The Conservative Party has always been one of the great certainties of British politics. It has been so dominant throughout the twentieth century that some observers have begun to speak of this period as the ‘Conservative Century’.footnote1 Between 1945 and 1995, the Conservatives formed majority governments for thirty-two years and eight months—65.6 per cent of the time. Centre–Left governments have been uncommon, and have rarely lasted long. The Conservatives, by contrast, have often enjoyed long, uninterrupted spells in office. They won three consecutive general elections between 1951 and 1964, and four since 1979. Labour by contrast has never lasted in government for two full parliaments.

At times, this remarkable ascendancy has suggested the kind of dominant single-party system which has been experienced in Japan, Sweden, or Italy. But the dominance which the Conservatives have enjoyed has not rested on any great record of national advance. Apart from the successes in two world wars, it has been associated with failure; economic decline and imperial retreat. The dominance of the Conservatives has rested on their command and understanding of the British state: this venerable institution has sometimes seemed on the verge of foundering, but it has survived into the last decade of the twentieth century with many of its more curious features still intact, the last major ancien regime and multinational imperial state left in Europe.footnote2

The identity of the Conservative Party is inseparable from the history of this state. It has been the state’s supremely flexible and adaptable instrument. In the last three years, however, the Party has been plunged into the deepest crisis of support it has ever faced. There has even been speculation that it could suffer the fate of the Canadian Conservatives who were reduced to two seats in the 1993 general election. Given the lead which Labour has currently established in the polls, the capacity of the Conservative Party to recover before the next election is widely doubted, and many commentators predict that the Party could be out of office for more than a decade. Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, went still further, baldly stating that if the Conservatives were foolish enough to elect John Redwood as leader in place of John Major it would be out of office for a thousand years.

Are the current difficulties of the Party a passing phase or do they reflect deeper problems both for the Conservatives and for the British state? The evidence is contradictory. Many of the former foundations of Conservative hegemony have been eroded, and the Conservative Party is deeply divided over Europe and in many ways no longer a coherent or credible governing force. This suggests that the era of Conservative dominance may be coming to an end. But there is no great popular tide behind a radical alternative. The passion and conviction in British politics is still mostly on the Right. If the Centre–Left parties miss this opportunity to reshape the British state, they may find that the future belongs to a new and reinvigorated populist Conservatism.

The present signs of crisis for the Conservatives are plentiful. Electoral support has collapsed, the Party has been riven by factions and open conflict, the authority of the leadership has been gravely damaged, and the Party has been facing a steep decline in both its membership and its funds.footnote3

Matters had reached such a low point in 1995 that John Major decided to resign the leadership and stand for reelection, hoping to reassert his authority over the Party. His move advertised the deep divisions that had emerged within the Party over its future policy and direction.

Major’s weakness is partially the result of his own and his Party’s poll ratings over the last three years. When Major succeeded Thatcher in 199o, the support for both the Conservatives and their leader substantially increased. Thereafter, although the Conservative rating was to decline, Major remained popular, running a long way ahead of his party. This lasted up to, and for a short while beyond, the 1992 election which the Conservatives unexpectedly won. The headline polls had underestimated their vote. Trust in the Conservatives to run the economy better than Labour and an upturn in personal economic expectations were the decisive factors.footnote4