After 18 years of Tory rule, first under Margaret Thatcher , then John Major , many voting on Mayday could not remember any other government than Conservative. The Labour Party lost power when guided by Jim Callaghan , a brilliant man and tough politician, but unable to pull the country back from the brink in the eyes of the voters of 1979. The party failed to recognize the world had changed, choosing Michael Foot , a veteran campaigner and left winger who was ill at ease in the TV age as Callaghan's successor. Neil Kinnock began the fight back, attacking the more radical elements in his party, but he could not quite manage to wipe away the past. Enter then John Smith , whose life was cut tragically short while continuing the rebuilding of the party, choosing new figures to work at his side and to become the parliamentary leaders of the future.
Finally, enter Tony Blair , a young lawyer with a grasp of presentation in the electronic age that went far further than any previous British politician. His drive to create 'New Labour', removing the radical socialist elements of the party's constitution, and having the party become acceptable to the public again by adopting what he termed 'the third way', in reality centrist policies without the fear factors of nationalisation or worker control looming again, hit home.
Blair's victory was aided by an increasing feeling of sleaze – a word coined every other day at the time about some Tory politician or other – within the Tory party. Perhaps it was the arrogance of power after so long, a belief seemingly held by some Conservatives that the Tory Party was the party of government, with an almost divine right to rule. Memorably one Conservative politician when confronted by the Labour landslide said the voters had simply got it wrong.
The figures are a stark reminder of what the voters thought. Labour took 419 seats, the Tories 165. The Liberal Democrats managed a total of 46 seats, their best return since the war. Marginals fell to New Labour time and again, and even some seemingly safe seats like Edgbaston turned red on Peter Snow 's map, and the bellwether of Basildon went Labour with a majority of over 13,000. Major Tory figures were ousted from Parliament: Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind ; David Mellor who had memorably generated negative publicity for his personal life; former Chancellor Norman Lamont ; and most strikingly Michael Portillo . So often a hate figure for the left, Portillo took defeat courageously and intelligently, his personal dignity winning him admirers and setting him apart from many others that night, the antithesis of Sir James Goldsmith whose spiteful delight at his part in Mellor's defeat – with his wealth and power he managed to secure just 1,518 votes – was unpleasant to watch.
John Major's acceptance of defeat was swift, as was his choice to resign the leadership of his party. Some Tories put their defeat down to internal strife, which obviously contributed to their disarray. Ken Clarke was blamed by some on the Tory right, which showed how out of touch with reality they were becoming. But Brian Mawhinney , Tory Party chairman, was equally correct when he said voters simply wanted a change.
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