One might aver that Enoch Powell’s famous dictum that all political careers end in failure has never been truer than in the case of John Major, whose crushing defeat in the general election of 1997 saw his party out of office for the following 13 years. He might also be seen as the accidental father of Brexit.
In truth, though, Major’s success was at least as remarkable as his later failure. Like Heath and Thatcher, he was a grammar school boy. Unlike them, though, he was an academic failure, leaving at 16 with just three O-levels (he gained more by studying at night). After several false starts, and a spell of unemployment, he became a banker. By then, he was already an active Young Conservative, and would serve on Lambeth Council.
He entered the Commons in 1979, and began climbing the ladder. His first cabinet job came in 1987, as chief secretary to the Treasury, before achieving rapid promotion, first as foreign secretary and soon after as chancellor (you can read about those roles here and here.
Major was, at that stage, a very lucky politician, but he rode his luck well. Ironically, given what was to come, Europe had helped. Europe saw Thatcher’s relationship with Howe deteriorate to the point that, in 1989, she wanted rid of him as foreign secretary. When Lawson resigned, in part over the ERM, Thatcher moved Major to number 11 hoping to stabalise her government once more.
She failed. When Howe resigned in 1990, she was done for (you can read about it here). Her government was strewn with corpses of future leaders (anyone remember John Moore?). When Heseltine brought her down, there were no viable pure Thatcherite alternatives. Major, as a relative newcomer, was able to position himself as the keeper of the Thatcherite faith. His famous wisdom tooth (he had one removed on the day of her downfall) meant that he had not been one of the cabinet members that told her she had to go on that night. His public support for her helped ensure his victory: he had signed her nomination papers for the second round of the leadership ballot; he had also signed his own, just in case she withdrew.
Major won the leadership by a comfortable margin; in part, because he was able to depict himself as Thatcher’s heir apparent, but also in part because he could offer himself as a man that could unify an embittered and fractured party. The need to be both those things would also make his job as prime minister increasingly difficult, if not impossible.
Nor did mounting economic difficulties make matters easy (though, ironically, they may have helped him win in 1992). There were successes. The Poll Tax went, and Major’s role in the First Gulf War was widely seen as both statesmanlike and gracious. He was widely seen as a pleasing contrast to his increasingly bombastic predecessor, wanting ‘a country at ease with itself’.
Thatcherism was not dead. Privatisation continued: between 1990 and 1997, we had the final sell-off of British Coal, as well as the electricity generating companies Powergen and National Power, and British Rail. The Citizen’s Charter looked to hold public services accountable, and move them towards reform: Blair’s New Labour would also embrace public service reform. Michael Heseltine’s attempt to privatise the Post Office was abandoned, however and, arguably, the privatisation of the railways was badly botched. Michael Howard was the most right-wing home secretary of the Thatcherite era (you can read about him here: to come).
His high water mark came in 1992, most of all in winning a general election most people expected the Conservatives to lose. In part, the Conservatives were helped by a Labour campaign that appeared overly triumphalist, but also offered up a hostage to fortune in the form of a shadow budget that didn’t quite add up. The Tory campaign, led by Chris Patten, seized on the chance: Labour’s tax bombshell.
The underlying message was simple: in a time of economic difficulty, why take a chance?
Major was also a surprisingly effective campaigner, and in contrast to Labour’s slick campaign took to addressing open public meetings from a soap-box and interacting with ordinary voters in an avuncular and yet robust way. This further served to remind voters that Major was not Thatcher, who had always been a divisive figure.
It was his finest hour: he won 42% of the popular vote, the same share as Thatcher had in 1983 and 1987. However, Labour’s share of the vote rose a little to 34% (in what was, for them, a bitterly disappointing result). The electoral system had, for a long time, had an inbuilt bias to the Tories: now, it had one to Labour. The Conservative majority was slashed to just 21 seats. That would help to undermine him in the years to come.
