The 1990 English general election was held on May 1st, 1990 as per the Constitution of the Republic of England's mandate that an election be held every three years. Out of 601 possible seats, the Conservative Party under John Cleese won one of the largest landslides in democratic history over the ruling Labour Party, led by Prime Minister John Oliver, beating Labour 503-98. The election provided the largest single-party majority ever brought to power by democratic means.
Despite having won the 1987 general election with a comfortable majority, John Oliver's Labour Party was unpopular in the midst of a high inflation cycle, a lingering recession thanks to an Irish economic crisis in the late 1980's and the insistence of "old guard" Labour liberals from the Sutcliffe era insisting on unilateralism, subsidization of the economy, expanded union controls and the "welcome-arms" immigration policy. Oliver was seen as an out-of-touch and elitist leader, referred to as "King John" (in reference to the historically incompetent English king whose failures resulted in the Magna Carta) and "the Louis XVI of the 20th Century." As a centrist, Oliver wanted to appeal to the average voter, but failed to garner support for compromise measures with the Tories that powerful Labour stalwarts and their allies in various unions refused to agree to.
Meanwhile, John Cleese had won the January, 1988 Conservative Party Leadership election over Henry Steele-Michaels after Stephen Norrington resigned after his electoral defeat in 1987, when the Tories lost the majority. Cleese was a "new-era Tory," who believed in serious deficit-reducing reform and a slashing of interest rates to break the back of the raging inflation. While not as hawkish as some fellow members of his party, Cleese was a fiscal and social conservative and was skeptical of many of Labour's welfare staples, which he felt needed reform to remove wasteful spending and fraud.
The campaign was driven mostly by Tory candidates themselves in their own constituencies instead of at a national level, as Cleese was an admittedly awkward public speaker, unlike the eloquent Oliver. The Conservatives, who had developed a concise, centrist platform meant to institute modest reforms since their losses in 1987, promised a government that would produce results and end the back-and-forth politics of the 1980's and the lengthy economic downturn in England at the time.
In the April leadership debates, many felt that while Oliver was a more talented speaker, Cleese clearly outclassed his opponent with concise arguments as opposed to longwinded, flowery remarks. Many compared Cleese's performance to that in the 1972 U.S. Presidential debate, in which folksy, relatable Clyde Dawley upstaged the eloquent tone and rhetoric of Dennis Hayward.
Entering the election, Labour held a 341-260 majority in Parliament. In one of the biggest landslides in history, the Conservatives gained 243 seats, increasing their representation in Parliament from 43% to 83% - a 40% swing, one of the largest electoral and representative gains of all time. While Cleese's popularity after the leadership debates was part of the factor, the precipitous fall of Labour's popularity in the steep late 1980's recession and the refusal of the "stalwarts" to budge on long-standing Labour platforms was the primary reason.
Not a single incumbent Conservative lost a seat, and seats left vacant by retiring MPs were swept by the Tories - Labour did not pick up a single vacancy. Out of the remaining seats, nearly two-thirds of all sitting Labour MPs were swept out of office, including John Oliver, who lost in his own constituency by a razor-thin margin.
Aftermath and Legacy
While the Tories would lose seats in the next two general elections (1993 and 1996), they would still hold large majorities until their landslide defeat in 1999. Despite the unpopularity of many of the Conservative financial programs and policies, Labour's 1990 losses were so heavy that the party was unable to successfully recover for a decade, and the unbelievable majority held by the Whigs proved nigh impossible to overcome. The 1990's are referred to as the "wilderness years" by many English pundits who have also described it as "Labour's lost decade," in reference to the 1980's, coined as England's financially "lost decade."
Cleese would go on to serve as Prime Minister for eight years, relinquishing leadership of the Conservative Party to Peter Stuart in August of 1998 to prepare his successor for the upcoming general election. While his popularity was mixed, Cleese proved to be an enormously successful legislator, passing landmark budget cuts, currency reform and easing union control over the English economy while supporting England's NATO duties in conflicts in Scotland in 1997 and in North Africa in 1998. The 1990's were a high growth era for England as the country's businesses became more independent of foreign investment and Cleese celebrated "efficiency in self-investment."