Is Boris Johnson’s government about to fall apart? Twice since World War Two, Tory governments have broken up after a prolonged period of rule. They have died not because of a single crisis, but slowly expired due to sheer exhaustion, disunity, and lack of purpose or ideas. Now Boris’s regime, after another lengthy Tory period in power, looks as though it may be heading towards a similar exit. But can it avoid its fate?
The parallels between today’s events and those of 1963 and 1992-7 are inescapable. In all three cases we have a tired team of Tories bereft of ideas simply running out of steam. In all three we have a derided Prime Minister becoming the butt of media jibes and popular dislike. In all three we have a slew of petty scandals, trivial in themselves but collectively fatal.
The bad news for Boris is that even if he can avoid – or survive – a vote of confidence among Tory MPs, he has a fight on his hands to convince Brits that he deserves to hold on to the keys of No. 10.
If he fails, he will follow in the footsteps of Harold Macmillan. In October 1959, the Tories stormed to their third election victory in a row with a 100-seat majority dwarfing even Boris Johnson’s thumping 80 seat triumph in 2019. Under their progressive One Nation leader – dubbed ‘Supermac’ – the Tories had recovered from the debacle of the 1956 Suez crisis which had forced his predecessor Anthony Eden to resign in disgrace. Eden’s offences included lying to Parliament to cover up his covert collusion with France and Israel in invading Egypt. A rather more serious matter, it may be thought, than lying to Parliament about boozing in Downing Street.
Within two years Suez was history, the economy was booming, and ‘Supermac’ was able to boast to voters – with complacent justification – ‘You’ve never had it so good’. The Tories were wafted back into power under the cheery slogan ‘Life is good – don’t let Labour ruin it’. Then, just like in 2020, it all started to go horribly wrong.
In 1958, before the election, Macmillan’s entire Treasury team – chancellor Peter Thorneycroft and junior ministers Enoch Powell and Nigel Birch – resigned en masse in protest at Macmillan’s wild spending (another foretaste of current Tory worries) which, they claimed, was only fuelling inflation. The unflappable Mac airily dismissed the resignations as ‘a little local difficulty’. But the dry rot had set in for his government even as the votes for his election victory were being counted.
In 1962, seeking to rejuvenate his regime, Macmillan sacked seven ministers (a third of his Cabinet) in a brutal reshuffle that critics likened to Hitler’s murderous ‘Night of Long Knives’ purge. The following year the key cornerstone of his government’s economic and foreign plans – entry to the Common Market, forerunner of the EU – collapsed when France’s president de Gaulle contemptuously rejected Britain’s application to join. ‘All our policies,’ Macmillan lamented in his diary, ‘...lie in ruins’.
According to Shakespeare, troubles ‘come not as single spies but in battalions’, and it was the unmasking of a whole troupe of British Soviet spies in the early 1960s that really put the skids under a Mac who had suddenly stopped looking super. Master spy Kim Philby defected to Russia after his treachery was revealed; a gay Admiralty clerk called John Vassall was blackmailed by the KGB into betraying naval secrets; a long-term mole named George Blake was sprung from jail where he was serving a 42 year sentence, and smuggled behind the Iron Curtain. Britain’s security services at the height of the Cold War looked – and were – not just leaky but lethally incompetent.
Groggy from this series of scandals, Macmillan began to be mocked on TV satire shows like ‘That Was The Week That Was’ and ‘Beyond The Fringe’ as deference to his hitherto respected ruling caste fell apart. The elegant Edwardian in No. 10 was portrayed as a fossilised fuddy duddy, out of touch and out of time. It was then that the death blow of the Profumo affair kicked in.
