Don Brind looks at landslides past
I have a soft spot for Lib Dem peer Dick Taverne even though I cut my teeth as a Labour Party press officer trying to end his political career.
His letter to the Guardian this week struck a chord. “Mrs May is riding high, apparently heading for a general election triumph, idolised by the tabloids for defying those beastly Europeans who seek to do Britain down. Today’s winners often end up as tomorrow’s losers,”
Taverne has always been a strong Europhile and fell out with his local party in 1973 when he supported the Tories in voting for entry to the Common Market. His resignation to fight a by election saw me drafted in by Transport House.
I failed to stop him romping to victory in the by election but my contribution to his demise was the suggestion to local party chairman Leo Beckett that they would do better with a woman candidate. I recommended a Transport House colleague Margaret Jackson who went on to defeat Taverne in the second of the 1974 General Elections. Margaret married Leo and as Mrs Beckett ascended briefly to the leadership of the party and Briatin’s first woman Foreign Secretary.
Taverne descended into relative obscurity and waited until 1996 to get his peerage. We are all now on the same side of the Europe argument. I was very taken by his four examples of Prime Ministers whose triumphs turned sour.
• “In 1902 Salisbury delivered a Tory landslide with the Liberal opposition deeply divided in the aftermath of the Boer war. Four years later saw an all-time record anti-Conservative landslide.
• “Chamberlain was a hero when he came back from appeasing Hitler in 1938 and proclaimed “Peace for our time”. The few dissidents led by Churchill were denounced as warmongers. Then Hitler annexed Czechoslovakia.
• “In 1956 Eden launched the Suez war with strong nationalist support. It proved a disaster and soon his reputation lay in tatters.
• “In 2003 the invasion of Iraq led to a widespread outbreak of patriotic fervour – but destroyed public trust in one of Britain’s most successful and popular recent prime ministers.”
Another cautionary example is offered by my old journalist mate Denis McShane, former Labour MP and minister for Europe writing in Prospect He dubs Theresa May’s philosophy “Rectory Toryism” which he argues looks like a return to the 1960s, “when state control of society and economy was at its apogee.” It was also the era of Harold Wilson who led Labour to a landslide in 1966.
McShane suggest this election “ may turn out to be curiously similar to that of 1966, in which Harold Wilson obtained a large majority. Worryingly for Theresa May, his government only lasted four years and Wilson lost the next election, after becoming not the master of events, but their prisoner.”
Neither Taverne nor McShane mention 1992 but to me there are echoes of John Major’s short-lived triumph. As Tim Montgomerie observed on Conservative Home some years ago, “John Major presented the party unashamedly as the low tax party. The Tory campaign relentlessly attacked Labour … Major picked a combative party chairman. Chris Patten (who) fought against Labour with rottweiler determination.” Remind you of anyone? Lynton Crosby?
Less than six months after amassing a record 14 million votes Major saw his government implode on Black Wednesday, never to recover.
The obvious point about Taverne McShane and myself is that we all fear the worst – we believe the polls and expect Team Theresa to get their landslide.
That said, I am hoping London may buck the trend. Having done some door knocking at the weekend I am cautiously sanguine about the prospects for the re-election of the charismatic Rosena Allin Khan in Tooting. And according to a friend of the redoubtable Joan Ryan Labour in Enfield North have been buoyed by a recent council by election. Labour matched the Tories in increasing their votes by around 13 per cent as the Green and UKIP voters collapsed.
Green switchers may be less easy to detect than UKIP switchers but they could be important. In 2015 there were a group of seats where the shift of a small number of Green voters would have deprived the Tories of a gain: (Tory majority in bold) Gower 27 1161; Derby N 41 1618; Croydon C 165 1454; Bury N 378 1141; Morley&Outwood 422 1264; Plymouth S&D 523 3401; Brighton Kempton 690 3187; Weaver Vale 806 1183; Telford 730 930
If Labour are to spring any surprises on June 8th they will probably come from this list.