Two related issues saw his authority shot all too quickly. If 8th April 1992 was Major’s glad, confident morning, it was gone for good by September, when a sterling crisis saw the Conservative reputation for economic competence destroyed. When at the Treasury in 1990, Major had taken the pound into the Exchange Rate Mechanism (you can read about that in his entry in the series on the chancellors, here: to come). The problem was it was pegged to the German Deutschmark at DM2.95: not for the first time, the value of sterling had been fixed to a stronger currency a too high a level. Just as when Churchill returned to the Gold Standard in 1925, or at Bretton Woods in 1944, those rates proved unsustainable, causing sterling crises in 1931, 1947 and 1949. Throughout the 20th century, sterling crises had led to devaluation and did political damage to the governments in question, though up until this point to that damage had been done to Labour (1931, 1949, 1967 and 1976).
Now it was the Conservatives turn. If the earlier crises taught us anything, it was that you can’t take on the markets and win, once the markets have made their mind up. Despite raising interest rates to 15%, and selling off £30bn of foreign reserves, on 16th September (Black Wednesday) the government had to pull out of the ERM. Arguably, Major never recovered.
At the same time, the Conservative Party was beginning to tear itself apart over Europe. I have written about Thatcher, Major, Maastricht and ‘the bastards’ here, in the series on Britain and Europe. For now, it is worth reiterating that the Maastricht Treaty was, in fact, a considerable diplomatic success for Major: he secured opt-outs from the single currency and the social chapter, as well as establishing the idea of subsidiarity.
It was triumph that came laden withg political problems. However, his emollient language towards Europe, and the treaty itself infuriated his own right wing, including Margaret Thatcher. For many Thatcherites, Europe had become the test of true Thatcherite faith. It would have been easier to get through the Commons before the 1992 election, when he had a majority of almost 100. Now he had a majority of only 21, and some of his backbenchers openly rebelled, notably Bill Cash and Iain Duncan-Smith. The treaty failed to pass the first time. It only got through on the following day when Major declared it to be a vote of confidence (meaning that the government would have fallen had it lost).
Others plotted. Eurosceptics in the cabinet briefed against him. The likes of John Redwood and Peter Lilley were a nuisance, the home secretary Michael Howard and the deeply ambitious Michel Portillo were a direct threat, and Major knew it. Initially, Major had kept his chancellor, Norman Lamont (with Major, above), on after Black Wednesday. After Major sacked him, Lamont got his revenge by claiming that Major was ‘in office, but not in power’; he also became virulently Eurosceptic.
The veneer of unity was wearing very thin, very fast.
Major tried to cover his Eurosceptic back by being seen to get tough on Brussels: the attempts all backfired. Major vetoed one potential president of the commission for being federalist, only to find himself unable to prevent the appointment of the no less federalist Jacques Santer. He then tried to bolster qualified majority voting to hold back ever closer union in an enlarged community: he failed again, and the volubly Eurosceptic Tony Marlow (the one in the very vivid blazer in the photograph of the launch of John Redwood’s leadership bid, below) called for his resignation.
Worst of all was Mad Cow Disease. This was an age of often dodgy farming methods. Back in 1988, Edwina Currie had been forced to resign following a controversy over salmonella in eggs. In Blair’s time, dodgy feed and some less than sensible husbandry on the part of a few, saw the return of foot and mouth disease. The worst of the food scares, as they were often known, came when cattle farmers had taken to feeding cattle with animal feed made in part from animal products, including sheep’s brains. One disease of sheep is scrapie, a disease of the brain. That disease now crossed species, as BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy). Worse than that, infected beef entered the food chain, and the disease crossed species again, to people. Initially, the government denied the facts. Meanwhile, the EU banned exports of British beef on health grounds. In response, the British government launched what became known as the beef war, an attempt to force the Commission to back down: it failed.
On the same day that he got the Maastricht Treaty through the House, Major was interviewed by ITN’s Michael Brunson. After the interview, believing the tape to be turned off, Brunson asked Major why he didn’t sack the Eurosceptic ministers who were constantly plotting against him, and briefing journalists about their differences with the prime minister. Likewise, believing that the microphones were turned off, Major gave Brunson a frank answer.
Just think it through from my perspective. You are the Prime Minister, with a majority of 18 … where do you think most of the poison is coming from? From the dispossessed and the never-possessed. Do we want three more of the bastards out there? What’s Lyndon B. Johnson’s maxim?
