When did it suddenly become obvious that the Tories were going to lose the election? Was it that golden moment when Michael Portillo, that scourge of unnecessary public spending, announced that £60m of public money was earmarked for a new yacht for the richest woman on earth - even though Her Majesty had made it plain she did not want one? Was it this deranged belief in the popular devotion to the monarchy which finally sealed the Tories' fate? Or was it the announcement soon afterwards by the once rational Sir George Young, Secretary of State for Transport, that the answer to the mounting horrors of the London Underground is to flog it off to the likes of Stagecoach plc? Sir George timed his announcement to fit in sweetly with the news that Stagecoach, having just won the biggest of the new railway franchises, had set about balancing the books in the way they know best - by sacking train drivers. No one at Stagecoach foresaw the difficulty of running trains without drivers - and trains were cancelled all over the place, to the mounting fury of all those supposedly Tory Home Counties commuters. The prospect of Stagecoach slashing services and bashing unions on the London Underground nailed up the coffins of many London Tory MPs, including Sir George's. Or was it the announcement the following week that everybody's pension should be lobbed into the grateful fingers of the insurance and pension companies which had so successfully swindled four billion pounds from half a million workers in previously safe occupational schemes? Or was it the bizarre spectacle of nice Mr Major mounting his soapbox to speak up, as he put it, for the 'have-nots' - meaning, presumably, the income-supported poor, struggling to survive on slashed benefits or without trade unions in insecure jobs, whom Major's ministers, and many of his supporters, had so mercilessly clobbered for the past six and a half years?
LRB 3 April 1997 | PDF Download