The Insider

Is it 1979 all over again?

The prime minister is not the first to delay his moment of reckoning with an exhausted electorate

March 20, 2024
Jim Callaghan became a spectre in his own government. Image: Graham Turner / Alamy Stock Photo
Jim Callaghan became a spectre in his own government. Image: Graham Turner / Alamy Stock Photo

I vividly remember the chaotic, crisis-ridden run-up to the 1979 election as a 16-year-old deeply engaged in politics, and right now it feels like 1979 all over again. 

The key similarity is that Rishi Sunak uncannily resembles Jim Callaghan in the grim, strike-ridden atmosphere of the late 1970s. A pathetic shadow of a prime minister is dodging an election month after month, long after his government has effectively collapsed amid a pervasive sense of national crisis. The only question is when precisely he hands over the keys to No 10 to the longstanding leader of the opposition. Keir Starmer, like Margaret Thatcher in 1979, has come to seem utterly inevitable and unstoppable, despite an uncertain start in the job four years previously. 

We are now going through the protracted and excruciating election-dodging phase which Callaghan conducted after the summer of 1978, when he hinted at an election and then backed away, hoping that events might turn to his advantage. Instead, industrial strife swept Britain in the winter of discontent of 1978–79, and the government was humiliated in referendums on devolution in Scotland and Wales. “Crisis? What crisis?” became Callaghan’s epithet, the tabloid Sun’s paraphrase of his stunningly misjudged verdict on the state of the country as he landed at Heathrow (then London Airport) from an international summit in the Caribbean in early January 1979. Sunak now does similarly misjudged interviews almost daily. 

This time the election-dodging could be even worse than in the late 1970s. For while Callaghan wanted to stagger on until the five-year term limit expired in October 1979, he was forced into an election at almost exactly this point—on 28th March 1979—by losing a vote of no confidence by one vote in the House of Commons. The election took place on 3rd May. 

It is still possible that there could be an election in June or July this year. Sunak won’t lose a formal vote on the floor of the House of Commons, but his hold on his party and its MPs is now so weak that he may be forced into a summer election in order to forestall complete disintegration. But most likely is that he staggers on until October or November, devoid of authority and purpose, while today’s cost-of-living crisis and sense of complete national drift intensify. 

Like Callaghan in 1979, Sunak has become a spectre in his own government. Politicians and the media are looking to the next government and the battle for the soon-to-be-vacant leadership of a Tory party which has become virtually ungovernable. Nigel Farage is having roughly the same destructive impact on Sunak from the right as Tony Benn, the left populist of the late 1970s, had on Callaghan in his dying days. 

There is also a similar consensus today to that in 1979 that the government has failed at just about everything. The issues are partly different—in 1979 the power of the trade unions was the deep crisis issue, akin to the impact of Brexit today—but the underlying sense of economic and social malaise, and the virtual collapse of the state and its public services, is similar. 

Starmer isn’t Thatcher, so the denouement will be very different. Thatcher was capable of tactical restraint, and said little, for example, about privatisation in her 1979 manifesto. But her right-wing ideology—with its emphasis on the free market, property ownership and an authoritarian state, with a dash of xenophobia influenced by Enoch Powell—was never hidden, and became increasingly transparent after the Falklands War of 1982 and her landslide re-election in 1983. Starmer is a centrist, but he too could radicalise in power, in response to the state of national crisis. 

A key point about 1979 is that Thatcher didn’t actually win a landslide victory. The vote margin against Labour was 44 per cent to 37 per cent, yielding a Commons majority smaller than Boris Johnson secured in 2019. What made it seem like a landslide was Thatcher’s robust control of the levers of power once she won, and the top-down split in the Labour Party which occurred soon after the election, leading to the creation of the SDP in 1981.

I don’t have a crystal ball. But whether or not Starmer wins a landslide, his post-election grip on the reins of power looks set to be Thatcher-like firm, responding to the national yearning for leadership. And a continuation of Tory turmoil—maybe even a formal party split as Farage shells the remnants of the Tory party from the battlements—is virtually certain.