He was referring to Johnson’s famous remark about wanting to keep J Edgar Hoover on at the FBI because he’d rather Hoover was ‘inside the tent, pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in’. Unfortunately, it didn’t really work for Major. As Chris Patten would later observe: ‘the bastards became even bigger bastards as they got their hands on a red box’.
And when Major spoke to Brunson, some tapes were actually running, and were then leaked to the press. Major looked what he was: weak, and beset by the enemy within.
He attempted to lance the boil by the extraordinary step of resigning the Conservative leadership and thus provoking a leadership election. The ‘bastards’, widely believed to be the likes of Michael Portillo and Michael Howard, mostly stayed loyal: publicly at least, content to prepare the ground for the leadership election to come. The exception was John Redwood (below): he resigned, and managed 89 votes from Tory MPs. That 89 of his MPs were willing to vote for someone as unlikely as John Redwood (another 22 abstained), didn’t do much to bolster Major’s fractured authority.
Some Conservatives, such as the backbench MP George Gardiner, the industrialist Lord McAlpine (a former party treasurer) and the young Pritti Patel, supported Sir James Goldsmith’s virulently Eurosceptic Referendum Party.
In his memoirs, Major would later wonder:
Was there something I could have said, some point I could have adopted, someone I should have fired, someone I could have hired, a speech, a broadcast, an argument which might have begun my party’s journey back to sanity?.. Could a different man have done it?
He certainly never found one. The road to 2016, and the current state of the Conservative Party was in the planning stage.
Major is often given credit for helping bring about an end to the brutal civil war in Bosnia when, in 1995, NATO forces bombed the Serbs to the negotiating table. It be noted, however, that by that stage the war had been raging for three years, and the West had stood by in the face of brutal atrocities such as widespread ethnic cleansing, the siege of Sarajevo or the systematic rape and murder of Muslims in Srebrenica. Better late than never perhaps, but it was pretty late nonetheless. In part, the failure to intervene in Bosnia until 1995 informed later decisions to intervene in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Major had shown statesmanship in the Gulf War, and at Maastricht. He would show it again over the issue that had bedevilled British politics since 1969: Northern Ireland. On the face of it, the situation was getting worse. Not long after Major came to power the IRA launched several homemade mortars at 10, Downing Street: luckily, no one was seriously hurt, but the entire cabinet were sitting and could have been killed. In 1993, they bombed a shopping centre in Warrington. 50 people were injured, and two boys (Tim Parry, aged 12, and three-year old Johnathan Ball) were killed. The following month, they bombed the City of London: 44 people were injured, one killed, and £1bn worth of damage was caused.
Major said the things he had to say about not dealing with terrorists. Meanwhile, the government did the opposite.
The IRA position was not as strong as it appeared. The Warrington attack provoked a wave of revulsion not seen since the Enniskillen bombing in 1987. There were peace rallies in Belfast, Dublin and London. The IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, were looking to electoral politics. Meanwhile, the patient work of security forces on both sides of the Irish border was paying dividends, and the IRA had been successfully penetrated by informers: the big shows in Britain were a gesture of weakness as much as strength. Loyalist (Protestant) paramilitary groups also put pressure on the IRA. With at least some measure of collusion with security forces, members of the IRA were being targeted: the Ulster Defence Association shot a member of Sinn Fein dead in the aftermath of the Warrington bombing. Much worse still, the likes of the UDA (one of the Protestant paramilitary groups, the Ulster Defence Association), were targeting innocent Catholics in a series of sectarian murders. And, most of all, the IRA campaign had lasted more than twenty years, and had won nothing: all the IRA could do was keep killing, in the vain hope that some future British government might change course. However, all the main British political parties (with the exception of a thankfully few useful idiots on the left, such as Jeremy Corbyn or Ken Livingstone, who supported Sinn Fein) were committed to staying in Ulster was long as the majority of its people wanted to be in the UK. For the IRA, the continuance of ‘the war’ had become an end in itself.
Some in the IRA/Sinn Fein leadership had begun to realise that. From the late ‘eighties on, a series of informal contacts had been made with them, via constitutional nationalist politicians such as the SDLP leader John Hume, churchmen and academics, and the Irish government, which pointed a way forward.
