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If a Prime Minister lives long enough, he can expect to don the mantle of elder statesman. Statesmanship, itself, is not an obvious qualification, notably in the case of Sir John Major. Major is nobody's fool. He is a guileful, seasoned player of the game. But both his record and his character make him a bad political guide.

In his recent speech to the parliamentary press gallery Sir John let rip on energy bills, Europe, Iain Duncan Smith, and poverty. The tone attracted immediate attention. It was sharper, fiercer, less considered and infinitely more interesting than usual. (He has since denounced public school elitism, which has not made life easier for David Cameron, and was not meant to.)

It all seems out of character. John Major is one of the bores of British politics. His views were, and are, derivative and incoherent. He was thus "the greatest Eurosceptic of them all", yet he wanted to have Britain "at the heart of Europe". The notion that these couldn't both be true simply did not occur to him. That incapacity for sustained analysis led him into trouble. 

His strengths were as a party micro-manager. He was good at getting his way in small groups and on small matters. But as party leader and Prime Minister he floundered. His default mechanism was to split the difference, and then to strong-arm dissenters. But on an issue of principle, like the Maastricht Treaty, and one where the dissenters were determined and numerous, the strategy smashed the party.  

Judgment of Major cannot be disentangled from judgment of Maastricht. If it didn't matter much what the treaty said, because Major (or more exactly Norman Lamont) had got an opt-out for Britain from the euro, then the rebels were plainly wrong, and he is vindicated. But Maastricht did matter. It set Europe on course towards political and economic union, with Britain still in tow. Each of the current problems in Europe, and every one of David Cameron's current headaches as he tries to renegotiate, stems from the Maastricht Treaty framework.

John Major's defenders extol his surprise success in the 1992 election. It was certainly unpredicted by the BBC, but not unpredictable. Victory was the combined effect of the Thatcher government's record (without her grating presence) and of the horrible prospect of a mouthy, incompetent Neil Kinnock in charge. 

But from then on it was all downhill. Only a reckless political gambler, or a first-rate political chump, would have elevated staying within the European Exchange Rate Mechanism into a talisman. But John Major did it. "Black Wednesday" and sterling's ejection from the ERM, by allowing interest rates and the pound to fall, permitted economic recovery. But the shambles destroyed the government's standing. Moreover, Major could not explain why the country was now prospering, because it made him look so foolish. He then made the outcome worse. He became chief belligerent in a factional Tory war, which he finally lost. 

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