December 2, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Non-stop political scandals of the 1990s

3 min read
The John Major government in the UK faced an avalanche of political scandals in the 1990s that undermined belief in parliamentary politics

There was a point in the mid-1990s when the public began to wonder if the tsunami of British political scandals would ever stop. Ministerial resignations, sex in parliament, financial skullduggery, etc, etc. The Conservatives had been re-elected in the 1992 general election. A couple of years later they had rewarded the electorate with an orgy – sometimes literally – of scandals.

Thirty years earlier, people had gasped at the Profumo affair. But that was nothing compared to the administration of Prime Minister John Major. Skeletons fell out of closets at an alarming rate. Kiss-and-tell stories kept journalists busy night and day. It led one exasperated member of parliament to say to a journalist off the record in 1994 that at least there hadn’t been a drugs scandal that week. Only sex, money, and housing had featured so far.

What were those 1990s scandals?

The sheer variety of scandal is what takes the breath away looking back. Here are some examples:

  • Minister of State for Trade Alan Clark found to have authorised a company called Matrix Churchill to sell machine tools to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein despite a weapons embargo by the UK
  • Chief Secretary to the Treasury Alan Amos was arrested on Hampstead Heath with another man and cautioned for ‘public indecency’
  • In 1992, minister David Mellor was forced to resign over various sleaze allegations and an extramarital affair with actress Antonia de Sancha
  • David Ashby left his wife for a man – after a period where the Conservatives had not been friendly to the LGBT community passing a law against the “promotion” of homosexuality
  • Four MPs had to resign in 1994 after admitting to receiving donations from the Harrods department store owner Mohamed Al-Fayed to ask certain questions in the House of Commons. This became known as the “cash for questions” affair
  • Westminster Council, a Conservative-run London borough, was accused of selling council housing to people most likely to vote for them
  • Government minister Tim Yeo was discovered to have fathered two children out of wedlock – a no-no at the time
  • In 1995, Defence minister Jonathan Aitkin was exposed for doing secret deals with Saudi Arabian princes

And so it went on…

DISCOVER: Financial scandals that crashed Thatcherism

Back to Basics

By 1993, John Major looked thoroughly embattled by all this sleaze. So, he embarked on a campaign dubbed Back to Basics. In a speech that year, he called for a return to traditional morality, decency, and family values. Journalists could scarcely believe their luck. This was too good to be true.

It was now open season on a government whose politicians seemed to represent the polar opposite. Very soon, Major was letting it be known that Back to Basics had never been about private morality – but public policy. It was too late though. The newspapers and TV now shed a spotlight on every scandal that arose.

There’s little doubt that by the 1997 general election, this avalanche of gossip and revelations tarnished the Conservative brand allowing the Labour Party and Tony Blair to achieve a landslide victory.

Leave a Reply