Just as Thatcher had reacted to the Brighton bombing by signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Major and his Irish counterpart, Albert Reynolds, issued the Downing Street Declaration in December 1993 (right). The British government stated that it had ‘selfish or strategic interest’ in Northern Ireland, and it would only remain if it was the democratically expressed wish of the people of Northern Ireland. If, at some point in the future, chose to join the Republic, the British would not stand in their way. Likewise, the Irish government stated its willingness to drop its claim to Northern Ireland once there was a settlement in Belfast: there would only ever be a united Ireland if Northern Ireland voted for it.
Diplomatic and political persuasion continued, and in August 1994, the IRA declared a ceasefire. By October, the government had similarly persuaded the loyalist paramilitaries. In November 1995, Bill Clinton visited Belfast, turning on the Christmas lights and the charm. By getting Clinton and the Americans involved, London and Dublin were able to exert further pressure on the Sinn Fein/IRA leadership, who depended on Irish-American support, and were very susceptible to the allure of shaking hands in the White House.
American involvement also bore fruition in The Mitchell Report of January, 1996. This set a way forward for the peace process, looking to a political settlement in Northern Ireland, but coupling it with decommissioning (the total and permanent disarmament of the paramilitaries). Those principles would form the basis of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
By then, of course, Major was out of office. The ceasefires didn’t hold in any case: in 1996, the IRA detonated another huge bomb in London’s docklands, killing two and injuring 40. In his last year or so in office, Major was unable to give much more to the Northern Ireland issue, in part because once he had lost his majority he was dependent on Ulster unionist support to survive. However, if the Good Friday Agreement was one of his successor’s finest hours, Major had done much of the spadework. It was statesmanship of the highest order.
Not that it did him any good. In part, the wound was self-inflicted. In 1993, Major had appealed to the nation to ‘get back to basics: to self-discipline and respect for the law; to consideration for others’. Back to basics, as it became known, would come back to haunt him as sleaze engulfed his party. Major was no moralising prude (he had an affair with Edwina Currie in the ‘eighties), but he probably didn’t expect the series of sex scandals that would emerge and do his party so much damage (though, it must be admitted, often adding to the gaiety of the nation at the same time).
Already, in 1992, the Minister of Culture, Media and Sport, David Mellor, had been revealed to have had an affair with a young actress, and had resigned. At least in doing so, the Minister of Fun gave us a story involving a Chelsea kit, a sex act and much else: most of it was untrue, but it gave us one of the great Sun headlines.
In the same year, another MP was caught committing an ‘act of indecency’ on Hampstead Heath. In 1994, Tim Yeo, the minister for the environment, resigned when it was revealed that he had an affair, and a child as a result. Another Tory MP, Stephen Milligan, died by autoerotic asphyxiation, wearing stockings and suspenders. Another two were outed by their wives as homosexual, and one pictured on a Caribbean beach with a 20-year-old man (the age of consent for homosexual sex was 21); the Conservative government had passed the homophobic Section 28, and their supporters in the press were often violently homophobic. Ex-chancellor Norman Lamont was found to be the owner of a flat rented out by a dominatrix: hardly his fault, but it made another great story. Another minister, Alan Clark (a serial philanderer) was accused (accurately) of having had sex with the wife and both daughters of a South Africa judge. In short, you couldn’t make it up.
Clark was also accused of involvement in the Arms-to-Iraq scandal, in which government ministers had encouraged British companies to break an embargo and supply arms to Sadam Hussein. Then, there was Cash for Questions. In a newspaper sting, two Conservative MPs accepted money in return for asking questions in the House; another two, Tim Smith and Neil Hamilton (later of UKIP) accepted money from Mohamed Al-Fayed to do the same. David Willets was forced to resign as paymaster general as a consequence of the scandal.
Then there was Jonathan Aitken. Aitken was forced to resign as chief secretary to the Treasury when ITN’s World in Action and the Guardian accused him of secret dealings with Saudi princes. He sued for libel and, after losing his seat in 1997, committed perjury in the trial and went to prison as a result.
