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John Major at 25: the best ex-Prime Minister we’ve ever had?

Written by Mark Stuart.

Twenty-five years ago this weekend, John Major was supposed to be celebrating his greatest political triumph. For the previous month, he had been campaigning around the country, and had just discovered that he had unexpectedly won the 1992 General Election, confounding the opinion pollsters, who had predicted a victory for Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party. Prophetically, however, when Major commented to his wife Norma that his Conservative Government had been re-elected, she had fallen fast asleep. Almost immediately, Major’s Second Government had fallen flat.

The political honeymoon was virtually over before it had begun. Two months later, the Danes voted against the Maastricht Treaty, plunging the British ratification process into chaos. And then, on 16 September 1992, the Prime Minister was hit by an economic exocet from which it never recovered – forced to withdraw from the ill-fated Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). ‘Black Wednesday’ as it became known was seen as a national humiliation. Stunned by this seismic event, the Major Government staggered on, punch drunk for the next five years.

So, what lessons can Theresa May’s current Conservative Government learn from John Major’s bitter experience?

The first lesson is that Europe has an unerring capacity to divide the Conservative Party. Back in 1992-1993, the Tory Party nearly bled to death, as night after night, the Maastricht rebels tried to defeat the Government. Only by threatening his MPs with an early general election in July 1993 did John Major eventually force the rebels to see sense. And even then, the more he offered the Euro-sceptics concessions, the more they came back for more. Surely, this is a valuable lesson for Theresa May. Short of creating an offshore tax haven along the lines of Singapore, the Tory Right will never be satisfied with any Brexit deal.

The second lesson for May is to beware of her predecessor. Poor John Major had to deal with Lady Thatcher, who commented on his election as Party Leader in November 1990 that she would make a good ‘backseat driver’. In reality, she undermined his Government from day one. Erroneously, her supporters assumed that Major was ‘Son of Thatcher’, and by the time they discovered he wasn’t, they turned on him without mercy. Although she denied it, Thatcher egged on the Maastricht rebels and encouraged her allies to argue for Thatcherite policies, particularly in education and in botched privatisations such as British Rail.

Having so ruthlessly wielded the knife against David Cameron’s allies when she became leader last summer, Theresa May needs to watch her back, particularly in relation to George Osbourne, who looks intent on using his editorship of the Evening Standard as a platform from which to attack the new Prime Minister.

A third lesson is that an apparently comfortable majority can soon be frittered away. Back in 1992, Major achieved a reasonable overall majority of 30, but an unfortunate series of deaths and heavy by-election defeats soon saw his majority disappear entirely. Granted, Theresa May has done far better with early by-elections, triumphing recently at Copeland against Labour, but like Major, she is still a Prime Minister constrained by a tiny majority. It only takes a small number of disgruntled backbenchers for a policy to unravel, as Major discovered when he tried to privatise Royal Mail.

Similarly, witness the recent screeching into reverse gear when Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was forced to execute a U-turn over national insurance increases in the recent Budget. The reality of Governments with small majorities is that a tiny number of often rather maverick MPs hold the balance of power.

A fourth lesson from the Major period is to avoid glib soundbites. In 1993, the Prime Minister made an ill-fated ‘Back to Basics’ speech, which was misinterpreted by the British press as signalling a return to Victorian values. Cue a media frenzy, which investigated the lurid private lives and financial dealings of Tory MPs.

Major also came to rue his careless remark in December 1991 that his Maastricht negotiation represented ‘Game, Set and Match’ for Britain. Similarly, Theresa May’s soundbite that ‘Brexit should mean Brexit’ could very well come to haunt her, particularly as no one in her Government appears to have a clear idea of what Brexit means.

However, Major’s Second Government was not all bad. He planned for a long-term legacy, building the peace process in Northern Ireland and handing over Hong Kong to Chinese rule without a shot being fired. Moreover, much of Kenneth Clarke’s hard work as Chancellor from 1993 to 1997 succeeded in balancing the nation’s finances, leaving a golden legacy to New Labour.

And most notably, the second Major Government established the National Lottery. How ironic that a Government elected on a free market philosophy should have ended up creating a monopoly, unleashing spending on good causes on a scale which would have made a Communist dictator blush. Still, Yorkshire has John Major to thank for a sporting largesse which has spawned Olympic heroes such as Jessica Ennis-Hill and the Brownlee brothers.

The final lesson which John Major’s experience reveals to us is to show a sense of proportion in defeat. After Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997, Major took it on the chin and within hours, had gone to the Oval to watch his beloved Surrey play cricket. For Major, politics was just a game, but in the words of his later book, cricket was More than a Game.

In fact, ever since he ceased to be Prime Minister, John Major has conducted himself in an exemplary manner, keeping his public appearances to a minimum and only occasionally intervening to point out where the Government of the day is headed on the wrong track. In many respects, he is the best ex-Prime Minister we have ever had.

Mark Stuart is an Assistant Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations. Image credit:CC by Chatham House/Flickr.

Published inBritish PoliticsConservatives

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