher had been. Major was, in fact, more popular than his own party who were losing popularity due to a widespread economic recession. Behind the scenes, Thatcher who was by now standing down as an MP, was still bitterly resentful and Tory divisions over Europe still bubbled away under the surface. These issues would cause problems later.

Labour, meanwhile, seemed to be narrowly ahead in the polls indicating they might be able to form a government with the help of Paddy Ashdown’s Liberal Democrats. Labour’s Neil Kinnock had transformed the party from the very weak position he had inherited when he had taken over as leader back in 1983. Labour had reversed its position on key issues: it supported Europe and Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Labour also appeared far slicker than they had once looked. The party now had a red rose as its symbol and seemed much more united than they had once been. On the other hand, Kinnock himself remained unpopular. The mostly Conservative-owned newspapers lampooned him claiming he was two-faced, idiotic and a ‘windbag’. There was also widespread scepticism about Labour’s tax plans and their levels of economic competence even though their Shadow Chancellor, John Smith, was widely respected.

No one expected the Liberal Democrats to win but some felt they might end up holding the balance of power. Leader Paddy Ashdown had admitted to an extramarital affair and had been cruelly dubbed “Paddy Pantsdown” by the Tory press. In fact, John Major had had an affair with his colleague Edwina Currie when he was still a backbench MP in the 1980s, but this was not widely known then.

The campaign commenced. Major campaigned while standing on a soapbox on city street corners. Later, this would be hailed as a masterstroke. At the time, it was widely criticised by Tories and Opposition alike. Labour, meanwhile, staged a huge campaign rally in Sheffield. Some felt that this smacked of overconfidence as if they were acting as they had already won.

In the end, Tory Party chairman Chris Patten attempted to draw Liberal Democrat voters worried about a Kinnock win away to the Tories. Although Patten himself would lose his own seat to the Lib Dems in Bath, in general, this tactic seemed to work. On election night, there was a shock, unexpected result. John Major’s Tories won with a slim but adequate majority of 21. The party quickly fell into trouble and would not win comfortably again until Boris Johnson’s 2019 victory, 27 years later. Labour, meanwhile, had suffered a shattering fourth consecutive General Election defeat. Kinnock himself said later he knew for sure that Labour had lost when he saw David Amess win the seat of Basildon for the Tories, a seat Labour really should have won if they were to stand any hope of winning nationwide. Neil Kinnock soon resigned as Labour leader and was replaced by John Smith.

Locally Sir Peter Emery won the seat of Honiton for the Conservatives for the eighth and final time. In Tiverton, Conservative Angela Browning also won.