Macmillan’s war minister, John Profumo, was found to be consorting with a good time girl, Christine Keeler, who was also enjoying the attentions of the Soviet military attaché Eugene Ivanov. In a world that had barely escaped atomic annihilation the previous year in the Cuban missiles crisis, this was a nuclear scandal to end all others. Profumo, who had lied to the Commons in denying the affair, honourably quit and spent the rest of his life atoning by doing good works for charity. But by then the damage was done. It was, as a vengeful Nigel Birch told Macmillan, quoting Robert Browning: ‘Never glad confident morning again’ for him or his government.
Within months, Macmillan reluctantly resigned, like Eden, on grounds of ill health after his enlarged prostate gland was misdiagnosed as cancer. As he did so, rival candidates for the succession publicly fought like ferrets in a sack at a chaotic Blackpool Tory party conference. From his hospital bed, Macmillan loftily ignored them and smoothed his foreign secretary, fellow Old Etonian Lord Home, into No. 10 in his place.
It did no good for the fourteenth Earl Home to renounce his title so he could sit in the Commons as plain Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Labour’s new democratically elected leader Harold Wilson successfully painted the new PM as a feudal relic, out of place in an egalitarian Britain ‘forged in the white heat of the technological revolution’. After a year in office, Sir Alec lost the 1964 election and ‘thirteen years of Tory misrule’ were over.
In 1990, just as in 1963 and today, a sea of troubles threatened to swamp the Tory ship after a similarly long time in office. The 1980s had been the uninterrupted Thatcher decade. The combative Iron Lady, a very different sort of Tory from the emollient, languid Macmillan, was running out of road. Despite trouncing Labour in three successive elections, winning the Falklands War, defying the IRA, taming the unions, giving tenants the right to buy their own homes and a stake in capitalism, and helping to bring down Soviet Communism, she had finally begun to grate on the nation’s collective nerves.
Thatcher’s increasingly strident tones, her espousal of the electorally toxic poll tax, and her resistance to the EU’s steady and stealthy encroachment on British sovereignty fuelled plots. The Europhile wet wing of the Tory party, who had never really been reconciled to having a woman bossing them about anyway, were out to get her. Finding a challenger in lion-maned Michael Heseltine, and an unlikely assassin in the sheepish shape of Sir Geoffrey Howe, the plotters struck. Thatcher was out.
But it was not quite the end for the Tories. Flinching from the charismatic Hezza, they chose as PM John Major: a much-mocked grey man of zero charisma and Pooterish manners, hoping for a quiet life after the storms and stresses of Thatcherism. Instead they got wars in the Gulf and Yugoslavia, and a debilitating guerilla conflict at home as Thatcherite MPs resisted more EU encroachment. Above all, they got Black Wednesday.
Having unexpectedly seen off Labour in the 1992 election, Major embarked on a doomed attempt to board the EU express by tying the pound to the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, a forerunner of the Euro. An economic disaster ensued, losing billions to speculators on the eponymous Wednesday, pricing people out of their homes, and depriving the Tories of their reputation for fiscal competence. After Major abandoned his attempt to join the ERM he was as vulnerable as Macmillan following De Gaulle’s ‘Non’.
Popular hatred of the Tories curdled into complete contempt when a parade of the party’s MPs were embroiled in a series of absurd sexual scandals that made them despised figures of fun. After Labour acquired a glamorous new leader in Tony Blair, the landslide electoral defeat that swept the Tories away in 1997 was impossible to prevent.
Is there anything that the Tories can do to stop the rot? Or are they doomed to face a similar fate to Major’s party? Changing their colourful leader for a less controversial figure as they did in 1963 and 1990 and are contemplating doing again today could recoup some lost support, but is unlikely to avert a final reckoning, especially if the next two years see us engulfed by an economic tsunami.
When a rueful Jim Callaghan was defeated by a triumphant Thatcher in 1979, he said: ‘There are times, perhaps once every thirty years, when there is a sea-change in politics. Then it does not matter what you say or what you do’. Today’s Tories should not be too surprised if they are drowned in the next such sea change. Boris has a fight on his hands if he is to avoid a fate that is increasingly looking inevitable.