The satirists had a field day. Sometimes, satire (unintentionally) helps politicians. Private Eye’s Dear Bill letters (written in the person of Thatcher’s husband, Denis) depicted her as slightly barking but crushing all before her. Spitting Image had her in a pinstripe suit, lording it over a pathetic cabinet. In contrast, had Major as the weak and boring man in grey. Private Eye had The Secret Diary of John Major, 47¾, based on Sue Townshend’s Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, about a largely pathetic teenager. In Private Eye’s version, the pathetic Major was buffeted by events and colleagues beyond his control: he called his wife Norman, his chancellor Norma, and had his Big Book of Bastards. His big initiative, the Citizen’s Charter, became popularly reduced to a much-derided ‘cones hotline’, allowing motorists to ruing up and complain about motorway traffic cones. Major was, too often, an object of ridicule.
To add to all of this, Major faced the most effective opposition leader since Harold Wilson, and a Labour Party all too evidently ready for government. When, in the Commons, Tony Blair called Major, ‘weak, weak, weak’, it stuck.
The Conservatives had been in power too long, and it showed. The party was bent on self-destruction, and Major was powerless to stop them. They lost every single by-election in that parliament, and Labour’s poll lead was as high as 20 points. Blair looked strong, youthful, vigorous, in touch and ready for government. The Conservatives looked divided, slightly barking mad, corrupt and arrogant. Major looked knackered.
He was. The 1997 election saw the heaviest defeat for an incumbent government in the 20th century. The Conservatives were reduced to 165 seats. It was hardly undeserved.
How much of it was Major’s fault is open to question. As a prime minister, he had his faults: he was thin skinned, too easily seduced by initiatives that would appeal to the press or backbenches (see the entry on Kenneth Baker and the Dangerous Dogs Act, here: to come). He failed to keep his party, and cabinet, under control. However, such was the state of the party in the aftermath of Thatcher’s fall, in all probability no one could have held them together: the current Conservative government is hardly a model of unified resolve. He was undermined by his own colleagues, and his predecessor (whose initial support, and promise to be a ‘good backseat driver’ soon turned to embittered hostility). All that infighting, and Europe, had deprived the Conservatives of their usual instinct for finding the winning formula: ideological purity and backstabbing mattered more.
Few politicians have taken defeat as gracefully as Major did: on the afternoon he left Downing Street, he went to the Oval to watch some cricket. He went on to play the role of elder statesman, and is currently one of the primary critics of Brexit (for which he earns much hatred from some fellow Conservatives, and newly won affection from erstwhile opponents).
And as for failure. Only nine of the 21 prime ministers since 1906 have spent more time in office than Major; and only four Conservatives. Only two served longer in one continuous spell: Thatcher, and Macmillan (who lasted just 126 days longer than Major). Only two previous Tory prime ministers have had to face a party seemingly bent on self-destruction: in neither case did it end well. You can read about Balfour here, but his reputation as prime minister has never really recovered. The Tories split over trade, in the form of tariff reform, and crashed to a landslide defeat in 1906. They went on to go ever so slightly barking mad and even unconstitutional over the People’s Budget, the House of Lords, and Irish Home Rule. It was only war, and Bonar Law, that saw them regain office (you can read about that here). Even then, it was not until 1922 that there was another Tory government. In 1846, Sir Robert Peel repealed the Corn Laws (abandoning tariffs on imported grain). The party split, and lost office. Bar one or two brief periods of minority government, it would not hold office with a workable parliamentary majority again until 1874.
After Major, the Conservatives did not hold power again until 2010 (helped by the aftermath of the 2008 crash, and Gordon Brown). Even then, they did not command a majority. When they did, in 2015, it was wafer-thin, and that led us to where we are now. Even then, though Theresa May pretty-much matched Major’s share of the vote, she lost her majority. Some may see that as Major’s fault. Others may look back and wish for his like again. In time, perhaps like Baldwin, who Major admires and in some ways emulated, his reputation is recovering for some. Certainly, every Conservative prime minister since Thatcher has been brought down by the European issue, as will the current incumbent as likely as not. Major is not alone.
Here is Major’s Spitting Image puppet:
And, John Major: the Movie, the 1992 party political broadcast, making much of his humble South London origins, and his man of the people image: