The Foreign Secretaries (27): John Major


John Major, 1989

Conservative, under Thatcher

You can read about Major’s career as a whole here, and his brief stint as chancellor here.

There is little to say about John Major’s three months and two days at the Foreign Office per se, because he only took the office in the summer and the party conference season was hardly done when he was moved to the Treasury. However, the reason for his surprise elevation and his move to number 11 might repay some analysis.

The occasion of Major’s promotion in the July 1989 reshuffle was Thatcher’s decision to demote Sir Geoffrey Howe (you can read about that here). Her reasons for promoting him are still unclear, at least until we read Charles Moore’s account, still to be published. She may have been looking to designate him as a possible successor, even if in a relatively distant future. It also reflected the dearth of talent among the Thatcherite true believers, and the strained nature of her relationship with many of her more senior colleagues. He had been a success as chief secretary of the Treasury, but was still a relative unknown: the nature of the chief secretary’s job, in keeping spending departments under control, might well have helped Thatcher that he was one of those true believers.

If she did, she was mistaken. Perhaps the main thing Major got from his brief spell at the foreign office was the conviction that, in both substance and tone, Thatcher wasn’t getting it right over Europe. He was never an out and out Europhile (you look to Michael Heseltine or Ken Clarke for proper Europhiles), but like Howe he believed that Britain should be playing a full and positive part in European affairs.

He would carry that conviction with him to number 11, and ultimately number ten itself. Meanwhile, his party would soon begin tearing itself apart over that very issue.

Major remains just one of nine men since 1906 to have been both foreign secretary and chancellor, one of seven to have held the foreign office and be prime minister (of eleven to have been party leader); he is one of only three to have been foreign secretary, chancellor and prime minister (of five to have been foreign secretary, chancellor and party leader). Not bad for a South London boy.


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