Moments That Made The Year : Infected by mad cows and Europhobes

Blair has been canny, but the Tories dug themselves ever deeper into the mire, says Donald Macintyre

You are a Tory Cabinet minister. You are ambitious. You are spending Christmas at home thinking in deepest privacy of what 1997 will bring.

You look at the opinion polls. What does the phrase "election campaign" make you think about first? Is it (a), the gruelling prospect of three weeks stomping up and down Britain straining every fibre of your body to help secure your party a record fifth term in office against all the odds? Is it (b), a good job at Lazards or (c), something you would prefer not to think about at all? Or is it (d), another election altogether: the battle for the votes of the Tory party to succeed John Major and become its eighth leader since 1945?

If it's (b) or (c), you've probably got one of those marginal seats which look doomed. If it's (d), you're one of at least half a dozen senior members of the Cabinet, who thinks that he or she can be leading the party by the end of the year. If it's (a) you're probably John Major. That, in sum, is how bad 1996 was for the party which has governed Britain since 1979. It wasn't the crises themselves, though goodness knows there were enough of those. It was more that this was the year that the economic recovery was finally supposed to translate into votes and didn't.

It's why Tory MPs would discuss the prospect of electoral defeat with an openness, sometimes even with a relish, that has been unknown in any party since Labour was in its darkest days in the early 1980s. It is why some of the brightest stars on what was once thought to have been the left of the party, such as Stephen Dorrell and Malcolm Rifkind, started to court the neo-Thatcherite right wing which they believe will dominate the party after polling day. Perhaps the speech Mr Dorrell made back in May - not long after the Tories lost an awe-inspiring 567 seats in the local elections - will prove, in its own way, a turning point. In it, the Secretary of State for Health deftly became at once state-shrinker and Euro- sceptic in the same speech, bewilderingly proclaiming that Margaret Thatcher had really been a "one nation" Conservative. By that time of course, most people had already forgotten that in January she herself had witheringly dismissed the term in a speech of her own which derided the recent defection of Emma Nicholson to the Liberal Democrats, but which also managed to be notably unhelpful to Mr Major. Only Ken Clarke, and though he was less public about it, Michael Heseltine, stubbornly refused to trim like this.

More of that in a moment. Consider first the level of Tory indiscipline given that this was the last full year before an election. It was that on issues as disparate as divorce and the sale of MoD homes, large groups of rebellious backbenchers were prepared to flout the iron law that voters distrust divided parties. Against this background perhaps one Tory rebel qualifies as backbencher of the year for being - literally - on the side of virtue: it was Quentin Davies, who voted against the Government over the Scott arms-to-Iraq report.

And it was Mr Davies who helped Parliament to start cleaning up its act with a relentless cross-examination which exposed the untruth at the heart of the testimony by the minister David Willetts against charges that he had been tampering with a quasi-judicial inquiry into sleaze. Mr Davies got precious little thanks for it. But it was his colleagues who were doing the real damage: even as the country absorbed the shock of Dunblane, a majority of Tory MPs on the Home Affairs Select Committee set about trying to prove that the gun lobby needed appeasing more than the town's stricken parents. This was defiance of electoral gravity on a heroic scale.

But above all, of course, it was Europe that made the disintegration look terminal, that became for so many an issue bigger than party. The coalition of phobes, sceptics and those bullied by both, refused to give up, as Mr Clarke had predicted they would when he agreed in April - despite having seriously contemplated resignation - that any future decision to join EMU would be put to a referendum. In return he secured a deal written in blood that Major would not rule out joining EMU - a deal that the sceptics then set about trying to unravel in a campaign which still isn't over. What's more, the boundaries of the argument changed. Gradually, it became possible to talk about withdrawal from the EU. For this, the catalyst - even more than the fear inspired by Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party - was probably the crisis over BSE.

The BSE debacle became at once the most potent symbol of government incompetence and the crucible on which a muscular new anti- Europeanism was forged on the Tory right. The Government declared a war on Europe it couldn't win - with an Alice in Wonderland policy of non- cooperation which amounted only to vetoing those proposals which it would have previously have approved because they did no damage to Britain.

It is tempting simply to blame Mr Major for allowing all this to get out of control. But that fails to give enough credit to Tony Blair. True, Mr Blair had at times to do little more than watch the disintegration. True, also, that he wasn't trouble free in 1996. There were even some symmetries: as Lady Thatcher had undermined Mr Major in January - leaving until October her electoral endorsement of Mr Major - so Lord Callaghan in December gently sniped at the Labour leader in a recent interview in the New Statesman.

John Major had his own worst week (the most recent of many) in December which began when a ham-fisted attempt to re-open the EMU issue infuriated his Chancellor and ended when the MP John Gorst threatened to desert in defence of his local hospital. Tony Blair had his worst week back in January when Harriet Harman created an earthquake by sending her son to a grammar school. There are still after- tremors and more may follow in the election campaign.

But that doesn't alter the fact that throughout this year much of the Tory party has behaved as if it didn't expect to win for the very reason that Mr Blair had made Labour look convincingly electable again.

Ignoring the siren voices urging him to take more electoral risks - on Europe, on tax, and on spending - he has painstakingly reinforced the theme of the draft manifesto which he unveiled in July: that Labour will not promise more than it can deliver. He underlaid it, what's more, with a subliminal message that he will deliver more than he promises. This is no mean achievement.

The polls may, if not lie, exaggerate. The Tories will not waste the pounds 10m they intend to spend from the new year. Labour cannot yet be sure of winning. But the Tories ended the year no better than they began it. And that, they never expected.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape