Tory lack of a good leader after Major

Don Portillo?

John Major’s best hope of staying in power is that fact that the Tory Right have no one better that Portillo to run for the top job. Fifteen years of Thatcherism have failed to produce anyone more suitable than this strange son of a Spanish Republican refugee.

[Major was actually replaced by William Hague, after Tony Blair’s triumph in 1997.  He was unpopular, as were his successors Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard.  Only with David Cameron did they have a leader that potential Tory voters liked.

[Blair’s success in winning two more elections owed a lot to potential Tory voters not liking their own side much.  And the defeats of 2010 and 2010 owed a lot to David Cameron looking competent, before he blundered into Brexit.  And then in 2019, Corbyn faced another Tory leader who fooled the public into admiring him.]

The Spanish connection is less odd that it seems. From the 18th century, and particularly from Napoleon’s unwise and ultimately fatal betrayal of his Spanish allies, Spain has been a hopelessly polarised society. A place where everyone would rather die than compromise with anyone else. A land where all compromise was seen as treason and cowardice.

It took outside forces – Fascism, Communism and the state-regulated capitalism of the European Community – to finally create a society that could function in the modem world. One might not admire of Franco, but the fact is that he put Spain together into a workable whole.

Under Thatcher, Britain has increasingly ceased to be a workable whole. Scotland and Wales are very nearly lost to Toryism, and Scotland in particular is thinking seriously about going its own way. Major held back the Nationalist at the last election by sounding serious and concerned. But no coherent actions followed, and it is doubtful if he can do it again.

Thatcher’s attempts to roll back the socialist tide have only damaged the coherence and self-confidence of the nation. In the modem world, you cannot be seriously anti-socialist without also being anti-social. The Victorian middle class poisoned its own social relationships, just as wantonly and foolishly as it poisoned the air and water in the Black Country etc. And whereas people with all sorts of viewpoints laboured to recover decent clean air and water, many of them were also quite happy to see the middle class ruin itself socially. By now the process is long gone beyond any hope of reversal, as should have become obvious under Thatcher. And I think that enough people understand this to make certain that Portillo would never win an election, even if he does somehow acquire the Tory leadership.

Mind you, politics can play some strange tricks. Heath began as something very like Thatcher, and he was wise enough to switch when he saw it wasn’t working. Gladstone began his career as the rising hope of the Tory Right. And with all the deviousness of Tory plotting, one has to wonder who’s conning whom.


This first appeared in Newsnotes for  May 1994, in Issue 41 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at and