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How did John Major win 14,093,007 votes?

By Tim Montgomerie
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We're cutting welfare bills. Reforming schools. Devolving power to local councils. Lowering taxes on business. Introducing democratic oversight of policing. And, of course, embarking on the longest period of spending cuts in British history. This is the impressive list of reforms that Downing Street trots out whenever they receive incoming 'friendly fire' from Tory MPs and numerous critics in the centre right press. Cameron cannot understand why he has so few friends in the 'Conservative family'. In today's Daily Mail I attempt to offer an answer. Few people see Cameron as a winner. Only 23% of party members think he will win a majority at the next election. Few are convinced by the Tory battle plan. The growing suspicion is that Cameron will seek another deal with the Lib Dems as he contemplates the difficulty of winning more votes and more seats after being the Prime Minister who presides over five years of austerity.

Screen Shot 2012-04-07 at 07.55.02A central purpose of ConHome is to explore how we can win the next election and in my Mail piece I focus on what Conservatives might learn from John Major. Twenty years ago, on 9th April 1992, John Major won a majority in the House of Commons and if we don't change course he might continue to be the last Conservative leader to have done so.

Despite John Major's achievements as Prime Minister (I recently listed them) many Tories don't remember him fondly. They remember the landslide defeat of 1997. They remember Maastricht. The years of sleaze. The Spitting Image caricature. And, sadly, the affair with Edwina Currie. Please put all of that out of your mind for a moment and remember the 1992 general election. It was the election we shouldn't have won. The poll tax/ community charge was fresh in the memory. We had messed up economically and had been in power for perhaps too long. But Major won and he won more votes than any British party leader has ever won - before or since. The most votes Margaret Thatcher ever received were 13,760,935 (in 1987). Blair won 13,518,167 votes in his 1997 landslide victory. Two years ago 10,703,654 voted for Cameron's Conservative Party. In 1992 John Major won 14,093,007 votes. How did he do it?

First of all, of course, Major had a little help from Neil Kinnock. Neil Kinnock was a liability for Labour - just as Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband are weights on Labour in our day.

Second was the tax bombshell campaign.

John Major presented the party unashamedly as the low tax party. The Tory campaign relentlessly attacked Labour. Remember the double whammy campaign?

Screen Shot 2012-04-07 at 08.22.04And we had the whole of the centre right press on our side then - a far cry from today. Earlier in the week James Kirkup blogged that the PM defended his comms operation by pointing to the good photographs that he received when he visited Barack Obama (here they are). I have learnt that Mr Cameron gave his answer to a question about The Sun. One of the MPs present at the lunch with the PM said that they were worried that The Sun's constant negativity towards the Government could be very damaging. The PM responded by saying that newspapers don't matter too much anymore. He said that it's mainly about broadcasters and images of the kind he got from his US trip. Such an attitude reveals a serious misunderstanding of how the media's food chain works.

Third, Major picked a combative party chairman. Chris Patten was hardly off the news. He fought against Labour with rottweiler determination. Mr Patten's defeat in Bath was probably due in part to the sacrifices he made for the party's wider benefit. Cameron doesn't have a Chairman to represent the Tory Party in the media. In today's circumstances it's actually more important that we have someone who represents the party while Cameron is representing the Coalition government.

Finally, there was John Major's personal message. Here was a Tory leader who had come from humble origins to become leader of the Conservative Party. Watch this 1992 Tory video and his pitch is clearly to people who didn't have much money and wanted to know that the Conservative Party was on their side.

In 1992 John Major got on his famous soapbox and presented himself as a man of the people who understood the pressures on ordinary families and understood that a recession-struck nation simply couldn't afford Labour.

Cameron cannot pretend to be from an under-privileged background but there's much to learn from Major's attractive vision of a classless, meritocratic Conservative Party. Cameron needs more blue collar Tories on his frontbench. He also needs to relentlessly focus on the striving classes in the three years left of this parliament. Without "Major's 1992 Tories" he'll never win a majority.


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