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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 April 2005, 09:33 GMT 10:33 UK
1992: Tories win again against odds
KEY RESULTS
CONSERVATIVE VICTORY
Con: 336 seats (41.9% share)
Lab: 271 seats (34.4% share)
Lib: 20 seats (17.8% share)

In 1992 John Major stretched the Tories' winning streak to four general election victories in a row.

It was an impressive feat, all the more startling as it had been pulled off against the backdrop of one of the worst recessions of the 20th century.

Major's victory confounded pollsters and pundits alike, many of whom had been predicting a hung parliament or an end to Labour's years in the wilderness.

For Labour it was an incredibly depressing result and the question was raised, as it had been in 1959, could Labour ever be returned to power again?

Battlefield

The changes in the political landscape between 1987-1992 were dramatic.

By the late 1980s an increasingly strident Margaret Thatcher was beginning to be seen as an electoral liability by her colleagues - with policies like the poll tax causing the party to haemorrhage support.

Disagreements with Chancellor Nigel Lawson saw him resign in 1989, and when Geoffrey Howe too resigned in 1990, citing her style of leadership as one of his main reasons for quitting, Thatcher's premiership was fatally wounded.

John Major
John Major replaced Thatcher as Tory leader in a party coup
Her inability to see off a leadership challenge from Michael Heseltine forced her resignation, with chancellor John Major emerging from the tussle as her eventual successor.

With one stroke the Conservatives had freed themselves of much of the negative baggage of the Thatcher years, and could face the upcoming election with reasonable expectations of success.

The change between Thatcher and Major wrong-footed Labour, with Neil Kinnock later calling her his party's "greatest electoral asset".

Nevertheless, Labour modernisation continued apace, with the party making peace with the UK's membership of the European Union, the market economy, ditching unilateralism and moving away from firm commitments on re-nationalisation.

The Tories were not the only party to receive a new leader. In 1988 the Liberals and the SDP voted to merge, and Paddy Ashdown was elected leader in July.

After a slow start the Liberal Democrats, as they became known, pulled off several by-election coups, starting in Eastbourne.

Taken as a whole, all three main parties were in good heart and full of expectations for the battle ahead.

Campaign

The day after Chancellor Norman Lamont delivered a tax-cutting Budget, John Major announced the 1992 general election would be on 9 April.

Tax was a key theme of the election and one with which the Tories hoped they could clobber Labour.

To that extent it was a negative campaign - with the Tories liberally costing Labour's policy commitments as a 37.9bn tax hike - while in reply Labour campaign posters called a caped Norman Lamont "Vatman".

The Tory campaign under the direction of party chairman Chris Patten focused on hammering Labour over tax - and on the personality of John Major.

The prime minister - who after a slow start found his campaigning feet when he reverted to using a soapbox to address crowds in the street - made much of his Brixton roots, most memorably in a election broadcast.

But for Labour its highest profile election broadcast backfired. Focusing on NHS waiting lists under the Tories, the party dramatised the case of a real child waiting for an ear operation.

The message that only the rich received access to high quality health care under the Tories was lost as a row broke out over the details of the case, which went down in political history as the Battle of Jennifer's Ear.

Tax and health aside, proportional representation grew in importance as a campaign issue as the polls showed a hung parliament was a distinct possibility.

The Liberal Democrats were clear that delivering proportional representation was the price of their support should Labour or the Conservatives request it.

The Tories rejected any suggestions of a deal but as the weeks passed Labour looked to be opening up the possibility of negotiations with the Lib Dems - sending a confusing message to the voters at exactly the wrong time.

As the campaign drew to a close, nearly four out of five of the polls conducted since John Major had fired the starting gun gave Labour a slight lead, making a narrow victory look quite likely.

With just a few days to go, Neil Kinnock let his enthusiasm run away with him at the party's final big rally in Sheffield, striking an awkward note that jarred with many voters.

Personalities

Although caricatured brutally in the press as being grey, or wearing his underpants over his trousers, John Major's personality was a clear bonus to the Tories' chances of being returned to office.

He consistently appealed to more voters than his party did. His change of approach, as much as any change of policy since Thatcher, helped put the Tories back on course.

Major, 47 when he became prime minister, had never been to university and he had shared many common experiences with the public. He had experienced a period of unemployment, and had been turned down for a job as a bus conductor. Citing the Little Chef as a favourite place to eat, he made a virtue of his ordinariness.

His refusal to be packaged, in the same manner as Neil Kinnock or Margaret Thatcher had been, also added a certain homely sincerity to his character that chimed with some voters.

Kinnock, taking Labour into his second campaign as leader, was by now at the head of a disciplined and well marshalled and party, with changed policies and little remaining from the Foot era.

As in the previous election his personality, policies and leadership were savaged in the tabloid press. Their baiting of the Labour leader was such that The Sun newspaper claimed to have tipped the balance for Major on its own.

With the bulk of the Liberal and the SDP members voting to merge their two parties Paddy Ashdown became the leader of the new third party which, after much debate, christened itself the Liberal Democrats.

Ashdown, a former marine and member of the Special Boat Service was fluent in Mandarin. He was a vigorous and energetic personality.

He proved a decisive leader who managed to build up a strong base from the dispirited ruins that the Alliance parties had left in their passing.

Key issues

The Conservative manifesto - The Best Future for Britain - saw the Tories stick to their traditional issues, promising tax cuts where possible and pushing further ahead with their programme of privatisations. Coal and rail were next on the list.

The theme of spreading opportunity and choice, as well as rolling back the state, ran throughout the manifesto, marking the continuity between the Thatcher and Major governments.

But Labour's 1992 manifesto presented a very different prospect to that of 1987.

A commitment to pumping money into the ailing National Health Service was there, alongside promises to raise child benefit and pensions - and the top rate of income tax.

However, several significant strides had been made taking the party closer to the political centre. Labour's backing for unilateral nuclear disarmament had been dropped. In its place was a pledge to work with other countries to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Neither was there any talk of re-nationalising what the Tories had sold off, nor of a repeal of the Tory laws passed to reduce the power of the trade unions.

Fighting their first election, the Liberal Democrats did much to give themselves a politically vital unique selling point apart from the issue of proportional representation - a marginal concern to most voters.

By choosing education and a pledge to use a 1p rise in income tax to fund investment in schools the Lib Dems gave those so inclined a clear reason to vote for them.





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The Labour Party celebrate victory prematurely in 1992



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