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From Major to Duncan Smith

The successor to emerge from this contest was the relatively unknown figure of John Major, the candidate thought most able to unify a divided and traumatised party. Major abandoned the 'poll tax' and presented a more 'caring' image, and support for the Conservatives improved enough for him to hold on to a narrow majority in the general election of April 1992. However, this margin was steadily eroded during the following parliament, and by 1997 his administration was clinging on by its fingertips.


The Major government of 1992-1997 was a painful period for the Conservative Party, and opinion poll ratings slumped to record lows following the economic fiasco of 'Black Wednesday' in 1992. The most serious problems were caused by a recession which hit Conservative support in southern England, a collapse of normal party unity over the increasingly contentious issue of Europe, and 'sleaze' - a string of personal scandals involving Conservative ministers and MPs. Press hostility and a modernised Labour opposition prevented the Conservatives from recovering when the economic position improved, and on 1 May 1997 they suffered their third and final sweeping defeat of the twentieth century. Only 165 MPs survived, and Major at once resigned the leadership; in his place, the Party selected its youngest leader in modern times, William Hague.

The Conservatives were unable to recover ground during the 1997-2001 Parliament. The party remained unpopular with the public, whilst the Labour government’s careful management of the economy meant that it survived any other difficulties without lasting damage. Hague followed a more ‘Euro-sceptic’ policy, ruling out joining the single European currency. This caused tensions in the party but also led to its greatest success in the period, doubling its seats to 36 in the European Parliament elections of June 1999. However, concentration on Europe was less effective in the June 2001 general election, and Conservative hopes of at least a partial recovery were dashed. 166 MPs were elected, only one more than in 1997, and on the morning after the poll Hague announced his resignation. A new selection procedure had been introduced, and after ballots of Conservative MPs the two leading candidates went forward to a vote of the party membership in September 2001. Iain Duncan Smith secured 155,933 votes to Kenneth Clarke’s 100,864, and so became the new leader of the Conservative Party.

- Stuart Ball, Reader, Department of History, University of Leicester."

The Conservative Party is grateful to Stuart Ball for contributing this brief history, which represents his personal view. It is not an official Conservative Party statement

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