Update #1 – 1997 Conservative Party leadership election
The New Dawn – A British Political TL
Given I have bunch of free time on my hand, I've decided to do redo a TL that I had plans for last year but never actually got around to posting or writing out fully. Its going to be chiefly focused on British politics in the late 90s and the 2000s, but I will probably put some US politics into it as well.
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Update #1 – 1997 Conservative Party leadership election
The 1997 election had been the worst Conservative defeat in almost a century and Britain's usually dominant party was unsure where to go after the defeat. They were not helped by the resignation of John Major the day after the election; expected of course but some believed he may give the party some time to regroup before stepping down. Major's departure precipitated the party's third leadership election in seven years and was expected to be fought principally on the issue of just how to tackle and oppose a Labour Party with such a huge majority.
In different circumstances, Michael Portillo, darling of the right and the Secretary of State for Defence under John Major, would have been the overwhelming favourite to take over leadership of the party. However, his shock defeat on election night meant he was no longer an MP and, whilst he would return to Parliament just a few short months later in the Beckenham by-election he was nonetheless ineligible to stand for the leadership in the summer of 1997. The two early favourites were therefore former Chancellor of the Exchequer Ken Clarke and former Home Secretary Michael Howard.
Clarke had first entered Parliament in 1970 and was one of only five ministers to serve in government for the entirety of both Margaret Thatcher's and John Major's administration. The standard bearer of the left of the party, he was an ultra-loyalist to John Major and a noted Europhile, having been open, unlike most Conservatives, to Britain joining the single currency if the country so voted to do so in a referendum. Whilst he was disliked by the right of the party, many MPs saw his many years of experience and service and believed he was the safest pair of hands to take over the party and try to move it away from the bitter battles of the 1990s. It was under this belief that he managed to win significant support across the party (privately he was believed to be John Major's preferred candidate), including from some unusual suspects, such as social conservative and fierce Eurosceptic Ann Widdecombe. Michael Howard sat further to the right than Clarke, making him more amenable to many backbench MPs, and his campaign put him forward as a unity candidate who could bring both sides of the party together. Pledging to be tough on Europe, but not focused on it, Howard won the crucial backing of the popular former Welsh Secretary William Hague and agreed to make him his running mate, promising the MP for Richmond the position of Deputy Leader if he won.
The two favourites were joined by three Eurosceptics from the right. The first of these was Peter Lilley, the former Social Security Secretary who had gained notoriety in 1992 for threatening to join rebelling Tories over the Maastricht Treaty, although he ultimately avoided being sacked. John Redwood also threw his hat in the ring, known for his challenge to John Major in 1995, although he was given little chance of winning, as many MPs still distrusted him and he was seen as partly responsible for the general election defeat. The surprise challenger was Iain Duncan Smith. The MP for Chingford and Woodford Green, Duncan Smith said his leadership would be a "fresh start" for the party, away from the failures of the Major government and he emphasised his purist views on Europe and criticised the records of his opponents in government. An MP for only five years, he was initially given long odds to win, but soon gained momentum amongst MPs. There were even rumours that Lady Thatcher herself supported his campaign, rumours that Duncan Smith was only happy to let fester.
The first ballot of MPs saw Clarke unsurprisingly emerge in the lead, as the only real candidate of the Tory left. Meanwhile vote splitting amongst the right harmed the chances of Howard, Duncan Smith, Redwood and Lilley, who remained some distance behind him. Lilley won the support of just nine of his colleagues (and himself) and was eliminated, whilst Redwood saw the writing on the wall and dropped out after only winning 24 votes. He threw his support behind Clarke, which surprised many, although it later became clear that Clarke had promised him the position of Shadow Chancellor if he supported him. The second ballot, held a week later, shocked the party. Winning over most of Lilley and Redwood's supporters, Duncan Smith's insurgent campaign finished ahead of Michael Howard by just a solitary vote, eliminating the former Home Secretary and sending him to the final ballot in his place.
Although many of Howard's supporters did not sincerely believe Clarke could "move the party forward" as he had pledged, they nonetheless were sceptical that Duncan Smith had the political ability to begin the Tories' recovery and to win over the public. In particular they had concerns over his lack of experience, his behaviour during the Maastricht Rebellion and were worried his social conservative views and passionate hatred of the European Union would alienate the modern British public, and with Clarke polling much better amongst the general population, Howard's key swing voters split crucially for Clarke. In the final ballot on 19th June he took 89 votes, ahead of Duncan Smith's 75, and was declared the new Leader of the Conservative Party. He was true to his word and named Redwood as his Shadow Chancellor, whilst he also extended Shadow Cabinet offers to the other leadership contenders. At his request, Howard was made Shadow Foreign Secretary, moving him away from home affairs, whilst Peter Lilley was named Clarke's Shadow Health Secretary.
Though he offered Duncan Smith the post of Party Chairman, and then Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary when that was refused, his chief opponent instead opted to return to the backbenches, pledging instead to hold Clarke's feet to the fire over Europe. The decision would be a stark indicator of the difficulties the MP for Rushcliffe would face in leading a significantly depleted, and bitterly divided, parliamentary party.
Leaders of the Conservative Party
1965–1975: Edward Heath
1975–1990: Margaret Thatcher
1990–1997: John Major
1997–: Kenneth Clarke
Leaders of the Opposition
1965–1970: Edward Heath (Conservative)
1970–1974: Harold Wilson (Labour)
1974–1975: Edward Heath (Conservative)
1975–1979: Margaret Thatcher (Conservative)
1979–1980: James Callaghan (Labour)
1980–1983: Michael Foot (Labour)
1983–1992: Neil Kinnock (Labour)
1992–1994: John Smith (Labour)
1994–1997: Tony Blair (Labour)
1997: John Major (Conservative)
1997–: Kenneth Clarke (Conservative)