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General Election 1997 - Leadership, Image and Policy: the Conservative Party Campaign

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 20 Nov 2017

John Major became Prime Minister in 1990, following the departure of Margaret Thatcher and a bigger contrast with his predecessor it would be hard to find. However, he had led his party to victory in the 1992 General Election, keeping a small majority, despite many opinion polls predicting a Labour win. He served a full term from 1992 to 1997, and it was far from uneventful.


John Major was mocked in cartoons and on TV satirical shows such as Spitting Image as being grey and uncharismatic. With his small majority, he had struggled to control his backbenchers and some in his cabinet. He was famously recorded describing some of his cabinet ministers as “bastards” and, when some Eurosceptic backbenchers kept rebelling against the whip over votes relating to the Maastricht Treaty, he lost his parliamentary majority by withdrawing the whip from some serial rebels.

Eventually, in 1995, he issued his notorious “put up or shut up” challenge to his MPs and the Eurosceptic MP John Redwood challenged him for the leadership. At this time only MPs got to vote for the Conservative leadership and they rallied around the Prime Minister and he won comfortably.

Although this reinforced his position in the Conservative Party, he continued to be seen as lacking control. At one Prime Minister’s Questions, leader of the opposition Tony Blair said “I lead my party; he follows his” and this reinforced the popular image of John Major as a weak leader.


As well as the leader of the Conservative Party having an image problem in the lead-up to the 1997 election, the same could be said of the whole party. It is often said that divided parties don’t win elections, and the Conservatives appeared fundamentally divided in the years leading up to the 1997 election, primarily over the issue of our relationship with the European Union. John Major had to try and keep a party together that included committed Europhiles like Ken Clark and Michael Heseltine and Eurosceptics like Michael Portillo and Michael Howard at the very top of the party.

As well as being seen as divided, they were also viewed as being mired in sleaze.

John Major made a speech about his own conservativism, in which he called on the British people to “get back to basics” which included traditional family values. This prompted the tabloid press to seek out every possible example of Conservative ministers and MPs behaving in ways that deviated from such traditional values. A series of sex scandals badly damaged the party’s reputation. There were also financial scandals, such as the “Cash for Questions” affair, where two Conservative backbenchers were alleged to have accepted payments via a lobbyist, in return for asking questions in the House of Commons. While one of the MPs immediately resigned, the other (Neil Hamilton) and the lobbyist (Ian Greer) sought to clear their names in court, prolonging the story and bringing more evidence to light. This was still an ongoing saga at the time of the 1997 general election, despite having initially come to light in 1994, as a report into the incident was due to report its findings in 1997. It continued to be a major story through the election, because the BBC journalist Martin Bell chose to fight Neil Hamilton to be the MP for Tatton as the “anti-sleaze” candidate. The Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates stood down and Bell defeated Hamilton.

A perception that the Conservative Party was weak, divided, sleazy and corrupt certainly contributed to the election result.

It has been suggested that another element of the Conservatives’ image in 1997, that might have contributed to its defeat, was the idea that it was “the nasty party”. This was suggested by Theresa May in 2002, when she was the chair of the Conservative Party. She suggested that the party had relied on a narrow base of well-off white men and senior figures had attacked minorities.

Policy and Manifesto

Not much is remembered of the Conservative Party manifesto of 1997. While John Major described it as “bold” and “far-reaching” there were few eye-catching policies, largely based around a continuation of themes from previous years: giving citizens choice and control and further reducing the role of the state. The most eye-catching policy was probably a tax allowance proposal to encourage traditional nuclear families, where a non-working partner could pass their tax-free allowance to their working spouse. In a society of diverse families where most women worked, this only contributed to a sense that the Conservative Party in 1997 did not represent where the UK was. 

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