‘Teflon’s Prime Minister’ has finally encountered something that might stick around: the rebirth of a word first heard the last time a UK Conservative government entered its second decade – but with a twist that looks a lot like at the age of Boris Johnson.
“Sleaze” is squarely associated with the “short 1990s” – the decade before the 1997 Labor election landslide. The fact that John Major was prime minister for seven years is largely ignored, perhaps because he seemed so often passed, from the moment of his great triumph – the electoral victory of 1992 that many, even within his own party, did not believe it would happen.
The architect of the fourth consecutive victory, Party Chairman Chris Patten, admitted to Major that they had “stretched the rubber band” as far as they could. It quickly broke.
As with Johnson, when Major took office in 1990, the Conservatives had been in power for three parliaments. The two prime ministers needed a new animating political brand, thus getting back to basics and leveling themselves as respective election platforms. But the risks are great when misrepresentation is easy: the very phrase “back to basics” – a program that never intended to speak of personal morality – immediately became mired in contemptuous accusations of hypocrisy. .
The historic scandal of the time was the “cash for questions”. Plutocrats have paid lobbyists to keep MPs under mandate, and newspapers have nabbed MPs on video, filming them accepting money in exchange for asking questions of ministers in parliament. Many Conservative MPs were involved, including Neil Hamilton. The brown envelope stuffed with cash has become a political signifier.
But the sleazy of the 1990s was much larger and remarkable for the number of other, unrelated cases that have taken place or have come to light. The “arms in Iraq” scandal saw British engineering firm Matrix Churchill exposed for selling military equipment to Saddam Hussein’s regime, only to have its activities revealed as government approved. This resulted in a high-profile, judge-led investigation that could end the government, as well as the spectacular fall and imprisonment of Cabinet Minister Jonathan Aitken.
Members of Parliament scandals involving sex were of the greatest interest to a lewd public. The first pages of 1994 alone splashed two former ministers: Steven Norris and his five mistresses, and Alan Clark who (separately) sleeps a mother and two daughters. That neither of the two men was embarrassed by the revelations added to the feeling of a decadent party partying in a decadent way.
Their colleagues Tim Yeo and Gary Waller had children out of wedlock; Rod Richards and Robert Hughes quit because of extramarital affairs, and Piers Merchant was caught in the company of a teenage nightclub hostess. Hartley Booth, a lay preacher and father of three, has resigned because of a relationship with a young woman over half his age.
Even before the social media agency, there was enough excitement to keep the tabloid feeding frenzies going for at least a few news cycles, spurred on by the best efforts of publicist Max Clifford, who, with appropriate symmetry , himself was ultimately dishonored and imprisoned.
To compound the sentiment of the end of the day, the burgeoning conservative civil war against Europe, which prompted Major to a tactical and ineffective resignation as party leader. His crushing re-election did not change the popular impression of a prime minister in office but not in power.
Regular partial electoral catastrophes – Newbury in 1993, Christchurch in 1993, Eastleigh in 1994, Littleborough and Saddleworth in 1995, Devon West and Torridge in 1995, South East Staffordshire in 1996, Wirral South in 1997 – have punctuated parliament like the beating of ‘a funeral drum.
There has never been such political disintegration. Bliss must have been a satirist, and Have I Got News for You has become a TV date (there is no streaming). It was a country in the grip of calamity; in the words of Labor leader John Smith, a “where the Grand National does not start and where hotels fall into the sea”.
The result of the 1997 general election was thus the most predictable in history. The campaign mirrored, often ridiculously, the five years that had just passed, former BBC journalist Martin Bell’s most iconic, in his white suit, killing Hamilton as if George with the dragon. Across the country, Sir James Goldsmith’s insurgent new referendum party has challenged deceptive politicians to take back control. He did not win any seats but drew almost a million votes.
A key difference
Such is the behavior of a one-party state, or a rotten market town – or a tribe that has become accustomed to power. It had happened to the Conservatives in the early 1960s, and it would happen again, to Labor (and all politicians) in the late 2000s with the spending scandal. But in none of these cases was the prime minister involved in wrongdoing. Johnson has been referred to the Standards Commissioner more times than any MP in the past three years.
The 90s were still a time when standards, when authority, was respected. Major did not refer to the ambiguous wording “breaking” the rules rather than accepting guilt. Major didn’t have to be yelled at by the Speaker of the House of Commons. One of Major’s cabinet ministers did not request the resignation of the standards commissioner.
Sleaze also provides reach. That of the 1990s made Tony Blair appear new and nimble; the spending scandal predicted David Cameron to be faultless (though that was about to change). 2021 offers a potentially lucrative case for Keir Starmer, a former attorney for wandering MPs.
The 1990s bottled up the essence of widespread political scandals – the exploitation of power and patronage, the seductions of bed-sums and bank balances – but one could also taste the spice of the new politics. The 1997 election was the first in the UK with significant populism. The extraordinary scene of his count, as the defeated Mellor was yelled at by insurgent party activists, can be seen as a foretaste of politics to come.